[We would like to begin this new year with the following brief, sobering, and very real dispatch from Tom Bradley, who lives and writes in Japan. Please, have a good year. Thank you.]
Peace Park is the bull’s eye of glamorous Hiroshima, the umbilicus of post-modernism, where we all became existentialists, consciously or un-, where all of us—not just the philosophy grad students and the black bop musicians in the Big Apple, but each and every single mother’s son of us—were finally taught to grasp Universal Absurdity.
A small distributary of the Ohtagawa River dribbles along the edge of Peace Park. On the levee, a Picassoesque statue depicts an anguished local mother holding her scorched baby out to the viewer in mute protest. Greenish tears as big as basketballs flop down her cheeks and breasts.
Impiously lassoed around the baby’s left testicle (the other is undescended—an effect of gamma particles), there is a frayed and ratty rope. It straggles and droops over the azalea-crowned embankment that shields park-goers from the sight and smell of the filthy fluid bordering this end of the enclosure. This questionable rope slithers down through the mud, and terminates in a droopy bow tied by unskilled fingers around a small outcrop of rock, which marks a secret spot on the bank that only the riverine hoboes and the street urchins, and I, and now you, know about.
If, when the river is feeling stingy with its substance, you steel yourself and crash through the azaleas and use the ratty rope to rappel down the concrete incline, and if you go down into that toxic mud, and squat on your heels and reach out your thumb and scratch away at the exposed river bed, you will see, where the currents and eddies peculiar to this spot have kept them covered with a thin cold-cream layer of protective sewage, fragments of the original bed stones. The Daimyo Mohri himself, founder of Hiroshima, author of the local way of life, laid them down four centuries ago, long before post-World War II land reclamations transformed this distributary into something more than a castle-master’s ornamental garden trickle.
Your thumb will be scratching the filth away from these flat stones to reveal definite tweed-like patterns: nothing less than the scorched silhouettes of carp skeletons in various attitudes of terminal agony. ThIs is where the blasted river abandoned its course, shutter-wise, for a brief exposure to Harry Truman’s gift of hell.
Flaming people, Hiroshimites, Korean slaves and American POW’s alike, scrambled down here to bathe their effervescing epidermises, only to find that the blast had parted the water from its bed and left nothing behind but a vast mud-poultice. Many of these folks were overwhelmed and washed away when the boiling liquid flushed back. They fell for the old Red Sea ruse.
And if you look up from the fishy X-rays and train your eyes across the ruined face of the water, clear to the opposite bank, you can believe the stories the old-timers tell, of a time right after Hirohito undeified himself on the radio, when this town was just impoverished enough for the river to be pristine for a brief period, and children could swim and put their faces underwater and open their eyes without permanent chemical burns and cyanide poisoning, and see that the entire course is a downright gallery of marine perdition, rivaling the one of terrestrial perdition memorialized in granite on the other side of the azaleas.
It’s the Lethe of the Far East, a waterway to induce lassitude of a depth few Americans over forty have imagined, especially if you get on a boat and cruise the tony, yet somehow deathly peaceful neighborhoods of the nouveaux riches. It feels natural to relax one’s conscious mind, to acquiesce, as one floats through these more-or-less plush quadrants of the City of Peace. Gape at the landscape bobbing soporifically before your eyes. Today, in this still-rich nation, on this shallow inland stream, the levees are pillowed with topiary. Every twenty meters a patined plaque suggests which nearby architectural confection was released into the atmosphere back in 1945.
This is a whole city of vaporizations, solidity itself relaxed into its constituent particles and blown off as easily as powder from a moth’s wing. It’s a perfect excuse to get a professorship and settle into expatriated middle age. Your parents grow feeble and die without you back stateside, as you pursue the most nihilistic burlesque of all academic careers. You wait for numb, self-alienated death to overtake you, meanwhile repeating, over and over and over again, into deaf matriculating ears, “This is a pen. This is a pen. This is a pen. This is a pen.”