The Cross and the Cannibal: I read “Fires on the Plain”

Fires on the Plain, Shohei Ooka’s 1951 novel of the Japanese defeat in the Philippines, lets you know what it’s like from the start. In the very first scene a tubercular private returns to his unit, having been kicked out of the field hospital because he doesn’t have enough rations to pay the doctors. His commanding officer slaps his face, gives him iirc six small potatoes (maybe fewer) and says to go back with those, and if they still won’t take him, don’t come back. You’ve got a grenade so do your duty to your country. Now repeat this order.

Fires is a slender, brutal book, and its central subject is the nature of conscience when you are completely alone and starving. It gained attention not only for its wartime subject matter but because it was the rare Japanese novel to explore Christianity, and to express a fascination with the Christian God.

The novel’s narrator spots from far off the cross atop a Filipino church. What he finds when he journeys to that church is not in any sense salvation, or hope. All he has of God is the certainty that he is being watched.

Alone in a hostile country, so hungry that by the novel’s midway point the temptation to cannibalism becomes very, very real, he experiences his conscience as something not under his control and in many ways alien from his “I,” his internal experience. His left hand grips his right and won’t allow him to cut off and eat human flesh; he knows that somewhere, unreachable, God watches and knows him, and being subject to God’s attention is better than not being subject to it.

Fires doesn’t do much with the specifics of the Christian faith. I read this book about a month ago and didn’t take notes (I apologize for any inaccuracies in this post), so it’s possible there was some mention of the Eucharist, of eating the Body and Blood of Christ, but I don’t think so, and it’s a really noticeable absence. Christ isn’t the sacred Victim here, or the hope of the defeated, or anything else you might expect from a book in this setting. None of that is a criticism. The God of this book is memorable in His own right. The Christian God is notable here for His inscrutable alienness–He appears most clearly when there are no people around–and for the fact that He is both sublime and moral. God is not only the inner voice of morality, not just a projection of society’s precepts and norms; but He is intrinsically linked to moral claims. You must not kill civilians. You must not eat human flesh.

By the end of the novel our hero will have violated these commands in different ways. He will have traveled beyond all hope of return to a normal Japanese life. But still there is this possibility, maybe even this conviction, that the God Who found him in the utter isolation of enemy territory walks with him still, lives inside of him, and waits.


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