Maki Kashimada: 六〇〇〇度の愛 (Love at Six Thousand Degrees)
The film Hiroshima mon amour is considered one of the great French films, with a script by the legendary Marguerite Duras and directed by the legendary Alain Resnais. It tells the story of a French woman who visits Hiroshima and has a brief fling with a man whose family died in the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima. Both claim to be happily married. The issues around the bomb are also key to the film.
This novel may be said to be a sort of Japanese response to Hiroshima mon amour. Our two protagonists are unnamed. She is happily married. However she is Japanese while he is half-Russian, half-Japanese.
We first meet her in her small flat. Her husband is a factory manager. They met in the factory as she worked there for a while. They have a young son. While she is preparing the evening meal, the fire alarm goes off and everyone dashes out. It turns out to be a false alarm. However, it triggers something in our heroine and she asks her very pregnant neighbour to look after her son for a while and heads off not to Hiroshima but to Nagasaki.
So what triggers this sudden decision? Apart from the alarm bell there is no real explanation. She herself tells us she was born well after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the alarm in the woman’s mind won’t stop ringing. It urges her to act, quickly and In the back of her mind, her thoughts are consumed by a mushroom cloud, slowly swaying, slowly expanding.
She had never been to Nagasaki before and only arrived at 9 p.m. She has told us a little about herself. Not much had happened to her apart from her marriage, with one conspicuous exception. She and her brother were brought up by their mother. No father is mentioned. Her mother doted on her son at the expense of her daughter. He could do no wrong in her eyes while her daughter was constantly berated, put down and even frequently hit. However, the daughter was far from envious. She adored her brother as well and the adoration went beyond a normal brother-sister relationship. I had intercourse with my brother, in my mind. Over and over again. I was lost with desire for him.
However the brother had one major flaw. He was an alcoholic . He drank, he said, to kill his boredom. My brother drinks like a drowning man. He sleeps with women. He smashes the furniture throughout the house. He does whatever he wants. And my mother can’t stop him. But, eventually, he does stop. He quits drinking, get a proper job, seems OK and then jumps off a high-rise building. Mother and daughter are, of course, devastated. She will continue to ruminate and talk about her brother throughout the book, right up to the last paragraph.
On arrival at the hotel in Nagasaki, she gets into the lift where she is helped by a seemingly foreign man who speaks fluent Japanese. He is the half-Russian, half-Japanese man mentioned above. He claims that Japanese think he has white skin while Russians think he has yellow skin.
The two soon start an affair. If she violated the prohibition against infidelity, perhaps she could escape the prohibition of death, the woman thought. It is not a beautifully romantic affair. He has atopy which means he has a skin condition and an obsession with cleanliness. The youth didn’t seem to share the common goal of most men, the insertion of the penis, and so no sooner did he make sure that she was satisfied than he went to take a shower. From her viewpoint: I’ve never enjoyed going out with men. When I go to a holiday resort with a man, it feels like my whole body has been taken over by frostbite. Later she will say You can live without men, but not alcohol.
Initially she goes out alone and, of course, visits the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. What did you see in the museum?
I saw a tragic story, a story that rejected my whole existence.
She is naturally somewhat horrified but also somewhat shocked that children in the museum are playing with the exhibits and wonders if, for the younger generation, the atom bomb has lost its meaning. We build memorial parks and museums to remind ourselves of malice. But now they’ve become places for children to play.
Though they do go out together later, visiting other sites or just to eat, much of the novel is their time together in the hotel. Interestingly, Kashimada continually switches from the first to the third person in telling the heroine’s story. She ruminates/talks about her life and, in particular her brother while he talks of his life, including his many generally not very satisfactory romantic relationships.
Christianity is key for both of them. Kashimada herself joined the Japanese Orthodox Church and so does her heroine, against the will of her mother and our hero, half Russian, is also a member of the Orthodox church. They discuss what it means to them and their interest in yurodiv, holy fools that give up everything to serve God. They do have sex, of course but their intercourse had produced nothing. Two cells with similar properties had become one. The boundaries between them had disappeared.
She does not seem to have been too happy with her visit. She had met a man of flesh and blood in Nagasaki. A living man. Yet she had come here to witness death, to attune herself to it. What was she to make of this? She felt like crying in the face of this cosmic irony.
In the end she concludes I’m nobody. An unimportant, disgusting woman. I’ve known it for so long. Though only vaguely. It’s chance that decides what kind of woman I’ll be today. It isn’t up to me. I was like a corpse. But then I realized that everything was like a corpse.
What did she learn from this? The fact that this happy woman had come to this land captivated by an image of a mushroom cloud was something that had to be forgotten. However, it is clear that Kashimada is pointing out that the mushroom cloud still hangs over Japan even if the younger generation know little about it. It is also clear that despite saying she was happy – she had a good and loving husband and she loved her son – it is clear that there was something missing in her life – a purpose beyond being a wife and mother and a purpose beyond one offered by religion . She had once wanted to be a writer but had abandoned that idea. Whether she finds it in Nagasaki is not clear, even if she does decide that she will write about it.
First published in 2005 by Shinchosha
First English translation in 2022 by Europa
Translated by Haydn Trowell