The Ash Garden

by Dennis Bock
281 pages,
ISBN: 0002255243

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Another View of The Ash Garden
by Keith Nickson

The editors at HarperCollins must have slipped into a state of rapture when they saw how our national newspapers reacted to the launch of Dennis Bock's first novel, The Ash Garden, on August 25łthe very cusp of the frenzied fall book season.

In The Globe and Mail, Bock was ordained as a hybrid of Updike, Cheever, and Mavis Gallant who had learned like an acolyte from Ondaatje and Urquhart while avoiding their "narrative excesses." A more subdued, more secular review by Annabel Lyon, published the same weekend by The National Post, was equally laudatory. Lyon called the book "quietly devastating". Both papers ran features on Bock beside the reviews and one week later, The Ash Garden was a bestseller and a likely nominee for major awards. A new god was born.

Is Bock really that good?

The novel's scaffolding, supporting the interlocking stories of three characters, certainly appears schematic and overloaded with symbolic weight. Professor Anton Boll flees Germany early in World War Two in order to pursue research opportunities in the U.S. He works on The Manhattan Project, which culminates in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and then goes to Japan to observe its aftermath. As an aging academic invited to conferences, Anton stoically argues that the bombing was "not good or evil, but necessary." After the war, Anton meets Sophie at an internment camp in Quebec. Sophie is a half-Jewish refugee determined not to look into the past; she refuses to search the "burnt heart of Europe" for her parents.

The most beguiling voice belongs to Emiko, a Japanese woman whose face is horribly disfigured by the bomb blast at the age of six. In a lovely prologue, Emiko recalls trying to get her younger brother home: "He licked his lips, still watching the strange object fall. I saw his eyesłthen his whole bodyłturn away from the scene that had interrupted our morning game. The glint of a smooth stone had stolen away his attention. It glistened at his knees in the brilliant morning sun, and suddenly it began to glow and the stone rose up from its mud pocket, which in an instant turned hard-baked and grey, and then I could not breathe and my mouth became a desert and the air jumped alive with objects that had never flown before."

Emiko is treated in the U.S., where she appears on a truly grotesque television show aiming to inform Americans about the bomb's effects. She becomes a respected film-maker and in her fifties asks Anton to be interviewed for a documentary about Hiroshima. Apparently unrepentant, Anton tells Emiko: "You are a fish in a glass bowl, with only one view of the world around you. What frightens me is the thought of what would've happened had we not succeeded."

Such a triangle of intersecting lives stretches credibility; success depends on Bock's ability to absorb the reader in character and make the lofty themes of morality, responsibility and forgiveness latent in the narrative. Or, as Emiko says to Anton of her filmmaking: "I don't begin with themes. I begin with time and place and event. Themes reveal themselves later, if at all." For much of the novel, Bock succeeds in distracting us from the clumsy narrative architecture. His subject and style suggest a reflective, serious European sensibility, which isn't surprising given his German heritage and a period of years spent living in Spain. The prose, which is supple and resonant reminds me of The Emigrants by the transplanted German writer, W.G. Sebald.

The Ash Garden alternates between two voices: Emiko's first-person story and a third-person account of Sophie and Anton's life. While Emiko's narratives match the interior landscapes conjured by such exemplars of this style as Louise Erdrich and Israel's A.B. Yehoshua, the story of Sophie and Anton is marred periodically by abstract, trite language that pushes the reader away. When there is 'story' to tell, Bock's prose hums with current; once he plumbs Anton's mind, the juice goes dead. For example, Anton's shift from idealistic scientist to 'rote' thinker, is described this way:

He felt his creative mind freezing up, and this was something he would've, if there were a God, thanked Him for. There was already enough to keep him wondering another ten lifetimes. That period of fevered creation, two years of cold sweat under a hot sun, and now he had the rest of his life to answer for it. A lifetime of trying to understand the consequences. There was no end in sight and it stretched out before him like train tracks leading in every direction, with Anton himself standing at the hypocentre.

On other occasions, the prose turns mannered and cliches pop up: "After a meal the four would sometimes discuss a certain susceptibility they all felt towards introspection, a looking backwardsłsomething they all worried about, despite or because of their stated wish to stay positive." The terrain of Anton and Sophie's interior lives remains an enigmatic presence, lacking in palpable detail.

Still, as the newspapers have noted, there is much to admire in The Ash Garden. Scenes of Anton giving Sophie a bath, the climactic confrontation between Anton and Emiko and a couple of late plot twists are handled with consummate skill. Perhaps most compelling is the way that The Ash Garden forces us to re-examine our own views on the bombing of Hiroshima. Bock is careful to anchor the moral debate in the personal lives of the two main characters. While Emiko is seeking an acknowledgment of wrong-doing, Anton steadily avoids acknowledging any guilt, seemingly content to mask his true feelings. Anton is a puzzle, but the fact that he fled Nazi Germany not to protest the regime's brutality, but to secure a more exciting career is perhaps all we need to know.

Reading The Ash Garden reminded me of John Hersey's Hiroshima, a book that Tom Wolfe has called the 'ancestor' of the non-fiction novel. Published in The New Yorker and then issued as a 118-page book in 1946, Hiroshima remains a stunning indictment of the bombing. In Olympia, Bock's debut collection of linked stories and now in The Ash Garden, we experience the aftershocks of war on peoples' lives. Hersey goes fearlessly into the maelstrom itself.

After interviewing six survivors, Hersey uses fictional techniques to reconstruct their horrific experiences. It remains essential reading. To address the moral issue directly, Hersey quotes from a memo to the Vatican written by Father Siemes, a German Jesuit priest and survivor:

Some of us consider the bomb in the same category as poison gas and were against its use on a civilian population. Others were of the opinion that in total war, as carried on in Japan, there was no difference between civilians and soldiers, and that the bomb itself was an effective force tending to end the bloodshed, warning Japan to surrender and thus to avoid total destruction. It seems logical that he who supports total war in principal cannot complain of a war against civilians. The crux of the matter is whether total war in its present form is justifiable, even when it serves a just purpose. Does it not have material and spiritual evil as its consequences which far exceed whatever good might result?

Bock himself has been quoted in The Globe and Mail as saying, "Good and evil, drop the bomb or don't drop the bomb. There is no clear answer." In its final pages, I think The Ash Garden finally answers this question clearly, though in a typically muted fashion. Hersey's reporting, full of detached, factual description paradoxically offers a much louder condemnation of atomic warfare.

Flaws in The Ash Garden may well be signs that Bock hasn't quite mastered the transition from short story to novel (nor joined the Gods on Olympus). However, when he's good, he's damn good. For an invigorating read, try Hersey's classic and follow it up with the entirely different pleasures of The Ash Garden.

Keith Nickson teaches at George Brown College in Toronto.


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