After my book was launched, I felt a little flat. Of course I did, it’s natural for that to happen to a person, isn’t it? For something exciting and stressful, important and big – even if it went better than expected – to leave you, afterwards, feeling a bit empty?
No, empty is the wrong word, it sounds way too negative, I don’t mean empty, I mean… I mean flat, like I wrote before. Anyway, as a way to try and make myself feel better, I decided to pick up a big book that I thought would be easy and engaging, fat and fun. (Sounds like my next dating app bio if I “need” one before shifting this weight, heyoooo!) So, I turned to “The Rolling Stones of Japanese literature” (according to a cover blurb attributed to the Financial Times, the moneyed, right-wing and intellectually-rigorous newspaper), Ryu Murakami, and his massive 2005 novel, From The Fatherland, With Love.
This novel, published in English translation by Pushkin Press in 2013, is a massive book, just shy of 700 dense pages, and far from the rollicking but empty trash fun I was expecting, having previously read In the Miso Soup, Popular Hits of the Showa Era, Coin Locker Babies and one or two less-memorable Murakami books. From The Fatherland, With Love turned out to be a literarily exciting, justifiably complex postmodernist triumph of an alternative-reality novel, and I feel this is in part due to the strength of the team of translators, Ralph McCarthy, Ginny Tapley Takemori and Charles De Wolf.
Before this, I didn’t think of Murakami as a “literary” writer. I don’t mean that Murakami is necessarily a bad writer whose work has been elevated by these translators (as, clearly, the characterisation, plot and narrative structure are his invention), but I do mean that, perhaps, previous translators of Murakami have failed to render his text with appropriate levels of nuance. I don’t know, though, I don’t read Japanese and find it hard to imagine any future where I do, so I’ll never be able to confirm that this is, in fact, far far far superior to anything else the writer has written, or if in fact he’s been translated elsewhere – no offence – into English for a thicker audience than he deserves.
Because From The Fatherland, With Love isn’t just a good Ryu Murakami novel, or a good “novel in translation”, it’s a fucking good novel, and one of the very, very few novels of such a massive length that feels, y’know, justified.
The novel is set in 2011, but not the 2011 that we actually had, one that is a pessimistic projection of the future from 2005. Due to economic turmoil (basically what actually happened at the same period but to other parts of the world), Japan has become isolated from its allies and worryingly open to attack. Exploiting Japan’s a) lack of money and b) the non-aggression pacts within its constitution, North Korea sends a crack team of highly trained badasses to Japan where they take hostage a full baseball stadium in Fukuoka and force the landing of 500 more North Korean soldiers. Panicking and unprepared for an attack, the Japanese close all ports, airports and bridges from Kyushu Island to the mainland, and by the time they’ve got their shit together enough to consider a plan, the North Koreans have established control of this big southern island and announced that 120,000 more soldiers are on their way. Unwilling to start an international incident, none of Japan’s allies will fight on their behalf, and fearing terrorist reprisals in Tokyo, the Japanese themselves remain calm. The North Koreans claim that the army that has invaded Japan is a rebel faction, i.e. not representatives of the state, so the nation of North Korea is deemed (internationally) to be undeserving of retaliatory attack. With the whole thing messily dead-locked, the freedom of the people of Kyushu falls to a ragtag group of violent, antisocial, criminals who fear extreme and unrestrained repression from the colonising force.
In some ways, it’s a caper, in other ways it’s a nuanced exploration of international politics and the response of people in a “safe” country to the sudden appearance of extreme and unpredictable violence. Murakami doesn’t just describe hyper-violent for a sleazy thrill as he does in other books, it is here to serve a purpose: most of us don’t encounter hyper-violence in our day-to-day lives, especially not in Japan or here in Europe. An uncompromising invading army who deal with all dissent using violence is treated not as the trashy plot device of a pulp novel, but rather as the felt threat it truly is. None of Murakami’s violence is throw-away here – every “battle” scene has emotional and social repercussions, nothing happens in a vacuum, no evil act goes unnoticed.
Every chapter comes from a different perspective: some are Japanese residents who work with the invading army either through fear or optimistic hope of currying favour, while some chapters are voiced by members of the group of outsiders who try to become heroes. Many chapters are from the perspectives of North Korean characters, with varying levels of commitment to their ideological cause. We see the propaganda chief of the invading arm veer towards falling in love with the culture he’s meant to be here to crush, we see a female soldier understand the psychological impact of growing up in extreme poverty, and we also see ideological, smug, army lads doing their mission successfully and feeling it’s the right thing to do. This list is only a small fraction of the novel’s voices, and Murakami makes a fucking cacophonous and wildly sympathetic melange of voices from multiple places with very different motives. We jump around the countries that surround the Sea of Japan, and we swing from government ministers to down-and-outs with many people in between.
I went into From The Fatherland, With Love expecting a fun but frothy read. And, though, yes, there is a lot of stylised ridiculousness, this stylised ridiculousness appears as part of a realised and nearly-real world. This isn’t our world, but it isn’t so different from it that the concerns of the people who live in it don’t make sense. It’s just the other side of the mirror, innit, and here that alternate present is richly evoked and unremittingly plain. I don’t want to type any more because a) I have work to do and b) I don’t want to risk doing any spoilers.
It’s fun, but it’s intelligent, it’s entertaining but it’s emotive. This is a well-pitched and engaging big novel. I – and I’m surprising myself tbh – would recommend.
On November 14th 2018, I launched my first book, Bad Boy Poet, in the basement of Burley Fisher Books, Dalston. Here are some of the songs and poems I performed:
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