Pyongyang attacks

From the Fatherland, with Love, by Ryu Murakami/translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, Charles De Wolf and Ralph McCarthy, Pushkin Press, RRP£20, 672 pages

This is a novel by the other Murakami. Not Haruki, who brought us the parallel realities of double-mooned skies over Tokyo and wild shaggy sheep chases. This is Ryu, three years Haruki’s junior and no relation, whose books are edgier and angrier, set in an industrial dystopia planted firmly in the real world. If Haruki is The Beatles of Japanese literature, Ryu is its Rolling Stones.

When it was originally published in Japanese in 2005, From the Fatherland, with Love took place in the near future. The time it has taken to translate the near-700-page book into English has rendered this the recent past. Events unfold in March 2011, when, in real life, a tsunami swept across northeast Japan destroying cities and swallowing up lives. Murakami’s novel envisages a very different shock: an invasion by North Korea.

The North Korean force attacks at a time of national vulnerability – a physical manifestation of that psychological insecurity born of Japan’s geography, geology and wartime history, and reinforced by a postwar settlement that leaves it dependent for protection on a declining US. The long-feared economic crisis has struck. The yen has plummeted. There are food and fuel shortages. Bank accounts are frozen. China is stronger and more threatening. North Korea is flexing its muscles. The US, not the power it once was, is disinclined to defend the outer edges of the Japanese archipelago. Some of this should sound familiar.

The novel has a Tolstoyan cast of characters, from crack North Korean commandos and hapless Japanese bureaucrats to a gang of hoodlums who eventually decide to save Japan. It unfolds with the pace of a thriller, switching between Tokyo, Pyongyang and Fukuoka, the city in southern Japan that is the target of the North Korean attack. The style varies. In one section, we get sweeping geopolitics, in the next the intrigue of a spy novel, in the next a cartoon-style treatment of heroes about to do battle.

The manga-like passages can wear thin, especially in the descriptions of violence: “blood and brain matter overflowed the wound and slid down his face, obscuring his features. He finally crumpled to the ground, but it seemed forever before he stopped twitching.” Ouch, that must have hurt! Yet the cartoon cut-outs serve a purpose. They allow Murakami to freeze-frame before deep-diving into his characters’ motivations – near-starvation in a North Korean village, a dysfunctional home in Japan.

The tone throughout is neutral. The North Koreans are not the baddies, the Japanese officials certainly not the goodies. The author’s sympathies are reserved for the misfits and the hard-done-by of whichever nationality. Those in the Ishihara gang are social outcasts with echoes of earlier Murakami novels such as Coin Locker Babies (1980). When the North Korean invasion begins with the hostage-taking of an entire baseball stadium, their first reaction is to whoop it up. They too have a desire “to tear things down, to lay waste, to slaughter everyone, and turn this world into piles of rubble”.

The gang members may be violent and disaffected, but at least they feel things. The Japan of Murakami’s novel is deadened by affluence (the recent economic crisis notwithstanding) and infantilised by years of pacifism. “No one had ever seen footage of Japanese citizens being mowed down, other than in war documentaries of more than half a century ago.” One of the Koreans cannot understand a country where tissues of unfathomable softness are handed out as free gifts. “These Japanese simply weren’t used to violence; they lived in a soft, tissue-paper world,” he thinks. Another of the invaders, who checks into an internationally themed hotel before the attack on the stadium, is disgusted at the sight of Japanese pretending to be Africans. “Where was the Japan ... that once shook not only Asia but the entire world?” How, he wonders, could this bunch of buffoons have colonised his beloved homeland?

The novel reads like the psychoanalysis of an ill-at-ease nation stuck in a region it once sought to control militarily. Japan is the patient. Only the shock therapy of a North Korean invasion can awake it from its slumber, stir up memories of its wartime past and dislodge deeply submerged fears about its present.

From the Fatherland is a bit too sprawling. A few sections – particularly the tedious pages listing the Ishihara gang’s weaponry – could have been hacked with the brutality of the fight scenes. But overall, the novel moves at an exhilarating clip and is intriguing on both a narrative and a psychological level. There are too many characters for us to get properly emotionally involved with any of them. Murakami never lets us forget, however, that behind the two-dimensional and the unfamiliar, behind even the violent and the murderous, lies that most precious of commodities: humanity.

David Pilling is the FT’s Asia editor

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