Into the Radioactive Past with Bob Van Laerhoven
A bit over seventy years removed from the Hiroshima bombing, it remains an event fresh in everyone’s minds, marking the first and hopefully last times nuclear warfare sees the light of day in human history. While the Japanese people have certainly found a way to recover from the atrocity and build on the ashes of destruction, they are a society still bearing the scars of an incident more far-reaching than most could have anticipated. Mysteries and memories from those times still haunt the town and its people, and none can say how long it will truly take for these grievous wounds to heal, if it is indeed possible at all. In his novel Return to Hiroshima , Bob Van Laerhoven takes us fifty years after the bombing and depicts a unique picture of the town and its inhabitants through numerous intersecting stories.
The book follows several characters at once in their different quests, all leading to Hiroshima’s dark secrets in one way or another. For starters we have the son of a Belgian diplomat, Xavier Douterloigne, who returns to the city as he spent his youth here to try and come to terms with the death of his sister. Then we have Inspector Takeda whose police investigation starts a deformed foetus and only takes him further into Hiroshima’s twisted underworld. There is a fearsome Yakuza lord who may or may not be a demon in human form, referred to as the Rokurobei. A woman by the name of Mitsuko searches for her father’s true identity while trying to keep her scarred past at bay. There is also the oddball punk Reizo with dreams of overturning Japanese society with his ultra-nationalistic novel in the making… but of course, fate prefers irony to success with such people. They do not know it, but their fates are intricately linked and their journeys will take all of them into the heart of darkness, back to a horrifying past never to be forgotten.
Before we go further, I would just like to give some word of warning that this book does in fact contain some very heavy materials, some of which revolves around the Japanese Secret Service Unit 731. While there is no gratuitous violence or suffering (it all has its place in the story), the content matter in itself isn’t something everyone can handle easily… in other words, one needs a bit of a strong stomach for parts of this book, which thankfully aren’t too numerous.
Dark Paths of Mystery
From the very first pages the author puts a lot of effort into creating an atmosphere of profound mystery, the kind which traces its roots back to a deep and shameful past where buried secrets beg to see the light of day. He does so by drawing parallels between the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings with the cast of characters who will carry us through the story, giving us a taste of how far incalculable consequences have already managed to reach. Additionally, Bob Van Laerhoven plays quite adeptly on the potential of a supernatural element with the Rokurobei demon, making it unclear if we’re dealing with the fevered illusions of desperate people or an unbelievable yet true reality.
The other important element which I believe heightened this sense of mystery was the author’s descriptive power. They never overstay their welcome, remaining clear and concise while still bearing for us a whole array of details to drool over. His ability to bring streets and buildings to life is second to none, and when he describes them we not only see the colours of their walls, but also the marks history has imprinted on it.
Many of the answers to the mysteries the characters are posed with lie in the deep past, which as you might imagine implies a fair amount of flashbacks. Those were actually some of my favourite moments as they were driven by a powerful narration, one placing a giant emphasis on the human element on history, on all the unique worlds, perspectives and destinies to have come together over the ages.
The Cruelty of History
While this novel certainly has quite a lot to offer in the realms of pure fiction, Bob Van Laerhoven went above and beyond to try and shed some light on the terror that is war, lest we forget its significance through glorifying movies and literature. The war flashbacks we are treated to don’t pull back any punches and depict the catastrophe that is the loss of human life in all of its unadulterated horror. He tries his best to make us truly feel the impact of what people have gone through time and time again over the course of human history.
Additionally, as was mentioned above, some parts of this book (mainly the ones near the end) focus on the infamous torture experiments of the Japanese Secret Service Unit 731 conducted on prisoners of war. Their atrocities are well-documented to this day, and the author takes full advantage of it, putting every detail out there in the open and making us relive the unspeakable in the role of spectators. This section is quite heavy on the mind and pushes you to reflect on the nature of humanity and how profoundly the darkness within us truly runs.
While there are some people out there who will undoubtedly argue this amount of detail in the flashbacks is unnecessary and is simply there for shock effect, I would strongly disagree with such an assessment. These events occurred in real life, and while we can never do justice to what those people went through we nevertheless owe it to them to try our best and tell keep their stories alive. Bob Van Laerhoven describes it as it was, a reality we can’t afford to close our eyes on, a reality we should be forced to stare at from time to time.
The Final Verdict
With all things considered, Return to Hiroshima is a profound novel penned with exceptional skill by an author who has so far written some of the most unique books the modern market has to offer. Everything from the characters to the plot, setting and historical flashbacks is crafted with marvellous care, offering an engrossing mystery flavoured with reminders of real atrocities. If you enjoy mystery novels and are interested by Japanese culture dating back to the Second World War I would heavily recommend you give this novel all the attention you can.
Bob van Laerhoven is a Flemish author whose 30+ novels have been published in Belgium, France, Canada and The Netherlands. His 2007 novel Baudelaire’s Revenge was the winner of the Hercule Poirot Prize for the best crime novel of the year.