William T. Vollmann, author of Imperial, The Atlas, and several other incredibly intense works of fiction and journalism, ventured into Japan’s “contaminated” zone while covering the fallout of March’s tsunami and resulting nuclear catastrophe. Byliner, the new publisher of long-form journalism for digital distribution (whose first piece “Three Cups of Deceit” by Jon Krakauer set off this maelstrom), is offering his reporting, “Into the Forbidden Zone: A Trip Through Hell and High Water in Post-Earthquake Japan”, for $2.99. The story can be downloaded for ipad, kindle, or macintosh computer. The Daily Beast has published an excerpt.

Eerily reminiscent of John Hershey’s Hiroshima, Vollmann describes a region of distinct devastation, where the inhabitants seem either too weary to worry about nuclear fallout, or too uninformed to know the consequences of the ongoing tragedy.

Vollmann brings his patented (and well-practiced) ability to relate a world inverted:

“It is hard to describe to you the littered flatness, everything pulverized into irrelevance, some foundations still visible. One of the driver’s colleagues had lived here. Now he was staying at his son’s. The neighborhoods of Okada, Gamo, Shiratori, and Arahama were gone. The former geriatric home was full of rubble and trees. By now the trees had already started to decompose, so that when they edged up the sides of houses, they infiltrated them like subtly woven rattan, perfectly fitted by the weaver-upholsterer called death. Occasionally the empty doors and windows of better-off buildings had been protected by blue tarps taped into place. We drove slowly south through the smell of tidal flats, toward the Natori River, passing blue and gray stretches of rippling water, and a sign: Seaside Park Adventure Field. “I have no words,” the driver said.”

The author shies away from too lurid a description of the calamity in favor of stressing the urgency of the nuclear situation, which OBL or-not, seemed to disappear too quickly form the headlines, and altogether ignored the irony of this event in relation Japan’s nuclear history. Vollman questions an old woman in the ravaged areas,

Mrs. Hotsuki, here is a question that baffles me. As a citizen of the country that dropped atomic bombs on Japan, I wonder how this could have happened in your country twice. First you were our victims, and then, it seems, you did it again to yourselves.” “We don’t know much about the nuclear bomb,” explained the older woman. “They’re pretty far from here, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and we just heard from our parents that some plane came over and so forth. They didn’t talk about it.” “Why didn’t they?” “Unless you go to that area and see that atomic site, then maybe you have no interest in it.”

Vollmann invokes Eastern philosophy, as he is wont to do,  in relation to the lengths we go through to ignore the truths regarding our own expediency and comfort: “The more present the interest, the less present or apparently present the danger, the more irresistible the disregard.”

“Into the Forbidden Zone: A Trip Through Hell and High Water in Post-Earthquake Japan” is an important and urgent piece of journalism from a steady, accomplished, and ultimately resigned voice. Resigned in the sad fact that this disaster is ongoing, and will continue to be felt well past our (probably humankind’s, too) organic existence.


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