Historical Fiction

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 Booth, Martin. (1985). Hiroshima Joe, rpt. New York: Picador, 2003.

The novel tells the story of Joe Sandingham, an officer in the British army stationed in HK who was captured by the Japanese during the fall of Hong Kong on Christmas 1941. He became a prisoner of war first in Hong Kong, then in Japan, near Hiroshima. His misfortunes continued as he returned to Hong Kong after the war, where he became an opium addict egging out a living through petty crime. Becoming progressively ill with radiation, he ended his life in suicide.

 The narrative flashes backwards and forwards among three locations: the futile violence of Hong Kong’s resistance battles where Joe witnesses the death of his colleagues, his harrowing experiences as POW and exposure to the atomic explosions in Hiroshima, and the indignities of his life on the social margins of nineteen fifties Hong Kong.  In Joe, the novel represents the tragic plight of a man caught up in an historical conflict who suffers but also survives. But just as he is caught up accidentally, his survival is also accidental and therefore seems equally pointless.

Some of the novel’s most powerful scenes dwell on the cruelty inflicted upon the soldiers and POWs. Death, torture, pain and starvation are commonplaces during Joe’s internment, but they are also relieved by memories of camaraderie and momentary and unexpected love. In particular, Joe remembers his love with Bob, friendship with Gary, and even the Japanese Mishima in the camp near Hiroshima.

 In Hiroshima Joe, nineteen fifties Hong Kong is mapped by Joe’s movements as he walks aimlessly through the streets and takes different modes of public transport. The detailed movements offer a very precise and vivid narrative of spatiality that, in turn, maps the local geography. This is a technique we also see in Gweilo, Booth’s memoir of his childhood in Hong Kong. The restlessness of Joe’s wandering as a traumatized war veteran is interspersed with the monotonous grind  of his  hard labour in the camps. Mobility defines him as living and also the meaningless of his life - just like ants that are always on the move but seemingly going nowhere.

 Unlike Gweilo, the representation of Hong Kong Chinese, whether seen from Joe’s point of view or that of the third-person narrator’s, is consistently negative. They are either low organic life-forms scraping a living like Joe; or triads and their henchmen; or communists. Joe has one Chinese friend, Francis Leung, who is interned with him in the Japanese camp in Shamshuipo in Hong Kong before their transport to Japan. Leung is a triad who flourishes after the war, and as a loan-shark, becomes Joe’s main exploiter.  

 The novel also offers a glimpse of the intra-expatriate class structure in nineteen fifties Hong Kong. In some respects, the boundaries of respectability have replaced the rigid colonial ranks of Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil. Or rather, Booth shows expatriate society from the perspective of someone who has fallen too much on hard times and has become too disreputable to be an insider but who continues to be treated as privileged by local Chinese because of his race. The burden of his ‘whiteness’ compounds his traumatic wartime experiences to push Joe further and further into pathetic decline and helplessness. The only moment of respite is when he visits Po Lin Monastery and talks to the Buddhist abbot about life and whatever meaning there is to living. The visit seems to offer Joe some explanation of life beyond the accidentally cruel. But the relief is temporary, like opium which eases the pain as his body degenerates. (EH)

 
 
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