Tuesday, October 26, 2010

On A Song for Nagasaki

Dear Betty - In response to your post below: As I was typing this, it crossed my mind that you might have posted something, but then I thought you had been too absorbed by Jonathan Franzen. So I'm glad to see you are reading this book, too. What are your thoughts? I couldn't pull together any statement or concerns about this book, but I am enjoying it and finding it more a source of consolation than of conversation.  Here's what I typed up this morning:

I guess I’ll break the silence on A Song for Nagasaki. I am still slowly working through this book a few pages at a time before bed. I think what I like best about it is learning about Nagai’s integration of Eastern values with Christian faith (along with the tutorial in the Japanese vocabulary for these values).

Some incidents described by Glynn stand out: One is the story of Takashi’s visit to the site of Japan’s victory over the Mongals with the help of kamikaze, the divine wind, that confirmed the indomitable spirit of Japan.

Another is the death of Takashi’s mother, when he looks into her eyes and becomes convinced, through chokkan, or intuition, that the human spirit lives after death. Her death also sends him back to Pascal’s Pensees, which become the spur to the begin his spiritual life, although he seems always to have been open to spiritual truths, the wisdom of the heart. I liked how he begins to see the beauty in simple things, like green tea, but only when he realizes that looking for meaning for his life in the words of others only complicates his thinking, does he begin to understand that his life only needs to make sense to himself, like the complicated patterns of the lace makers.

This book makes a good companion to Silence since it describes what happened to Christians after the faith was outlawed in Japan and how they persevered in their faith and worship in spite of great danger. The description of the Christmas celebration was also moving, as was the history of the priest Nagai visits to ask about faith and to learn how to pray. The priest apparently taught Nagai well, since his prayers keep him sane during the war with China and perhaps even are the source of the miraculous arrival of back up troops at the last minute.

I keep meaning to look up The Ten Foot Square Hut, the short book that Nagai thinks about when he wakes up after his night of carousing with a case of meningitis and has to miss giving the graduation speech. The first line sticks with him: “Ceaselessly the river flows. . . The eddying foam gathers and then is gone, never staying for a moment. Even so is man and his habitat.”

Ironically – or providentially – shortly after I read that Marge Piercy poem about Ruth and Naomi that I posted on my blog I read the chapter about how Midori accepts Takashi as a groom and agrees to follow him even though he tells her he may die of radiation sickness from his research. I liked her response: “It will be my privilege to share in his journey, wherever it leads and whatever happens on the way.” Midori’s gentleness and open ear, her strength and grace like the bamboo, make her as saintly as her husband, although such meekness as she displays would seem unnatural in our culture. Perhaps the most vivid scenes are those of the husband and wife together, such as when selfless Midori carries the ill Takashi on her back through the snowstorm or when Takashi tells her he is going to die and she responds with strength, saying “We said before we married . . . that if our lives are spent for the glory of God, then life and death are beautiful. You have given everything you had for work that was very, very important. It was for his glory.” Her words free Takashi from guilt, but later, when fear of an American attack is imminent, he discovers her weeping on the floor after she thought he had gone.

Last night, with the attention of someone reading news of the grotesque, I read the chapter that describes the dropping of the bomb. The author makes it clear that the government of Japan had become corrupt under the military dictatorship, but he also doesn’t shrink from telling how children and parents and innocence and beauty were scorched in the heat of the atomic bomb. Collective guilt still feels oppressive. I’m looking forward to reading how Nagai held on to hope in the face of grave losses.


BettyDuffy said...

I've been taking breaks from "Freedom" to remind myself that life still has meaning, by reading Song for Nagasaki. And I agree, there isn't a lot to discuss about it except that it's just edifying.

It's so odd, how a book, that makes no pretenses of being anything other than it is, a little biography of a life during some horific times--causes such a strong emotional reaction in me, as I can hardly read it without crying. It's straighforward and powerful, and I appreciate it's complete lack of irony next to the bag o'irony I'm getting from my other read.

Melanie B said...

Sorry I've been pretty bad at actually leading the discussion of the book I hose.

I finished the book two days ago and it's taking me a long time to pull my thoughts together. Though it's as much about finding space to write. By the time the kids are in bed my brain both wants to write and wants to shut down and mindlessly consume other people's writing.

Though I've really enjoyed the book, it is hard to begin talking about it. And the beginnings of two previous comments were eaten by the internet so I keep losing what little train of thought I have. Maybe I should just post a bunch of short takes as I have time instead of trying to get everything down at once.

After finishing this, especially reading Glynn's descriptions of all the books Nagai wrote in the last few years of his life, I really want to go read everything Nagai ever wrote but it seems that only two of his books have been translated into English. And I'm definitely not learning Japanese anytime soon. Oh the frustration. Some of those titles sound so tantalizing.

One thing that hadn't been clear to me from The Bells of Nagasaki, Nagai's book about the dropping of the A-bomb, is that he already had leukemia at the time of the bombing. He is so self-effacing and treats his own injury and illness with a clinical detachment, only of interest because it is one more case study in the collection of stories about the effects of the bomb. I suppose in that context discussing his leukemia would just have confused the issue.

Both in Bells of Nagasaki and in Song for Nagasaki I was very struck by the excited conversation among the scientists in the rubble of the destroyed city as they are completely caught up for the moment in the intellectual questions raised by the event. Their curiosity about which scientists actually made the breakthrough, their speculation about the future of atomic science. Reading Bells was surprising that Nagai, a medical doctor, would be so knowledgeable and interested in atomic physics. Glynn contextualizes it more and makes it seem more natural part of being a pioneer in a new field where the professional boundaries between the physical research and medical applications have not yet been drawn. He's not merely a technician or a physician but a research scientist.

The story about St Maximilian Kolbe's intercession and Nagai's healing gave me shivers.

I'm still trying to fully grasp Nagai's theology of the Christians of Nagasaki as the spotless victim. Especially chapter 21 and his excitement about living through a scene out of the Book of Revelation: "The horror and magnificence". I loved the image: "The broken cathedral lay like the Lamb that was slain." Revelation is the one book I really have a hard time reading. I just feel like most of it is a meaningless jumble and I can make out one or two shards of meaning, there are a few images that feel significant to me. I think perhaps this might be another door into reading it with fresh eyes.

Ok that's all I can do tonight. I'll try to type up some more of my notes tomorrow.

Melanie B said...

Should I make the previous comment a separate blog post? I'm never sure where to draw the line.

BettyDuffy said...

I think you should feel free to write posts that are as long or as short as you want them to be. I'm enjoying your take on the book.