The cost of righteous vengeance

The moral calculus of war is more complex than atomic physics

Dennis Bock began "The Ash Garden" long before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, but it's impossible now to read his haunting debut novel outside the glare of that tragedy.

As the United States considers how to respond to this new day of infamy, "The Ash Garden" is a wise reminder that the residual effects of our retaliation will have a half-life far longer than we can calculate.

The story observes the delicate interaction of three lives seared by World War II in profoundly different ways.

Emiko opens the novel with a 50-year-old memory from Hiroshima, "ground zero": "One morning toward the end of the summer they burned away my face, my little brother and I were playing on the bank of the river that flowed past the eastern edge of our old neighborhood, on the grassy floodplain that had been my people's home and misery for centuries."

In this chilling voice, Emiko goes on to describe the weeks and months that followed, the loss of her parents and brother, the ghastly transformation of her home, the lonely terrors of the hospital where she recovered.

Japanese and American doctors study their patients with a mixture of horror and fascination, struggling to heal wounds the world has never seen before. Long after they've done their best, Emiko remains a monster, the subject of taunts and impossible isolation. Through the beneficence of a group of Americans, those bafflingly kind and brutal people, she's sent to the United States for a round of plastic surgery.

Decades later, as a successful documentary filmmaker in New York, she introduces herself to Anton Böll, one of the German physicists who fled to America and constructed the awesome weapon that ended the war and took her face. Like everything in this novel, their meeting is a kind of controlled fusion, a generation of intense energy held in check by Bock's cool style.

"When Emiko Amai approached after the conclusion of his address at Columbia that afternoon, he felt, if only for a moment, the wavering of lifelong conviction. He did not have to look twice to know who she was. He knew her scar as if it were his own. He knew also that convincing her of anything would be difficult, and that his opportunities were no longer so numerous."

Dr. Böll has spent the years since World War II nursing his conflicted spirit beneath a demeanor of scientific objectivity. Even while carefully documenting the ravage he helped unleash, he persists in lecturing about the historical context of his work and celebrating the remarkable breakthroughs he and his team made in Los Alamos. "It was as if that blast had destroyed the ability to see beyond himself," Bock writes.

"His testimony did not deny the pain that had been caused. He had no intention of minimizing or forgetting the brutality of that single blinding Monday morning. He was not an animal. Yet cold hard fact must remain just that: cold, hard, scientific."

Though Böll braces himself for the emotional ambush he's grown to expect from survivors and protesters, Emiko surprises him: "I'm interested in hearing more of what you said up there tonight," she says in an American accent far more polished than his. "I'm sure my father would have said the same thing. That such a decision, any decision, is justified in the heat of war. What befalls our aggressor, and so on."

Her only request is to interview him for a documentary about how various people were affected by the bomb. So strong is his desire to record the "correct" perspective, that he agrees, despite concerns about how his words could be manipulated, "laid over tortured images of burnt babies and vacant eyes."

When Emiko arrives with camera equipment at Böll's quiet lakeside home, she meets Sophie, his wife, the third character in this triangle of smothered agony.

Sophie escaped the burning anti-Semitism of Europe alone as a young girl. She and fellow Jewish refugees sailed the Atlantic, denied port in any friendly country for weeks, before finally finding sanctuary in a Canadian refugee camp.

In Böll, she found salvation and compassion, but never love. Having lost so much, so violently, they have settled into a marriage of quiet, limited affection. "It was the necessity of survival that held each in the other's radius," Bock writes.

With her own history in ashes and her husband consumed with the fire he ignited in Japan, Sophie shrinks her world to the menagerie of strange animal sculptures in her garden. As a chronic liver disease brings her life to a close, her thought passes back to the chance for romance she let pass by.

Physically and emotionally, hers is a world of harrowing constraint, but in a way it's no different than the realms inhabited by her well-traveled husband or the sophisticated documentary filmmaker. All these characters are living in amber, petrified in the resin of that old conflict.

Bock moves back and forth through time in a series of exquisite scenes, always keeping his vision tightly focused, despite the world-altering events he describes. Emiko's ward in Hiroshima, Böll's bunker in Los Alamos, Sophie's barrack in Canada - in these cramped quarters, Bock finds the shattered atoms of this tragedy.

What makes the novel so compelling and disturbing, though, is its emotional restraint. Each of these characters presents a face of thoughtful composure, but inside, all of them burn with anger, or guilt, or remorse.

When Böll and Emiko finally confront one another with their personal and national responsibilities for what happened, the pages crackle. With this bracing dialogue between an innocent victim and an innocent participant, Bock sets a match to ethical issues that are reaching the flash point today.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor:

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