'It Seemed a Sheet of Sun'

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A few weeks ago, having finished, Antony Beevor's The Second World War, I was trying to grapple with the notion of a good war. Finishing off Ira Katznelson's stellar Fear Itself, I found myself stumbling into John Hersey's Hiroshima. I don't want to say too much about what the book means, having really just started but the language and rendering is stellar:


Before six o'clock that morning, Mr Tanimoto started for Mr Matsuo's house. There he found that their burden was to be a tansu, a large Japanese cabinet, full of clothing and household goods. The two men set out. The morning was perfectly clear and so warm that the day promised to be uncomfortable. A few minutes after they started, the air-raid siren went off - a minute-long blast that warned of approaching planes but indicated to the people of Hiroshima only a slight degree of danger, since it sounded every morning at this time, when an American weather plane came over. 

The two men pulled and pushed the handcart through the city streets. Hiroshima was a fan-shaped city, lying mostly on the six islands formed by the seven estuarial rivers that branch out from the Ota River; its main commercial and residential districts, covering about four square miles in the centre of the city, contained three-quarters of its population, which had been reduced by several evacuation programmes from a wartime peak of 380,000 to about 245,000. Factories and other residential districts, or suburbs, lay compactly around the edges of the city. To the south were the docks, an airport, and an island-studded Inland Sea. A rim of mountains runs around the other three sides of the delta. 

Mr Tanimoto and Mr Matsuo took their way through the shopping centre, already full of people, and across two of the rivers to (the sloping streets of Koi, and up them to the outskirts and foot-hills. As they started up a valley away from the tight- ranked houses, the all-clear sounded. (The Japanese radar operators, detecting only three planes, supposed that they comprised a reconnaissance.) Pushing the handcart up to the rayon man's house was tiring, and the men, after they had manoeuvred their load into the driveway and to the front steps, paused to rest awhile. 

They stood with a wing of the house between them and the city. Like most homes in this part of Japan, the house consisted of a wooden frame and wooden walls supporting a heavy tile roof. Its front hall, packed with rolls of bedding and clothing, looked like a cool cave full of fat cushions. Opposite the house, to the right of the front door, there was a large, finicky rock garden. There was no sound of planes. The morning was still; the place was cool and pleasant. Then a tremendous flash of light cut across the Sky. Mr Tanimoto has a distinct recollection that it travelled from east to west, from the city towards the hills. 

It seemed a sheet of sun.

The technique is granular. We think about the lives lost in grand numbers. Hersey reduces to them to their finest, most humdrum, most human details. It's one thing to know humans lived in Hiroshima. It's another to actually know those humans. 

More soon.




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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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