The Great Fire
by Shirley Hazzard
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,278 pp., $24.00
Decadence literally refers to something that is falling away. But the word is rarely used literally. Decadence usually means excess: the giddy hedonism of Weimar Berlin, a fizzy cocktail of flappers, jazz, and sexual perversion—not only alive, but dancing on the edge of hysteria. The excesses of the 1920s followed the slaughter of a generation in World War I. It was as if the world, from Berlin to New York, had to engage in frenzied living to forget the stench of death.
There was hedonism after World War II as well, in Japan as much as in Europe and the United States. What Japanese remember of the second postwar time, through the movies as well as through real memories, is not just the desperate poverty of a devastated country, the need to sell the family heirlooms in exchange for a little food, but Glenn Miller, silk stockings, striptease, “decadent” writers, and brightly dressed whores. It was the same in many countries liberated from the Third Reich; the arrival of Allied troops produced a dizzying baby boom. This too contained much life, even some hope, but of a bittersweet kind.
However, just as many young people in the 1960s felt left out of the drug-fueled orgy that was supposed to be taking place around them yet had somehow failed to reach their neighborhood, most people were left untouched by postwar hedonism. They were too hungry, embittered, disillusioned, anxious, or just too damned tired to be in a party mood. However horrible the war had been, the end for many came as a deadly anticlimax, when old lives were too broken to be resumed. And for some the thrills of war could never be matched by the boredom of peace. This is the postwar world described so beautifully in Shirley Hazzard’s latest novel, The Great Fire.
The story begins with a lurching train ride through the rain-soaked ruins of Tokyo. The charred remains of a great city give off the “spectral odour of cinders.” Aldred Leith, a British officer in his early thirties, is in Japan to write about the wartime devastation, specifically in Hiroshima. He is a professional chronicler of destruction. Before arriving in Japan, Leith has spent two years traveling in China to survey the wreckage—anything from the ruined cities to the remains of British pilots who crashed on their way from Burma. Leith is a literary man with one theme, “loss and disruption.” Literature runs in his family. His father, Oliver, is a cold and distant man who writes successful novels about passionate love.
The only party Leith encounters on his arrival in Japan is a dismal affair in an army hospital, where drunken Australian doctors, nurses, and patients (“surprised by peace”) clap and dance around a gramophone to songs like this:
A friend of mine in a B-29
Dropped another load for luck.
As he flew away he was heard to say,
A hubba-hubba-hubba, Yuk! yuk!
And while they dance, they are served tinned food …