The explosion that ended a world war – and fired the starting gun on the Cold War.
The great experiment that was greeted here and among Britain’s allies with celebration and relief. Mixed, surely – among the far-sighted and humane – with tinges of foreboding and guilt.
The cataclysm that become known by its survivors as “pikadon” – flash and bang.
The page from which I learned this simple Japanese coinage also includes these words, however: “ I had never heard this noise before… There can be no word for what we heard that day. There must never be. To give this sound a name might mean it could happen again.”
It has in fact happened since – an incredible 1,872 times by 1993 – but only twice in total in what you might call anger. Or, more accurately, in meticulously planned mass murder.
On August 6, 1945 over Hiroshima and – the event movingly described in the book I just quoted – three days later at Nagasaki. Two Japanese cities destroyed, their civilian populations obliterated, maimed, traumatised in a pikadon.
This we know. And in the horror-filled context of the 1940s, it’s not easy to condemn either the physicists who developed the atomic bomb or the airmen who delivered it. The historical argument is complex, the moral one unresolvable.
But what is lost in discussion of physics or history is the human angle, the human scale, the sense of ordinary people’s lives lost or disrupted forever. And that is what journalist Jackie Copleton restores in her extraordinary first novel, A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding, published this week.
The dozen or so pages describing the immediate aftermath of the Nagasaki bomb are unflinching, as they need to be.
But while the event is crucial to the lives of all the novel’s main characters, it does not expunge all that came before, or suck all meaning from what comes after.
Some of the most evocative chapters in the book depict life in Nagasaki between the two world wars. The very human conclusion, which is exactly as it should be, takes place in the 1980s.
As the focus moves back and forth – as memories do – among the events of the narrator’s long life, the interweaved stories of love, loss and human failings are as captivating as any novel I’ve read in years. It’s a real page-turner because you care about the people.
In some ways it is comparable to last year’s Booker Prize winner, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan. But while its timescale is similar, it is less self-consciously “literary” in construction, its language plainer – and all the better for that. The central character is both more plausible and easier to empathise with. Despite the ghastliness of the central subject, the tone is gentler, less showy.
The post-war world I grew up in was one that had largely forgiven the Germans for the unspeakable horrors unleashed on Europe by the Nazi regime. Yet in which the Japanese were still routinely depicted – in war-story “comics” like Victor and Valiant, in films such as Bridge on the River Kwai, and TV series like Tenko – as innately sadistic and vile. I wonder how much this racism owed to a buried guilt about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a psychological need for justification.
The war-time Japanese did, of course, treat their British, American and Australian prisoners atrociously – as described in The Narrow Road, whose title refers to the same Burmese railway that featured the infamous Kwai bridge. The comparatively decent treatment of Allied prisoners by the Germans may also partly explain that discrepancy of attitude.
Yet nothing the Japanese did was worse than was inflicted by the Germans upon the Jews, the Russians and Slavs. Nothing could be.
In fact, the official Japanese attitude to the Chinese was very like German anti-Semitism. The worst extremes of Nazi butchery of Jews followed closely Japanese treatment of Chinese prisoners.
In immersing us in the lives and loves of her Japanese characters, Jackie Copleton does not skate over this uncomfortable fact. Her book’s most shocking single moment – all the more powerful because passed over swiftly, almost casually – concerns human vivisection.
The long-term effect on the perpetrator – “only following orders” – is one of the novel’s key themes. There is no room here for goodies who are purely good or villains who are purely evil. Copleton’s characters are complex, as people are.
One review quoted on the cover says of The Narrow Road to the Deep North: “Not just a great novel but an important book in its ability to look at terrible things and create something beautiful”.
That is even more true of A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding, though for “beautiful” I would perhaps substitute the word “human”.
Though both books set the same conflict in a long-term context, as the turning point of their protagonists’ lives, it’s perhaps unreasonable to compare. Read both.
Above all, consider this entry from Copleton’s eponymous “dictionary”:
“Japanese people believe that love, affection, compassion and sympathy are the most important feelings that all human beings should nurture. This assumption emanates from the fact that one of the virtues that Japanese society emphasises is cooperation among people.”
Now that, people, is wisdom.