Monday, January 18, 2010

Yamaguchi Tsutomu: The Human Raft

Yamaguchi Tsutomu, who died on 4th January 2010, survived the atomic bombings of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His obituary is in the Economist here.

WHEN he had stopped crying, Tsutomu Yamaguchi would tell you why he called his book of poems “The Human Raft”. It had to do with the day he forgot to take his personal name-stamp to work, and had to get off the bus. Much was on his mind that morning. He had to pack his bags to leave Hiroshima after a three-month assignment as an engineer in the Mitsubishi shipyard; there were goodbyes to say at the office, then a 200-mile train journey back to Nagasaki to his wife Hisako and Katsutoshi, his baby son. He was slightly stressed when he got to his stop, still with half-an-hour’s walk ahead of him on a track that led through featureless potato fields. But it was a beautiful August day; the sky was clear, his spirits high. And then—readers will feel a tremor, but he felt none—he noticed an aircraft circling, and two parachutes dropping down.

The next thing he knew was a blaze of white magnesium light, and a huge ball of fire. He dived to the ground. The fireball, roaring upwards, sucked him up again and threw him, blinded, face-down into the mud of the potato field. He was two miles from the epicentre of the blast, in a rain of flaming scraps of paper and clothes. His upper body and half his face were badly burned, his hair gone and his eardrums ruptured. In this state, he made his way back to the devastated city to try to do what he had meant to do that day: catch the train. The river bridges were down. But one river was full of carbonised naked bodies of men, women, children, floating face-down “like blocks of wood”, and on these—part treading, part paddling—he got to the other side. His human raft.

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