A Japanese Novel’s New Version of Love in the Nuclear Ruins


“Love at Six Thousand Degrees,” the award-winning novel by the Japanese author Maki Kashimada, opens with a literal bang. A housewife is watching over a boiling pot when, suddenly, the apartment’s alarm goes off. Triggered by visions of “a mushroom cloud,” she abruptly abandons her husband and son for Nagasaki, where she checks herself into a hotel and begins an affair with a younger man.

Following this explosive first scene, Kashimada’s novel quickly simmers down to a slow burn. Sex with the young man is often awkward, if not frankly bad. Both lovers seem perpetually on the verge of tears. They spend their time roaming the same hotel lobbies, and visiting the same museums and memorial sites of the atomic bombings.

Inspired by Marguerite Duras’s screenplay for “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” Kashimada’s listless story line similarly imagines the aftermath of nuclear war in the key of a love story. Duras’s version tells of a French actress who, upon visiting postwar Hiroshima, begins a brief affair with a Japanese man. But Kashimada’s adaptation inverts the racial dynamic: The novel is oriented around the existential crisis not of a white Frenchwoman but of a Japanese housewife who takes as her lover a “topaz-eyed” younger half-Russian, half-Japanese man. Despite the basic premise that Duras’s story provides, things get progressively murkier — and periodically lost in translation — over the course of “Love at Six Thousand Degrees.” Published in Japan 60 years after the bombing of Nagasaki, Kashimada’s book blurs the national and the personal in a way that suggests the continued difficulty of working through world-historical trauma.

“Love at Six Thousand Degrees” blooms from a story about incomprehensible heat. The story goes something like this: When Little Boy detonated 2,000 feet over Hiroshima, ground temperatures were said to have reached more than 6,000 degrees Celsius in less than a second. At least 80,000 people, and possibly as many as 140,000, died on impact. In Nagasaki, the number is said to be around 74,000, though no one can finally be sure. These approximations — forms of accounting and remembering — become the impossible data points orienting Kashimada’s novel. What emerges is the narrator’s disoriented, and often disorienting, attempt to make meaning in the wake of so much ruin. “Faces. Faces. Faces,” intones Kashimada’s heroine. “In the midst of all those burnt-out fields, everyone has the same face.” The devastating effect of nuclear annihilation here is the flattening of individual pain. The woman begins to cry, but “her tears are an insult. Tears can’t express the tragedy of 6,000 degrees. Yet still she can’t help but cry.”

The amorphous specter of the all-encompassing mushroom cloud hovers over the landscape of the text, wafting around every corner of these characters’ lives. Following the initial vision of the blast, things never really clear up for the Japanese housewife. The narrative, deftly rendered through Haydn Trowell’s translation, toggles between a third-person “she” and a first-person “I,” though never finally names the woman herself. As in Duras’s screenplay, the lovers here are primarily known through enigmatic pronouns — “she” and “he” — triggering their progressive drift into allegory.

Kashimada’s novel unravels like an extended exercise in what it means to attempt to describe the indescribable. Its plot tends less toward closure than relentless repetition.

The same motifs and memories filter in and out. The woman frequently recalls the suicide of her alcoholic brother, as well as the subsequent depression of their mother. The woman’s young lover, who has a skin disease, recounts scenes of bullying and ostracism. At times, the narrative grows vertiginously unstable, as scenes recur and flashbacks fold in on themselves. This too is partly the point. In adapting her fictional retelling of the atomic bombings from Duras’s already fictional retelling, Kashimada stages her novel as a flagrant approximation of real events. “Disloyalty to fidelity is proof of sanity,” the woman tells the young man near the end of the book. “I can speak only of memories. Of superficial things.”

Jane Hu is a critic whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, Bookforum and elsewhere.

LOVE AT SIX THOUSAND DEGREES | By Maki Kashimada | Translated by Haydn Trowell | 127 pp. | Europa Editions | Paperback, $17

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