Excerpt of Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
(Page 3 of 5)
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Why risk it, Konrad thinks. He retrieves his air-raid hood from
inside the house and starts to walk swiftly towards the shelter which
the Kagawas had built in the back garden. Halfway across the garden
he stops and looks at the wall which divides the property from the
vacated lot next door. He hasnt checked on his birds, on the other
side of the wall, since the last rain shower. Tossing the air-raid hood
on the grass, he strides to the boundary wall and hoists himself over
it, slinging his body low to reduce the chances of being seen by
passers-by or the military police.
If anyone were to see him they would think he looked ridiculous - a
gangling European tumbling over a wall, all arms and legs and hooded
eyes, with hair and close- cropped beard of a colour so unexpected in
Nagasaki that Hiroko Tanaka had thought, the first time she saw him,
that the hair of Europeans rusted rather than greyed as they aged.
Later she discovered that he was only twenty-nine - eight years older
than she was.
The dry grass crackles beneath his feet - he feels as though he is
snapping the backs of tiny creatures - as he walks across to the giant
camphor tree to which the birds are fastened, rotating slowly in the
faint breeze. It is Hiroko who first referred to his purple notebooks as
birds - the day they met; the only time she has been inside his house.
She lifted a notebook off his desk, splayed, and glided it around his
room. The animation of her touch made him acutely conscious of the
lifelessness of his words: sentences thrown down on paper year after
year simply so he could pretend there was some purpose to his being
here, some excuse for cowering in a world from which he felt so separate
that nothing in it could ever implicate him.
But ever since Germanys surrender shifted his status in Nagasaki
from that of ally into some more ambiguous state which requires the
military police to watch him closely the lifeless words have become
potent enough to send him to prison. It says all there is to say about
the paranoia of Imperial Japan: notebooks of research and observation
about the cosmopolitan world that had briefly existed within a
square mile of where he now lives are evidence of treason. Yoshi
Watanabe made that clear to him when Germanys surrender started
to seem imminent. You write about a Nagasaki filled with foreigners. You
write about it longingly. Thats one step away from cheering on an American
occupation. And so, the night Germany surrendered, Konrad constructed
a mobile of strong wire and hung each of his eight purple leather
notebooks from it. He climbed over the wall to the vacant
property that adjoined his own, and attached the mobile to a tree.
The wind twirled the purple- winged birds in the moonlight.
He remains certain that no one will think to enter the deserted garden
to search for treachery amidst the leaves. The people who would
willingly sift through every particle of dust in a house for signs of antistate
activity can always be deceived by a simple act of imagination.
Ducking beneath a low swooping branch, he reaches out a hand and
finds the leather books dry and unmarked, though slightly faded. He
looks gratefully up at the protective canopy of leaves before noticing
the white streak on one of the leather covers: a real birds comment
on these purple impostors. His face breaks into one of those smiles
which sometimes fool people into thinking him handsome. As he steps
away from the tree his attention shifts to the slightly deranged tone
that has crept into the mournful call of the air- raid siren. Not much
point dropping a bomb here, Konrad thinks, making his way without
haste back to Azalea Manors air-raid shelter. The former Foreign Settlement
where he lives is characterised now by absence, and always by
waste. In Urakami ten families could live in this space! Hiroko said
the first time they met, gesturing at Azalea Manor. And she followed
it with: The rich! Ridiculous! before turning to ask him what he intended
to pay her for the translation work he was requesting.
Excerpted from Burnt Shadows
by Kamila Shamsie. Copyright © 2009 by Kamila Shamsie. Excerpted by
permission of Picador, a division of Macmillan. All rights
reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted
without permission in writing from the publisher.