Often enough we are confronted with historical facts and are asked to explain our role in them. “Where were you when . . ” or “What did your family do during . . ” is an often enough phrase during either classroom lectures or dinner parties. But the answers are not that simple for many of us. We didn’t know that action ‘x’ was going to cause ‘y’ or family member believing something way back when would be socially unacceptable for us today. That is the conflict Dennis Bock tries to show in his novel “The Ash Garden”
One morning toward the end of the summer they burned away my face, my little brother and I were playing on the back of the river that flowed past the eastern edge of our old neighbourhood, on the grassy floodplain that had been my people’s home and misery for centuries. It was there I used to draw mud pictures on Mitsou’s back with a wide-edge cherry switch, which I hid in a nearby hickory bush when it was time to go home. I liked its shape an how it felt in my hand, like a fine pen or paintbrush. I scooped ujp mud from the bank and shaped it into pictures of all sorts: trees, fishes, animals. The day my parents were killed I’d decided to paint my grandfather’s face. I had turned six just a few weeks earlier. Mitsou, my little brother was only four years old and three months.
I love the way Bock opens this complex novel with a quote from Goethe’s Faust: What is the path? There is no path. On into the unknown. This book basically deals with three people. A scientist who ran away from Nazi Germany and worked on the “Manhattan Project” for the U.S government. A young woman who flees fascism in Austria and is facing the unknown in North America. And then there is a young Japanese girl who witnesses a solitary plane flying overhead while she is playing on a riverbank in 1945. The three come together trying to come to grips with their own version of events of World War II.
After three weeks Anton went to Tokyo for a weekend to study the effects of months of relentless fire-bombing. He wanted to make a comparison. He needed to know that the bomb had put an end to a greater crime. The second morning he got himself looked at by an army doctor. For two weeks running there had been a pain behind his eyes, and he wasn’t sleeping. That, and the nightmares, he would report. He would ask for something to control the pain. As he sat, waiting for his consultation, he met one of the men who’d flown in that very plane. The man’s arms were full of souvenirs. He seemed to be on the move. These knick-knacks would mean a lot to him, he said, some years down the line. He was on his way home. just a quick checkup before going stateside.
“This is one hell of a place,” he said, the statement accompanied by a suspicious wink. One that might have been meant to indicate the ancient intricacies of Oriental prostitution, or the exquisite mystery of Japanese gardens; Anton couldn’t be sure.
The man had the drifting eye of a hungry tourist. “Jesus,” he said. “I’ll never be able to understand this whole business, though.”
This isn’t a novel for everybody. It weaves a complex story line that sometimes asks more questions in the reader’s mind than it answers. But it is good literature. A reader should consider their person histories a little closer after getting through this book and wonder what is truth and fiction in their lives today.
Maybe she was dying, she thought for the first time in her life. Maybe she already was dead. The mind holding on a few moments longer, able to observe the tide lowering as life was drained from her body. Maybe this was death’s great secret, its one last offering to the passing soul.
But she knew she was not dead when the fingers began to throb again. All the blood that had been absent seemed to rush outwards on the verge of exploding, filling her fingers with pain. She lost all desire to understand the mystery of this condition, consumed as she was by the fire it had sparked. She did not want to solve the riddle. Just that it would stop. That was all she needed. That would be enough. And slowly – as though someone had been listening, waiting for this simple request. Please Make it stop – the burning sensation cooled by degrees and her hands again became hers.
While a complex book, The Ash Garden by Dennis Bock is read that causes a reader to carefully consider their histories and their lives. It is a great piece of literature.