Sunday 1 September 2013

'From the Fatherland, With Love' by Ryu Murakami (Review)

As you may have seen, back in May Pushkin Press laid claim to 2013 as the year of Ryu Murakami, releasing four of his novels (three reissues and one new translation) in a striking series.  I've had this hardback monster on my shelves for a while now - so it's high time I finally got to grips with Murakami's nightmare take on Japan's future...

From the Fatherland, with Love (translated by Ralph McCarthy, Charles De Wolf and Ginny Tapley Takemori - review copy courtesy of the publisher) was originally released in Japan back in 2005, so its 2011 setting pushes it into the realms of speculative fiction.  In this near-future scenario, Japan is on a downward spiral, economically weak and politically right-wing, and its former allies are beginning to distance themselves from Asia's one-time powerhouse.

Meanwhile, just across the sea, North Korea is slowly beginning to improve relations with its neighbours, and the US, while sticking to its hardline beliefs.  Of course, if attention could be further deflected from the regime, perhaps by involving Japan in a domestic crisis, this might ease the tension on the 'Fatherland' even more.

The idea the 'dear leader' comes up with is a scheme which, while initially sounding unworkable, quickly becomes a reality.  A small group of elite commandos lands near the Japanese city of Fukuoka and takes hostages, pretending to be a group of dissidents fleeing North Korea.  As the disorganised Japanese government dithers, unable to make a decision to take action which may endanger Japanese lives, more Koreans set off for the Land of the Rising Sun.  With international opinion split by Japan's inaction, it appears that Fukuoka is destined to become a rebel North Korean province.  However, anyone who has read a Murakami book before will know that even in mild-mannered Japan, there are a few people who are not averse to a little ultra-violence...

From the Fatherland, with Love is a long roller-coaster of a novel, an attempt to analyse the state of the Japanese nation, take a peek behind the Iron Curtain dividing North Korea from the rest of the world, and write a scenario which would be best made into an action movie.  How to describe it?  How about Tom Clancy meets Pokémon?  There can't be many novels which switch between cabinet discussions and a teenager whose weapons of choice are metal boomerangs with serrated edges...

One of the more interesting features of the novel is its focus on the North Koreans, and Murakami (who interviewed defectors from the country) does a great job of describing them.  The invaders are lean, mean fighting machines, albeit puzzled by lacy undies, bright lights and free tissues from taxi companies.  When the first commandos are en route to Japan, they are asked to make small talk to practise their disguise of South Korean tourists - and struggle:
"And yet they had not learned how to engage in the joking banter of South Korean tourists.  Time had not allowed for that, and such instruction was unavailable in any case.  There was no shortage of instructors in the art of killing people or blowing up facilities, but no-one in the Republic could teach you how to behave like a traveler from the puppet regime."
p.94 (Pushkin Press, 2013)
Killing?  Yes.  Banter?  Not in North Korea...

The writer gradually focuses more on the individuals, rendering them a little more human.  The effect of relative freedom - and nice clothes - has an apparent softening effect on them, and there are times when they don't appear all that different from the locals.  Every so often, though, the writer reminds us (and usually not very subtly) that they are still, first and foremost, killing machines.

Murakami also turns his critical eye on Kasumigaseki, the Japanese governmental precinct in Tokyo, and he's not too happy with what he sees there.  The government is old-fashioned and moribund, totally unable to deal with new threats, concentrating on sealing off Fukuoka after the invasion instead of actually dealing with the real issue:
"Yamagiwa felt a sense of hopelessness wash over him.  On turning fifty, he had gone through a midlife crisis and had been on anti-depressants for a couple of years.  Here in the crisis-management room, watching these people frantically at work, he got the same sour taste of futility that sometimes made him feel like saying to hell with it all.  At first he thought it was because he'd been left out in the cold, but he was beginning to feel it was more than that.  Being outside the frenzy of the round table, he had become painfully aware of the Japanese government's inability to see the big picture - and if he could see it, no doubt other outsiders could see it too." (p.230)
There is a dawning realisation that Japan just can't cope with this attack, and this fiddling while Fukuoka burns shows the weakness of democracy.  In a landscape of vested interests, politicians are scared of taking risks and unwilling to make unpopular, risky sacrifices.

You'd expect the inhabitants of Fukuoka to feel upset at being abandoned, and they are, initially at least.  However, not everyone is distraught, and as time passes, many people start to think that it's time to get on with life.  Having been abandoned by Tokyo (which sees them as country hicks anyway), the locals begin to cooperate more willingly with the 'Koryos'.  It's a Stockholm Syndrome of sorts, and the daily television broadcasts by a photogenic and charismatic Korean soldier help make the occupation more palatable.  Only those locals who have closer dealings with the Koreans know that the friendliness doesn't extend much below the surface.

So, with the Japanese government neglecting its responsibilities, it's inevitably left to the outcasts, the dregs of society, to do something about it.  One of the survivors of the apocalyptic events of of Popular Hits of the Showa Era has gathered a gang of misfits around him, and unable to fit into society, they don't have same inhibitions as most Japanese people.  While they initially see the invaders as kindred spirits, eventually they decide that this is the real enemy - and set about plotting a way to bring the invaders down for good :)

As I mentioned at the start of my post, Pushkin released four of Murakami's works this year, and having read them all, the choices make perfect sense.  In a way, the three reissues prepare you for the style, location and ideas of From the Fatherland, with Love.  We have the gangs living in abandoned shopping towns of Coin Locker Babies, the joys of youth (and Kyushu!) from Sixty-Nine and, of course, the crazed losers of Popular Hits of the Showa Era.  This novel is Murakami's big (ambitious) attempt to tie it all together - and in this regard it's very similar to what namesake Haruki was trying with 1Q84...

...however, there is another, less flattering, similarity with that book - it's too long.  There are frequent info dumps, pages and pages of unnecessary information which can slow the story down.  At times, the writer gives lists of names, with plenty of unnecessary backstories - there's a Tolstoyan list of characters at the start of the book, but most of them are superfluous.  There's also a whole lot of of repetition, and you can't help feeling that the book needed some more critical editing (obviously, writers called Murakmi are immune to this sort of editorial interference...).

Still, it's a great story, and one whose ending works very well.  Without giving too much away, there aren't too many happy endings floating around - real life doesn't work like a Hollywood movie.  And Murakami?  Yes, he's synonymous with violence, sex and darkness, but these four works show a far more versatile author than you'd think. He's definitely a writer whose novels warrant a try :)