Novel of POW in wartime Japan cautions against ignoring history

Hiroshima Joe, by Martin Booth. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press. 448 pp. $17.95. A dark view of Japan is presented in Martin Booth's ``Hiroshima Joe.'' The main character, Joseph Sandingham, an Englishman, is trapped in Hong Kong by the outbreak of World War II. Barely able to fire a shot, he is captured and interned for the duration. Little of the POW experience is spared us, but Mr. Booth is a controlled and experienced writer, never in a hurry, pacing his book artfully, crossing back and forth from the war years to the '50s and to the present, showing the lasting effects of the conflict.

After the war, Sandingham remains in Hong Kong, where he is known as Hiroshima Joe, a most pitifully and painfully burnt-out case. He survives -- barely -- by stealing and taking on small criminal assignments for the Hong Kong underworld, who use him mercilessly.

In some men, Booth shows, the wars go on forever, and for prisoners of war most particularly, the physical liberation at armistice is hardly enough. Sandingham suffers alone while the world gallops madly around him to the next disaster. Yet his memories of the war years are tempered with the odd expressions of kindness shown him by the Japanese laborers who worked with the prisoners. The Japanese also suffered, forced as the prisoners were to accept a war they didn't want, trapped, as Sandingham was trapped, by governments out of their control.

The strength of the book is Booth's narrative style which is clear, unhurried, and devoid of tricks. Even the cruelties of POW existence, which in some books seem to be awkwardly overwritten, are delineated here with the skilled but distant hand of a classical storyteller.

The novel treats the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima as a turning point in the war, but not the turning point. The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were no different from the rest of the war, except in their compacting of time and expansion of casualties. Hiroshima Joe seems to agree with the curious logic, at least the wartime logic, that the use of the atomic devices was necessary, if for no other reason than to prove, without further delay, the madness of it all.

The danger, of course, is in forgetting, or becoming, as the world around Hiroshima Joe becomes, simply oblivious to the lessons of history. The effects of war linger for decades, but most are hidden by the clutter of the details of daily life. Behind the clutter, a man like Hiroshima Joe, unable to become a part of the postwar world, fights against the deleterious effects of radiation exposure.

He tries to forget. But he knows that even if forgetting is sometimes a tool of short-range survival, it is also a seed of disaster in the long run.

This book makes us remember.

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