I once met a man on the train to Harbin. He was my age, just past his prime, hair starting to grease and thin in a way one might have thought passably distinguished in another context, in another era, when he might have settled down, reconciled to finishing out his long career predictably. But it was 1939. War had officially broken out between China and Japan, and like all of us on that train, he too had chosen to take the bait, that one last bite before acquiescing to life’s steady decline. You see, for us university doctors, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We all knew it. Especially back then.
Two nights and three days from Wonsan to Harbin the train clattered on, the lush greenery interrupted by trucks and depots manned by soldiers in military khaki. Despite the inspections and unexplained transfers, this man I shall call S remained impassive, shadowed by a dusky light that had nothing to do with the time of day or the dimness of the car’s interior; he sat leaning against the window, face set, impervious to the din around him. Later, I would come to recognize this as a posture of self-recrimination, but at the time I had barely recovered from our initial journey by sea, and I was in a contemplative mood myself, in no condition to pause over the state of others, much less engage with my colleagues, who by now had begun drinking in earnest, liquor still being plentiful then, loosening even the most reticent of tongues. So I excused myself and must have promptly nodded off, for the next moment it was dawn, the day just beginning to break, the long length of the train still shrouded in sleep. I was the only one awake, the only one woken by the sudden cessation of rhythm, which drew me to the window, still dark except for my reflection superimposed on it.~~Complete story available online at Hudson Review
I keep wondering what the definition of a great story would be. Something like this one, I would imagine: an emotional experience created by aesthetic choices skillfully executed, a text that seals the reader into a world with the characters until we laugh and cry and suffer and rejoice along with them, because we have melded with them in some undefinable way. Although I will avoid spoilers, I must insist that the story be read, via the link above, before it is read about.
It’s off to a languid, language-rich start, as shown by the opening paragraphs above. Long sentences, dependent phrases strung like railroad cars themselves, images, enough information to begin to ground us in WWII China, but I was a bit confused, uncertain of exactly what’s happening in the context beyond the train. A discouraging opening, maybe – I certainly felt discouraged – but as it turns out, it’s perfect because it allows some atmosphere before the gritty details are revealed in such an understated manner as to emphasize their importance.
While Auschwitz and Joseph Mengele are world-wide symbols of atrocity, Unit 731 in the Pinfang district of Harbin doesn’t sound that familiar. During WWII, it was known as an epidemic prevention center. That description isn’t totally false, but omits the primary purpose: it prevented the threat of epidemics faced by Japanese soldiers by brutal vivisection of Chinese prisoners of war, creating in them the diseases of interest, then dissecting them – often alive, usually without anesthesia – to examine the pathological processes. Mengele, by any other name. But it’s hard to feel righteous: The US struck a deal after the war: the scientists received immunity, the project remained secret for 40 years, and the Army got the data, which they felt would be useful vis-à-vis Soviet Russia in the post-war era.
Serizawa’s story follows the path of one fictional doctor who was recruited as staff with the promise of intellectually challenging research opportunities. We see his slowly growing awareness of what was happening, the denial (“the will not to believe”, Herman Wouk called it in War and Remembrance), the horror and guilt that weigh upon him afterwards. The character S forms the moral center: he steals some documents that will reveal to the world what is being done. The narrator waits, with equal measure of fear, guilt, and hope, for S to reveal the documents, for the investigations to begin, for the trials to commence.
As for S, he may as well have not existed the way things turned out; he never exposed those papers. Yet he had offered me a chance, and perhaps that is my final offense. I did not take that chance. Instead, I carried on, watching, as the world marched on—another war, another era—with fewer of us left every year to cast a backward glance.
The last scene is wonderfully constructed and emotionally devastating. A change in tense and a slight shift in voice brings us to full understanding of the relationship between the narrator and S, while breaking our hearts. Remember The Sixth Sense? A lot of people, including Roger Ebert, said they had to go back and watch it again after the ending revealed the little boy’s secret, to see how it was done. I had the same experience with this story.
But that isn’t the power of it: the power is how much compassion and love it generates for a monster. Because, as it turns out, the monster has his story, too. Don’t ever think it couldn’t happen here, it couldn’t be you, because I’m sure that, if you’d asked him, the doctor would’ve said it couldn’t be him on that train to Harbin.