Erika Kobayashi’s recently-translated Trinity, Trinity, Trinity is the latest in a long, rich, and complicated history of atomic literature from Japan.
As early as August 1945, fiction writers in Japan began to explore the aftermath of the deadly and destructive atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. American Occupation forces quickly censored this kind of work. But over time, what is now called genbaku bungaku (“atomic bomb literature”) became one of the most moving genres of 20th-century Japanese writing. The best-known atomic bomb novel is probably Black Rain by Ibuse Masuji, published in 1965.
In March 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake off the western coast of Japan caused a massive tsunami; these two disasters killed more than 13,000 people. But these natural disasters also led to the meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Fukushima, Japan and the discharge of huge amounts of radiation and contaminated water. Writers responded to the 3/11 with a new generation of atomic writing, this time dubbed, at least by one English-language scholar, “Fukushima Fiction”.
March Was Made of Yarn, edited by Elmer Luke and David Karashima, is probably the most prominent English-language collection of Fukushima Fiction. It reveals exactly how many important contemporary Japanese writers have been involved—including Ryu Murakami, Yoko Ogawa, and Yoko Tawada. The collection also features Hiromi Kawakami, who rewrote one of her best-known stories into a post-Fukushima nuclear dystopia.
Trinity, Trinity, Trinity is something like a next-step in Japanese atomic literature.
Trinity, Trinity, Trinity is organized around a single day, the opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics—a date still in the future when the book was originally published in Japanese in the fall of 2019. (One wonders how the novel might read differently today if the Olympics had taken place in 2020 as planned.) It is written in the voice of an unnamed female narrator caring for both her elderly mother and her teenage daughter, but also includes an enormous and convoluted series of flashbacks. The flashbacks come from many perspectives including, occasionally, the perspective of radiation itself. (Although different typefaces mark these different perspectives, the end result is occasionally difficult to follow.)
Trinity, Trinity, Trinity is something like a next-step in Japanese atomic literature. It is a chronicle of radioactivity, beginning with the inadvertent discovery of uraninite, more commonly known as pitchblende, in Saint Joachim’s Valley during the 15th century. Uraninite itself speaks of that discovery through an elderly person in its own voice, as translated by Brian Bergstrom:
I was in a deep, dark hole beneath the soil…
But one day, someone dug me out, and I was brought into the light.
Men came and dug me out…
Shiny, black, worthless.
Not only that, but the men began to suffer a mysterious malady.
Their lungs would weaken, their bodies would drag, they would bleed without stopping.
Was it this worthless stone, they wondered?
Was it me?
They began to despise me, call me pitchblende.
The narrative goes on to connect the discovery of uranitite with Marie Curie, the Nazis, and the development of the atomic bomb.
The atrocities at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the advent of nuclear power in Japan come together in the actions of an elderly terrorist who distributes ¥235 million contaminated with radiation—the same amount of money the Diet approved to develop nuclear power capabilities after the end of World War II. (According to the novel, that number itself was chosen itself to correspond to the isotope uranium-235 used in the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.)
As the 2020 Olympic torch moves through Japan, it passes through the J-Village National Soccer Training Center in Fukushima which once served as the base of operations during the 3/11 disaster.
In the ubiquity of “trinity”, Kobayashi plays with the painful ambiguity of the name of the Trinity tests itself.
And throughout the novel is Trinity itself.
Trinity is first and foremost a disease that has begun to strike Japan’s elderly, including the narrator’s mother. It resembles dementia. But as sufferers lose their own memories, their memories are gradually replaced by the memories of radiation itself. Kobayashi is fairly explicit about her use of memory loss as metaphor for collective amnesia about nuclear disasters. In the words of one “Trinity”:
It’s not me who suffers from true memory loss. It’s all of you—you who fail to remember the past, you who cannot feel even the tiniest bit of the pain of that which cannot be seen.
Trinities—those suffering from the disease—find themselves idly picking up rocks that come to be known as “accursed stones”. Several, like the man who distributes the contaminated yen notes, carry out dangerous terrorist attacks. All elderly people people become heavily stigmatized, an interesting contrast with other recently-translated Japanese stories like Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary or Izumi Suzuki’s “Terminal Boredom”. In those works, it’s only older people who survive modern environmental catastrophes; in Trinity, Trinity, Trinity, the elderly are the ones who have been damaged.
But “trinity” is more than a disease in Kobayashi’s novel—it is the most prominent motif. Trinity is also a cybersex site that allows users “to have sex-like experiences via the internet rather than in the flesh” without visuals or audio, “making for an experience both retro and novel”. Several times, the narrator invokes the Christian Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. (Nagasaki, Kobayashi reminds the reader, was an important city for Japan’s Christians.)
Trinity was also the code name of the first detonation of a nuclear weapon by the US Army. When the protagonist’s mother writes a diary entry on behalf of uraninite about that test, she notes, “I became light.”
In the ubiquity of “trinity”, Kobayashi plays with the painful ambiguity of the name of the Trinity tests itself. How could a word with so many positive associations—religious associations—name something that led to so much death? It’s an ambiguity shared with radioactivity, which produces deadly weapons and poisoned fallout, but also electricity and light.
There’s no official account where the name for the tests came from, although J Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory responsible for the test, recalled that he must have been thinking of the poetry of John Donne. One of Donne’s most famous poems, “Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God”, is a prayer to the Holy Trinity. Oppenheimer suggested another:
… As West and East
In all flat maps (and I am one) are one,
So death doth touch the resurrection.
Editor’s note: a previous version of this review misidentified the author of Black Rain.