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'Love at Six Thousand Degrees' is a refreshing inversion of the trauma narrative

Europa Editions

Generational trauma — the psychological and physiological effects experienced by subsequent generations of those who first experienced trauma — has become one of the most resonant buzzwords of our time, ubiquitous in its usage and association to various art forms in the past few years.

The ripple effects of historical events, like wars, on families several generations separated from those events have been written about extensively and brought to our screens in recent works such as Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and Kindred by Octavia Butler. In Kindred, for instance, slavery becomes the literal trauma of the modern protagonist, who's sent back to the antebellum plantation where her ancestors lived and worked.

Award-winning Japanese novelist Maki Kashimada's Love at Six Thousand Degrees, translated by Haydn Trowell, successfully pulls off what many works about generational trauma don't even try: It foregrounds the contemporary individual, connecting history and the present day in merely indirect and metaphorical ways. The result is no less powerful.

The source of this book's historical trauma is one of the deadliest and most consequential events of the 20th century, the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The 6,000 degrees referenced in the title was the temperature reached on the ground after the bombs hit. The heroine of Kashimada's novel is a housewife who once aspired to be a writer. She lives an ordinary life with a "kind and considerate" husband and son. From the book's striking opening line ("The woman stared into the confusion."), her perceptions are shadowed by depression.

Despite being married to a man, the woman admits, "I never enjoyed going out with men...it feels like my whole body is taken over with frostbite." She leaves for Nagasaki on a whim, abandoning her family. At a hotel, she meets a mixed-race, young Japanese man and initiates a sexual relationship. His skin is badly scarred from atopy; he looks not unlike an atomic burn victim. The power imbalance, with the typical gender roles reversed, is acknowledged by both parties. She is cruel to him. When the youth asks whether the woman is on a "heartbreak trip" to "overcome her grief," she slaps him and calls him a "hollow, lonely little man." He takes her abuse and tries to understand her.

"Your face looks terrible. Wounded. The woman stared into the youth's eyes. They seemed to be crying out that she had violated him against his will. No, the youth said. I was just surprised. I've never had a woman make love to me like that before...I even forgot about my own sense of inferiority."

What drives the woman's cruelty and depression? Shortly before the woman was married, her brother, an alcoholic, committed suicide. The woman describes him as "an ideal being...If man is the evolved form of ape, he was the evolved form of me...He died in a rational state of mind." Her brother's suicide was the Nagasaki bombing of the woman's life.

Despite her initial cruelty towards her young lover, the woman can't help but develop feelings for him. In this moving passage, the youth tells her how he was bullied by the girls during swimming lessons at school.

"The woman's hand came to a stop on the youth's back. You come across women like that now and then. The kind who act like they were brought up on pure malice. The kind who grew up never realizing that women are weak."

As the woman visits the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum and sees remembrances of the tragedy everywhere, designed specifically so people don't forget about what happened, she questions whether people can ever completely forget violence. "If one has truly forgotten," she thinks, "if one's memory is a blank canvas, from where comes the sudden urge to paint over all traces of violence." She is, of course, referring not just to the bombing, but her brother's act of violence against himself, which was an act of violence against their family, and the woman's own acts of violence against her lover.

Love at Six Thousand Degrees is a profound and deeply intelligent work, a refreshing inversion of what has become traditional trauma narratives, in which history is presented as an inescapable, fatalistic force informing every contemporary outcome. The novel is also formally inventive, with the woman narrating her story in both first and third person, almost as if the woman's trip to Nagasaki is the first-person narrator's fictional experiment. Kashimada's work is a fascinating exploration of the sources of our own cruelty and our level of individual agency when healing from trauma.

Leland Cheuk is an award-winning author of three books of fiction, most recently No Good Very Bad Asian. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Salon, among other outlets.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Leland Cheuk