Freeport Journal-Standard from Freeport, Illinois on July 12, 1975 · Page 18
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Freeport Journal-Standard from Freeport, Illinois · Page 18

Freeport, Illinois
Issue Date:
Saturday, July 12, 1975
Page 18
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MINAMATA. By W. Eugene Smith and Aileen .M. Smith. Illustrated. 192 pages. New York: Askog-Ssensorium- Holt, Rinehart & ^Winston. By RICHARD R. LINGEMAN In the early 1950s, people in the small Japanese city of Minamata on - the western coast of Kyushu began noticing that the cats were acting queerly. They would stagger drunkenly, salivating as though they were rabid; then they would be seized by convulsions or'else-race madly around in circles. Then they would die. The fishermen w.ho worked out of the little villages skirting Minamata also noticed dead fish floating on the surface, but most had" long accepted that this phenomenon was somehow connected with the industrial wastes expelled into the bay by the Chisso Co.'s large plant in the city. The Chisso Co., had been in Minamata since 1907 originally making nitrogen: Since 1925 it had been paying a small indemnity to the fishermen because of the damage it was doing to the waters. In 1932 Chisso'began producing acetaldehyde, a chemical used in manufacturing plastics, drugs, photography chemicals and /perfume. After World War II, the Minamata plant was on the verge of obsolescence, and the company stepped up production in order to wriftg maximum profits from it before building a new one.- The years 1952 to 1960 were' boom years for the Minamata plant, and the city's population grew to 50,000. As a mayoralty candidate said, with unconscious irony; - even after the tragedy had struck, "What is good for Chisso is good for Minamata." The company of course, was Minamata's largest employer! though all the managerial personnel were outsiders. Minamata's other large industry was fishing. Thus an unnatural ecological web was spun between the effluents from the plant, the fish from the sea and the people in the town who ate the fish - a web with a poisonous spider. For the inorganic mercury used as a chemical catalyst in making the acetaldehyde" was converted into methyl mercury as waste; this substance, a ravaging poison that attacks the brain cells, entered the food chain. The cats, which subsisted solely on fish, -had been the first apparent victims of the poisoning, but human deaths were not long in coming". In 1956, a 5-year-old girl was taken to the Chisso factory hospital unable to walk, delirious, incoherent. Other cases, children and adults, followed. Doctors suspected alcoholism, cerebral palsy, encephalitis and a number of other diseases. By then, Minamata's entire cat population had been wiped out. The townspeople called the sickness "the cats' dancing disease." When eventually doctors determined that the sickness was the first incident of mass methyl mercury poisoning to be identified, it was christened the Minamata disease. Its toll was at least 107 dead (a painful, lingering death), about 3,000 others with chronic ailments of varying severity and many others more In Japanese Hamlet discreetly stricken. Included were many children who contracted congenital Minamata disease in their mothers' wombs and were left twisted and crippled for life. Relatively late in Minamata's passion, W..Eugene Smith, a noted photographer, and his wife, Aileen, who was born in Tokyo and spoke Japanese, went to Minamata to live and observe. They soon photographed and got to know the victims and become involved in their fight to obtain compensation for the .sickness that Chisso's pollution had visited upon them. Smith was severely beaten by Chisso strongmen and almost blinded in one of the demonstrations. In often striking pictures and awkwardly sincere prose that transcends mere reportage or outrage, they have recorded the story of Min- amata. The Smiths' own confrontation with the Minamata sufferers seems-to have unlocked an answering Hood of humanity. A deep, purifying communion with the people and their search for justice suffuses the story and pictures with- an almost religious sublimity. How else account for the photo on page 139, one of the most moving photographs I have ever seen, of a mother cradling her grotesque, misshapen daughter in the bath, looking into her vacant eyes with ineffable tenderness. Much of the book, though, is a record of struggle, rather than sublimity. From .the beginning the Chisso Co. ^backed and filled and evaded any responsibility for the harm it had caused. The town itself was riven, with the sick His Best Because It 's Plausible THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY. By Michael Crichton. 266 pages. Knopf. By Christopher Lehmann-Haupt . Well npw, it begins to look more and more as though Brian Moore really hit on something with the metaphor of his latest novel. "The Great Victorian Collection." It would seem that, just as Moore implied with his surreal story, the artifacts of Victoriana do still exert a powerful pull on our 20th-century American imaginations; For hardly'had I finished'enjoying "The GreatxVictorian Collection" when I picked" up Michael Crichton's "The Great Train Robbery,"!.a documentary novel about a daring crime that was actually pulled off in England in 1855; And found myself not only captivated because it is Crichton's best thriller to date (his previous ones were two rather wooden sci-fi adventures, "The Andromeda Strain" and' '.'the Terminal Man"), but also charmed most of all by the story's Victorian style and content. Not that the crime itselflsn't an entertaining one - full of clever twists and turns, surprising reversals and a. satisfactory quantity of suspense. A train carrying gold bullion worth 12,000 pounds; a danng^plot to heist the gold, conceived by a master criminal who lives in high style in Mayfair; four keys to be located and copied so that, two safes may be opened; a railway guard to be blackmailed or bribed; an unprecedented escape from Newgate Prison; a fortuitous case of venereal disease - these various elements add up to a plot that properly told, would tibld our attention in almost any setting. But what gives "The Great train Robbery" its particular satisfying flavor is the way Crichton folds in the .Victorian ingredients - ingredients such as the Crimean War, to help fi. nance England's share in which the gold is being shipped in the firstplace; of the period's penchant for secret hiding places,-which, helps make the search for and location of the four keys an enterprise of great moment and adventure; or the age's incomplete understanding of a certain law of physics, which helps to explain why the robbery very nearly failed. Indeed, this is a historical thriller in the truest sense of the phase precisely because so much that seems .implausible at first makes excellent sense once certain background details are filled in. Thus, for example, our credulity may be strained when the need to smuggle a man on board the train is solved by the introduction of a wooden coffin onto the station platform - a coffin, moreover, complete with "several ventholes drilled in the sides" and "on the lid ... a kind of miniature belfry, containing a small bell, with a cord running from the clapper down through a hole to the innards of the cof-% fin." But our disbelief turns to delight and thence to wonder as Crichton pauses to discourse documentarily on the 19th- century obsession with premature burial and on the consequent innovation .of "the Bateson Life Revival Device," or "Batesqn's Belfry," as it was ordinar- •ily. known (whose anxious inventor? one Geroge Bateson, eventually secured himself against premature burial by setting himself aflame and dying by self-immolation). And when the little bell in this particular coffin's belfry actually begins to ring, thus raising hopes for a resurrection and reversing the psychology of the railway guards (for how much deader seems a falje corpse you expect to see alive but find looking dead when you open the coffin, than does a fake corpse you suspect of fakery in the first place) - the whole business seems not only plausible, but is also an absolute stroke of genius in plotting. Crichton even uses Victorian underworld argot to embellish his story. ones at. first regarded as lepers; shopkeepers used chopsticks to give them change. The fishermen worried that their catch wbuld be regarded as poisonous, while the chambers of commerce types feared that the Chisso- company, which was the backbone of the town's economy, would be financially harmed or leave. Victims were subtly or violently discouraged from asserting their claims,-and many others hid their sickness, vaguely ashamed. In 1973. after a four-year trial and violent confrontations, a district court held the company liable and ordered it to pay compensation. Chisso has paid over $80 million in damages, living allowances and medical care. "Minamata" is a beautiful book in many ways, above all in the suffering and humanity that pulse through it. It ultimately goes beyond words and pictures, yet there is a message in it that should not be forgotten: "Industry has no divine right to pollute in the name of gross national product." New York Times Service New Books At Highland THE TWENTIES by Alan Jenkins. No decade of this century had such a distinctive "flavor and legendary atmosphere as the twenties. It was the period which crystallized the vast social changes in World War I. COLLAGE by Harriet Janis and Rudi Blesh. Once started, collage threw the door wide open to use of more and more startling "foreign" inclusions. Bus tickets, buttons, coins, in fact, anything with what the authors , call "memories of the real world" gradually secured entrance.into modern pictorial expression. PRACTICAL CHESS ENDINGS by Paul Keres. This is an essential practical book, for all chess players, from one of the world's grandmasters. Paul Kere^s deals with the really basic types of position into which all other endings will eventually be resolved. ANIMALS OF THE DARK by Clive Roots. Animals of the dark introduces many of the real creatures of the night, who, together with those that dwell in the permanent darkness of the soil or caves, comprise over half the living vertebrates. THE WAY IT WAS by George Vecsey. Great sports events are recaptured for sports fans in the pages of this book. Football, baseball, boxing, hockey, and basketball are the sports represented. America's leading sports writers tell the stories of these exciting contests. BUCHANAN DYING by John Updike. In this play, Buchanan's political and private lives are represented as aspects of his spiritual life, whose crowning act is the act of dying. A wide-ranging Afterword rounds out the dramatic portrait of one of America's lesser known leaders. Freeport Journal-Standard, Weekender, Saturday-Sunday, July 12-13, 1975 Page 3

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