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Tuesday, June 20, 2000

A holocaust foretold by the pattern in the rock garden

Staff writer
BEFORE HIROSHIMA: The Confession of Murayama Kazuo and other stories, by Joshua Barkan. London: The Toby Press, 2000; 139 pp., $12.95 (paper).

"Before Hiroshima" is 31-year-old American Joshua Barkan's first published collection of fiction, and the title story, which makes up almost half the book, is what makes you sit up and take notice.

The second half comprises five shorter, less polished stories gathered under the title "Suspended." These all exhibit to varying degrees Barkan's chief strength (not one to be sneezed at, either): a flair for storytelling, a genuine sense of drama.

Things happen in this quintet of modern vignettes, set variously in Hawaii, Uganda, Shanghai, Costa Rica and Boston: Lions attack, jeeps crash, people are robbed or lose their memories or shoot themselves. There are dull moments, but they are consistently redeemed by action, and this is rare enough to be refreshing. Each story is built around an original and interesting narrative idea. Still, compared to "Before Hiroshima," none is much more than a decent rough draft, waiting to have the cliches and the patches of trite dialogue winnowed out.

"Before Hiroshima" is a finished and quite gripping work. It is an epistolary tale, consisting entirely of a letter purportedly written by one Murayama Kazuo -- an aging veteran of the Pacific War -- to the grandson of his wartime commanding officer, Mizuoshi-san, on the occasion of the old general's death in 1995. Murayama carries a burdensome secret, from which he seeks relief by confessing it to the grandson of the man he feels is partly responsible for his guilt. The story therefore takes the form of an extended flashback, as Maruyama relives events that took place from June through August 1945, when he was a 22-year-old captain in the central intelligence-gathering post in the old Nijo Palace in Kyoto.

Baldly put, the story concerns Murayama's growing conviction in the months "before Hiroshima" that the Allies are planning some unimaginably dreadful attack, which is to focus on any or all of the cities of Kyoto, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Niigata. He has deduced this from observation of the nightly bombing data, which from June onward has gradually yielded a pattern: Unusually heavy bombs have been dropping around, but not on, these cities, as if marking them out as future targets. Mizuoshi-san, however, at first denies the significance of the pattern and then refuses to act on it. Tokyo is not warned. Hiroshima happens.

"I do not know what Mizuoshi-san did during those three days after Hiroshima," Murayama writes. "Perhaps he drank sake in his room until he passed out, but the second bomb dropped on Nagasaki on August 9th."

The story as a whole could be taken as a critique -- familiar enough -- of the Japanese military in particular and Japanese society in general (Mizuoshi-san's requirement of absolute obedience is reproduced in the context of the family in the figure of Murayama's bullying grandfather, who berates and beats him). The individual is subordinate to the group, submission to authority is a higher virtue than initiative or intelligence, insubordination is subject to the harshest punishment, and so on.

On the other hand, "Before Hiroshima" could also obviously be a critique of any military, especially one on a wartime footing. It would be as easy to imagine a similar blunder happening among the Allied forces as among the Japanese -- and Japan had no monopoly on bullies in positions of authority.

The story's strength lies, rather, in its concrete particulars, especially the unfolding revelation of the meaning of the giant bombs. It becomes an intellectual as well as a moral thriller. A good example is the scene in which Murayama, having gone to visit a friend in a Kyoto monastery, finally sees in the asymmetrical pattern of the monastery's Zen rock garden the significance of the bombing pattern.

"As clearly as the rocks ran around the central island, pointing toward it, the Kobe-type bombs ran around Kyoto. Kyoto was the target. It would be the final target." By any criterion, this is a hair-raisingly dramatic moment. Joshua Barkan is a young writer to watch.

Note: "Before Hiroshima" is available only by mail from The Toby Press Ltd., P.O. Box 8531, New Milford, CN 06776-8531, USA, or online at www.tobypress.com

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