Seeing the smoking wasteland of Hiroshima, particularly the blasted home and shredded family of a friend  immediately after the Bomb lit up the morning sky  would send many people to the borderlands of madness.  If  this seeing followed 4 years of being a prisoner in Japanese prison camps, starved, frozen and beaten,  perhaps all of us would find ourselves so wrapped in trauma and remembering we could no longer recognize normality.  So it is with Martin Booth’s  fictional character, Hiroshima Joe,  in his novel of the same name, published in 1985.

Scrapping out a beggar’s life in post war Hong Kong, addicted to opium, Joe  Sandingham swings between memories of his imprisonment, the death of two of his companions, the brutal need for opium erasure and the slight and perverse reappearance of desire.  He can barely masquerade as another well-off westerner as he tries to get close enough to steal whatever is at hand from tourists coming to Hong Kong 6 or 7 years after the end of the war.  The bonds of friendship he had with a Chinese laborer under Japanese occupation, while he himself was in a labor camp, have gotten cold and thin.  The laborer is now the wealthy godfather of the opium trade in the city, to whom Joe is in debt and in need.

Booth is a British poet and the author of A Very Private Gentleman, from which the 2010 movie The American, with George Clooney, was created.  I grew curious about Booth as I tried to figure out what drew him, and others, to create such villains.  Was Clooney merely morally neutral — killing people for “business, nothing personal” as memorably explained by Tom Hagen, the consigliere, in The Godfather?  Was he an aging and now reforming sociopath? Was he a gun for hire – to anyone, anywhere? Or, a patriot whose life was spent in the honorable shadows….

And who were those buying his weapon, and those flitting through the churchly shadows of the little Italian town? Were they meant to be CIA or were they Russian mobsters?  Were they old opponents bent on revenge or old friends bent on his silence?

Who, for Booth, were the bad guys?   What means enough to an author to spend months or years in the writing? What view of life is projected through the book?  What  is he about?  Does he have right wing love of violence [and justice], or left wing love of justice [and violence?] Why does an author chose to bring American/British style high powered weaponry to ‘exotic,’ peaceful, rural places — mirroring the real onslaught of weapons across the border from the US into Mexico.  The movie only raised the questions; didn’t answer them.  The book, which I sped read on my way to Joe, was somewhat better. The gunner’s past [and he’s a Brit, not an American] is not a very pleasant one…  It’s appropriate, from a moral point of view, that his new recognition of desire and love is not allowed to bear fruit.

In looking over Booth’s book list for a clue as to his concerns I came upon some intriguing titles: Opium: A History; Islands of Silence — about a young pacifist Brit shipped off to the the infamous battle of Gallipoli, and most interesting,  Hiroshima Joe.  The blurb made me even more curious:

Left behind in Hong Kong after WW II, too broken to return to England and too brave to give up hope, he is called Hiroshima Joe by the local Chinese, who regard him with a mixture of contempt and pity.  Debilitated by opium and shattered by his wartime experience in a Japanese POW camp and as a witness to the bombing of Hiroshima, Joe Sandingham survives … a powerful war novel and a lacerating story about the way war goes on forever for those who have seen its worst.

Clearly Booth has an interest in the difficult edges of the human experience — opium, prisoner of war camps, hired killers, the bombing of Hiroshima.  What is is take on these lives?  How does his fiction inform us?

I can’t recall ever reading a novel about the bombing of Hiroshima, much less about POWs in Japanese camps.  John Hersey’s famous book, Hiroshima, is reporting, with novel like pacing and structure. It is brilliant and upsetting in the way few novels ever achieve.   A  few films, like Hiroshima Mon Amour put the Bomb devastation on the screen.  Various documentaries (and here, here)  have shown it’s aftermath.  The appalling Japanese behavior in their POW camps has been written of much in histories and war memoirs, not too much in fiction.  James Clavell’s King Rat, and the movie that came from it, is about British and a few US POWs in the infamous Changi camp in Singapore.  Pierre Bulle’s  The Bridge Over the River Kwai,  turned into the famous movie in 1957, was about British POWs of the Japanese in Burma.    War Trash by Ha Jian is a recent powerful novel of  POW life but in the Korean War and so, not of American prisoners of the Japanese, but of  Chinese prisoners of the U.S.  No Japanese present.  The entire list tagged as POW at is fewer than 30 books.  So I thought I’d read Hiroshima Joe, [Atlantic Books, 1985; Penguin, 1987] both for the story and to understand Martin Booth’s preoccupations.

The structure of the novel moves between Joe Sandingham’s current (1952) drug-desperate life in Hong Kong, 7 years after Hong Kong’s reversion from Japanese back to British control at the end of the war, and his several years as a Japanese POW, some of it in camps near Hong Kong and at the end in a camp near the city of Hiroshima.  He had been captured during the Japanese take-over of Hong Kong just three weeks after Pearl Harbor,  Christmas of 1941.  Not only is he taken to a labor camp, we also discover  that the love of his life, another officer,  had been killed.  By the time the war ends, he has been a POW for three and a half years.  He walks out of the last camp, very close to Hiroshima, as the Japanese army flees and the Bomb lights up the sky.

Life in Hong Kong is as miserable as it can be for a white man in the years after the war, living in a room looking onto a blank concrete wall, hiding from a gardener as he tries to steal papaya from a tree, eating food from cans with his fingers.  Though we don’t know why at first, it is clear early on that he is addicted to opium. With no bonafide means of making money he has become a petty, and inept, thief always trying to get just enough for his next packet of junk.  And of course, he owes money to the drug lord on Hong Kong island, a Francis Leung,  a man he had known during the war, when he was a POW and Leung a Chinese laborer and partisan against the Japanese.  Their friendship has long since run out.  Mr.  Leung is a cut throat “gentleman” with plenty of enforcers to make sure his debts are collected.

The years in the POW camp are ably told.  We understand what happens to the men there — toenails pulled with pliers,  men buried in cave-ins while digging trenches, Chinese citizens tied to posts, their heads in the gutters.   We hear about soldierly ingenuity, breeding flies so as to be able to catch more and get privileges and cigarettes from their jailers who believe such “wild”  flies carry disease.

In early October of 1942 Sandingham and other prisoners are inoculated in the Hong Kong camp and boarded on a ship to go to Japan.  The war is taking its toll on the Japanese and they need more labor on the mainland.  After a near escape,  when their ship being sunk and some are rescued by Chinese islanders, Sandingham and others are re-captured and taken to the main camp:

The soup was watery and faintly mauve.  Small bits of blanched fibre floated in it along with strips of parchment-like material and some shreds of potato peelings that had not been added for the cooking but later, as an afterthought to nutritional requirements.

Tentatively dipping his metal spoon into the soup, Sandingham made every effort to avoid noticing its colour.

‘Purple death,’ said Norb. ‘You ain’t had it before?’

Sandingham shook his head and asked if it were as poisonous as it appeared.

‘No — does you no harm.  Probably does you no good, too.  We have it about once a month.’

The Japanese winters near Hiroshima, in the south, are not as severe as those on the northern island of Hokkaido but  snow on the ground and indoor temperatures in the 30s are fierce for anyone; for starving prisoners, they are deadly

The Japanese commandant had just conceded that it was indeed now winter, the day being 3 January, and had issued them with some fuel.  This consisted of three one-hundredweight bags of very small coal particles that had been swept up from the concrete platform where coal was unloaded at the railway station three miles away.  Much of the contents was coal dust and the prisoners who were too sick to go to work had spent the day forming this into balls by mixing it with water and a little clay.  The quantity of clay had to be exact — too little and the balls fell apart, too much and they wouldn’t burn.

For Joe there is  more than the usual desperation. Others have families and loves to think about and to imagine reunions with, to pull them forward.  Joe is a homosexual — still somewhat daring to write in a 1985 book– and Bob had been killed during the Japanese take-over of Hong Kong, in the same battle Joe was captured. His thoughts and longings must be suppressed, of course.  When a young  US sailor arrives in the camp with other Americans in mid summer 1944, captured from their sinking destroyer, the two find each other in similar company.  They reveal themselves to each other, in a passage that might still raise eyebrows today, much less in 1985

“He eased himself round so he could face Sandingham, lifted his right arm and put it around Sandingham’s neck, drawing him down and kissing him on the mouth.  His tongue briefly slipped wetly across Sandingham’s lips.  For his part, Sandhingham made no response.  He was altogether too surprised, and moved and confused.

Joe, we think, may have someone to live for, even if still hidden from camp-mates and guards.  Within days of their first embrace Gary is shot by the guards, trying to get a wounded Joe back from an excursion beyond the barbed-wire to taste the mangoes.

The bullets caught him in the side, and at such short range, he was hoisted off the ground and sailed fully six feet into the wire.  His neck was split open below his Adam’s Apple and the windpipe hung through the gash.  His arm was shattered.  His legs tore open at the thighs.  He hung on the wire for a moment and then dropped, as if at his leisure, on to his knees.  Then he pitched forward and lay still, twitching slightly.

In Hong Kong, as Joe’s hunger  gets greater, for the opium and the money needed for it, it seems his other controls break down.  We read uneasily of a young British boy staying with his mother at the same hotel.  Our unease is justified as Joe finally tricks the boy into his room and attempts to grope him.  He is stopped by a hotel clerk.  We don’t quite believe him as he self justifies that he’d never done this before.  Clearly his life is unraveling…

The final chapters  take us through the last weeks of Sandingham’s life.  Events, and the reading about them, begin to  speed up, without the small, joyless stuff of petty theft and grinding poverty.  Joe gets a measure of justice against Leung in a horrific scene.  He finds that the increasing weakness he is feeling, his falling hair and easily bruising skin is from the newest, and most frightening of diseases – radiation poisoning.  He makes a last gift to David, a photo of his friend Bob, and a fine toy soldier, and asks that he be remembered.  He ends his life.

In a kind of a post script, David comes back to Hong Kong 33 years later and visits Sandingham’s grave.  It has a new headstone he has apparently had placed, and an inscription.

Joe Sandingham, Died Christmas Eve 1952. He saw what no man should be made to see; he died fearing what we all must fear.

And so the sad life and sad story end.  It is told with empathy both for Sandingham, and the world at large.  Yet it does not fully engage.  Booth is not a great stylist.  The opening line  “Sandingham woke with a jerk, puppet-like, life surging through him as if he were in the hands of some impatient grand controller…”  is not a sentence to impart ‘waking with a jerk.’  Something happens to the poet in Booth here, and too often in the book.  There is a lot of detail that doesn’t advance the plot or add to the character; it is purely descriptive.  In the first pages we have about 1,000 words describing Joe’s  attempt to steal a papaya.  We follow him almost every step of the way but without getting why this is some important — or even why picking a papaya should have to be snuck.   We only learn later about Joe’s previous attempt at papaya tasting, in the camp, and the gruesome shooting of his new lover, Gary. The problem is, more anticipatory dread should have been built into the first scene.  We ought to have been left wondering, or fearing.  What is this about?  So when we discover the connection the we get the shock of ‘aha!’  As it is, it doesn’t happen.

Though there are many descriptions of Joe’s life, and that of other POWs,  in all the horribleness they experienced,  somehow for me they don’t bring the book alive.  Perhaps its because we don’t understand Joe even as we hear his story.  The grief and guilt he must have felt at being the cause of  Gary’s death is never a matter of rumination, of any language at all.  Perhaps it’s because we’ve met Joe as a thief and a man without purpose in the first chapters.  As his life prior to his empty Hong Kong years are revealed we begin to understand his behavior, but not fully.  When he describes himself to David as “made sick by the war” — touching his head– we understand it; we don’t believe it though.  He acts like a “normal” small time thief and opium addict, not a madman.

Perhaps this is asking too much, or shouldn’t be asked of an author.  Emotional, or moral sickness, comes in many shades, mostly mundane and troubling, like Joe’s, not shattering and grand like Lear’s.  Somehow though, that corner of the war,  the terrible  suffering of POWs  (still mostly unknown to their countrymen) and above all the apocalyptic bombing of Hiroshima — witnessed!– demands something great, some howling madness to mark the effect not only on one man but the world shaped by those mortal visions.

I would have liked to read a book that reached emotionally much closer to those events with which we are all still living.