Title: Fires on the Plain
Original Japanese title: Nobi (野火)
First line: "My squad leader slapped me in the face."
Genre: historical fiction
Recommended for those interested in: World War II (from the side of the Japanese), introversion, postwar Japanese authors.
Blurb from the book:
This haunting novel explores the complete degradation and isolation of a man by war. The book is set on the island of Leyte in the Philippines during World War II, where the Japanese army is disintegrating under the hammer blows of the American landings. Within this larger disintegration is another, that of a single human being, Private Tamura. The war destroys each of his ties to society, one by one, until Tamura, a sensitive and intelligent man, becomes an outcast...
Tamura is never less than human, even when driven to the ultimate sin against humanity. Shocking as the outward events are, the greatness of the novel lies in its uplifting vision during a time of crushing horror.
I've not read much, really, in the way of bizarre books, so I'm not exactly an authority, but Fires on the Plain is probably one of the most disturbing novels I've ever read. It delves into the mind of a man slowly going mad, but the frightening thing is that his thoughts really aren't so ridiculous or unbelievable. Reading the book, you can see why and how Tamura might have drawn many of the conclusions that he did, and then suddenly the presence of madness becomes uncomfortably close. He does things that are insane, and you know that they're crazy, but you can't help but think sometimes, "Hm, well, it's nuts but perfectly understandable because it's him."
The thing I loved most about Fires on the Plain was just how well it was written, how poetic it was. I haven't read it in its original Japanese, so I don't know how to compare the two, but as far as I can tell, the translator did a brilliant job. The writing is stunning. It has you sitting right in the cockpit, I suppose, of Tamura's brain. His brain is apparently a wonderful, intelligent thing full of great visual descriptions and inner conflict, and it keeps you reading. The narrative itself is just wild, and you hear less about his physical hardships than you do about the toll those hardships are taking on his mind.
One thing to note: none of the characters are particularly loveable, none of the situations very funny, and none of the dialogue very snarky and cool. If you're looking for a book that's fun and amusing with fun and amusing characters, read no further! This is a novel about war and its mental effects on those involved, and it's strange and disturbing and not cute at all. What it is, is terrible and beautiful (well, IMHO, of course). The author, Ooka Shohei, really did fight with the Japanese Army during WWII, and he really did get taken prisoner in the Philippines, so I can imagine that his thoughts and experiences are about as real as they're going to get.
I really enjoyed reading this book, bottom line. It isn't a joyride through fairyland, though; it's more like a laborious trek through jungle-y Adventureland with a bullet in your thigh, a rifle slung over your shoulder, and voices in your head.
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