Kamila Shamsie read an extract from her book, Burnt Shadows, at London CND’s No more Hiroshimas Rally, It begins in Nagasaki on 9 August 1945. Hiroko Tanaka, 21, is preparing for her wedding with Konrad Weiss:
Hiroko removes the kimono from the trunk, and throws it up in the air. The silk shifts against itself and unfolds, so that what went up a square comes down a rectangle; again she throws it up, and it hits the ceiling lamp, catching on its shade before slithering down into her waiting arms. She closes her arms around the fabric that suggests being draped in a waterfall and thinks of holding Konrad, naked.
She undresses quickly, removing the hated grey monpe and the shirt that was once a gleaming white and is now just the colour of too many washes. Then she continues, removing every scrap of clothing. Something strange is happening inside her body which she doesn’t understand, but she knows she wants it to go on happening. Without care for underclothes, she slips one arm into the sleeve of the kimono, the silk electric against her skin.
Konrad walks across Urakami Valley, his heart folding in and in on itself.
Hiroko steps out on to the verandah. Her body from neck down a silk column, white with three black cranes swooping across her back. She looks out towards the mountains, and everything is more beautiful to her than it was early this morning. Nagasaki is more beautiful to her than ever before. She turns her head and sees the spires of Urakami Cathedral, which Konrad is looking up at when he notices a gap open between the clouds. Sunlight streams through, pushing the clouds apart even further.
And then the world goes white.
The light is physical. It throws Hiroko forward, sprawling. Dust enters her mouth, her nose, as she hits the ground, and it burns. Her first response is a fear that the fall has torn her mother's silk kimono. She raises herself off the ground, looks down. There is dirt on the kimono, but no tear. Yet something is wrong. She stands up. The air is suddenly hot and she can feel it on her skin. She can feel it on her back. She glides her hand over her shoulder, touches flesh where there should be silk. Moves her hand further down her back, touches what is neither flesh nor silk but both. She wonders if this has something to do with the burning she felt as she fell. Now there is no feeling. She taps the place that is neither flesh nor silk. There is no feeling at all.
Her neighbour comes out on to the verandah next door. 'What was that?' she says.
Hiroko can only think that her clothing is in shreds and she must go indoors to change. She hears the cry of her neighbour as she turns her back on the woman to enter the house. Hiroko runs her fingers along her back as she climbs the stairs down which, minutes earlier, she had followed Konrad. There is feeling, then no feeling, skin and something else. Where there is skin, there is feeling. Where there is something else there is none. Her fingers pluck at shreds embedded in the something else. Shreds of what – skin or silk? She shrugs off the kimono. It falls from her shoulders, but does not touch the ground. Something keeps it attached to her.
How strange, she thinks, as she idly knots the sleeves of the kimono around her body, just below her breasts.
She walks over to the window out of which she tried to catch a glimpse of Konrad as he walked away and looks down the slope, searching for clues. Houses, trees, people gathering outside, asking each other questions, people shaking their heads, sniffing at the air.
Hiroko leans out of the window, forgetting she is almost entirely naked. Something is wrong with her eyes. They see perfectly until the bottom of the slope and then they cannot see. Instead they are inventing sights. Fire and smoke and, through the smoke, nothing. Through the smoke, land that looks the way her back feels where it has no feeling. She touches the something else on her back. Her fingers can feel her back but her back cannot feel her fingers. Charred silk, seared flesh. How is this possible? Urakami Valley has become her flesh. Her flesh has become Urakami Valley. She runs her thumb over what was once skin. It is bumped and raw, lifeless.
So much to learn. The touch of dead flesh. The smell – she has just located where the acrid smell comes from – of dead flesh. The sound of fire – who knew fire roared so angrily, ran so quickly? It is running up the slopes now; soon it will catch her. Not just her back, all of her will be Urakami Valley. Diamond from carbon – she briefly imagines herself a diamond, all of Nagasaki a diamond cutting open the earth, falling through to hell. She is leaning further out, looking through the smoke for the spires of Urakami Cathedral, when she hears her neighbour's scream.
Hiroko looks down, sees a reptile crawling up the path towards her house. She understands now. The earth has already opened up, disgorged hell. Her neighbour's daughter is running towards the reptile with a bamboo spear in hand – her grip incorrect. The reptile raises its head and the girl drops the spear, calls out Hiroko's father's name. Why does she expect him to help? Hiroko wonders, as the girl keeps chanting, 'Tanaka-san, Tanaka-san,' hands gripping the sides of her face as she stares at the reptile.
In her search for new beginnings, Hiroko Tanaka finds old of loyalties, loves and disasters evaded and confronted, which begins in Nagasaki and ends in a US prison cell, with a man trembling, naked, fearfully waiting to be shipped to Guantánamo Bay.
Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie is available in paperback from Bloomsbury Publishing, price £8.99