"In recalling your past there is precious little knowledge, which remains our most difficult quarry. In memory there are simply shapes that appear before the eyes of who you are now, and who you might've been, the shapes as incomplete and changeable as the times." -Dennis Bock, The Ash Garden
What would be the most extreme, life changing experience you could have? Losing half your face to disfigurement from the atomic bomb surely ranks at the top of the list. In The Ash Garden, Dennis Bock explores this predicament from the perspective of a Japanese woman named Emiko. An innocent child when defaced during the war, she is now a celebrated filmmaker who looks back on her life using her scars as a kind of lens for trauma and memory.
But the fascination and beauty of this novel is that Bock never lets it descend into an all too easy tale of victimization. For as much as Emiko has been hurt by history, we discover that her trauma bears a striking - ironic - resemblance to that of the man responsible. Anton Boll, the inventor of the atomic bomb, provides the other half of the novel, told from his peculiarly guilt-ridden perspective. I say "peculiarly" because guilt for him is no simple matter of confessing to a horrific act. When he and Emiko are brought face to face, she asks, "Do you believe you need absolution?" All he can reply is, "That is what my wife believes."
As I've gotten older, I've come to realize that the Second World War is no less muddled for my own family. "They rounded us up," my grandmother would blurt out at Christmas dinner, "and put us in Hastings Park, where the horses were usually stored." She made no bones about the fact that we - and all Japanese-Canadians living in BC - had been imprisoned and dispossessed. She would tell her story to anyone who would listen. Shopkeepers, strangers on the bus.
I love my grandmother and identify with her rage and sorrow, but in recent years I've discovered that there is another more complex side to our family history. I don't understand this aspect and so it haunts my mind. It turns out that my father's side of the family was never interned because it seems that my great-grandfather agreed - in exchange for their freedom - to be the camp doctor. He uprooted himself and his family from Vancouver and moved to Kaslo, a ghost town in the interior of BC, where he provided medical services to the internees, who must have both revered and resented him. He was free, where they had lost everything. I don't know whether a sense of guilt got under his skin, but I've heard from certain relatives that he was regarded with jealousy and gratitude in equal measure.
Perhaps this is why decades after the war had ended, he returned to Kaslo as an old man. Disoriented and probably in the early stages of Alzheimer's, he crashed his car and was found wandering on the side of the road. It seems that he had dreams of returning to Kaslo and starting his medical practice anew. I picture him mumbling about wanting to making amends for something he'd never managed to accomplish. But shortly after he died of a heart attack.
Photo from: here