Accounts by survivors of the Nagaski atomic bomb paint a grim picture of life following a nuclear attack, says PETER MASON
Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War
by Susan Southard
(Souvenir Press, £15)
OF THE two Japanese cities devastated by atom bombs at the end of the second world war, Hiroshima often takes the focus.
Susan Southard’s book — now out in paperback — is therefore a welcome documentation of the suffering in Nagasaki, obliterated by the second of the US bombs three days after Hiroshima. It killed 74,000 people and injured 75,000 others.
Southard’s account is based on a series of in-depth interviews the US author conducted with five Hibakusha — survivors of the bomb — who were teenagers when it dropped. Weaved into a general narrative about the explosion and its aftermath, the personal stories help to construct a heart-rending picture of its direct physical and emotional consequences, not just over the following days but across the ensuing decades.
Through the eyes of each subject, we witness the awfulness of the moment when the bomb detonated and look at the various stages of acute distress that followed, including the initial physical and mental numbness, the searing pain of multiple injuries, the grief of finding many relatives lost and, for many years afterwards, the struggle with debilitating illness and accompanying social dislocation.
While the experiences of the five Hibakusha differ in various ways — Sumiteru Taniguchi, for instance, spent nearly two years in hospital recovering from terrible burns, while others were back out into society relatively quickly — each had in common the excruciating blight of trying to put the nightmare of the past behind them, of rebuilding their shattered lives and of trying to come to terms with years of continued mental and physical anguish.
Southard does not flinch from describing the horror of the immediate impact of the bomb — a dazed mother carrying the head of her child around in a bucket, a boy with his eyeballs hanging out on stalks, small children with their bodies stripped of skin, crying out for water.
Nor does she shy away from some of the controversies that quickly reared their heads, such as the activities of the US-led Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, whose medical officers descended on Nagasaki to conduct intrusive and upsetting studies of the Hibakusha while offering them no medical help in return.
Yet at the core of the book is a calm focus on the personal tragedies that continued for many years afterwards.
Some of the bomb’s long-term ramifications are expected, such as the prevalence of conditions related to radiation, including various forms of cancer.
But others are surprising, including social stigma and joblessness, family and public rejection and the initial refusal of the Japanese state to provide any useful practical help to the Hibakusha.
Throughout, Southard presents these extreme trials and tribulations with an admirable even-handedness that serves to strengthen the power of the narrative. She also pulls off the tricky task of weaving together the Hibakushas’ separate stories without creating confusion.
By the end, as each of the survivors gradually gets their life together, the reader feels almost as if they have become treasured family members.
Southard’s book is a considerable achievement. Shot through with humanity, it also provides powerful and dispassionate evidence of the sheer folly and acute danger of nuclear proliferation.