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North Korea occupies Fukuoka in Murakami’s alternate world

by Eli Kirzner

Not to be confused with another famous Japanese novelist who has the same surname, Ryu Murakami is known for being an overtly political, even subversive, writer. “From the Fatherland, With Love,” his latest novel to be translated into English, cements that reputation. Taking place in an alternate world in 2011, the plot centers on a North Korean invasion of Japan.

FROM THE FATHERLAND, WITH LOVE, by Ryu Murakami. Translated by Ralph McCarthy, Charles De Wolf and Ginny Tapley Takemori. Pushkin Press, 2013, 664 pp., £20 (hardcover)

Our first reaction upon hearing this premise may be to roll our eyes, expecting a demonizing depiction of an enemy nation — the sort right-wing pundits might quote to kindle fear and militaristic sentiments. But those familiar with Murakami’s writing know he isn’t one to indulge in blatant fear-mongering. On the contrary, if this novel criticizes anyone, it is none other than Japan.

After an economic collapse, Japan is suffering from widespread unemployment, homelessness and starvation, and has fallen out of favor with other nations, including its greatest security partner — the United States.

Taking advantage of Japan’s weak and isolated condition, the government of North Korea hatches a plan code named “From the Fatherland, With Love.”

They sneak nine heavily armed commandos onto Japanese soil, who bust into a packed baseball stadium in downtown Fukuoka — Fukuoka Dome — and hold the spectators hostage. Claiming to be a rebel group defecting from the North Korean regime, they demand that the Japanese government deactivate its anti-aircraft defenses and allow planes carrying hundreds of reinforcements to land.

Forced to choose between triggering the execution of thousands of civilians and accepting an invasion, the Cabinet stalls. Doing nothing means submitting, and soon the soldiers take administrative control of the entire city.

With the government paralyzed by indecision, the only ones who have the gall to take action are a bunch of sociopathic teenagers. Tormented and rejected by society, each one of these misfits has some form of trauma and a murderous obsession that helps them cope. One raises poisonous insects and amphibians, one wields razor sharp boomerangs, one makes bombs, etc. Led by Ishihara, an eccentric, quasi-mystical poet-cum-terrorist, this community lives in an abandoned warehouse complex in portside Fukuoka. There they stockpile weapons and await a target — any target — on which to unleash their pent up destructive urges. And when the North Koreans arrive, they seem to have found it at last.

The original Japanese version of this controversial tale was published in 2005 as “Hanto wo Deyo” (Leave the Peninsula). Apparently requiring three years of research to complete, it is thick with technical jargon from a variety of domains including international relations, economics, toxicology and demolitions. The three translators have done an excellent job of turning this dense text into smoothly readable English. Standing out particularly is the translation for the dialogue of Ishihara, whose lewd neologisms like “clitorisk” and mock-Rastafarian tirades against the “mojority” (as opposed to “majority”) are hilarious.

Each of the 24 chapters is narrated by a different character. Another 75 or so minor characters also make appearances, some only for several paragraphs, and their resume-like background descriptions overload the already weighty prose with an excess of exposition (thankfully, a list of names is provided at the beginning to help us keep track of everyone). On the upside, the multiple viewpoints approach provides a multifaceted perspective on the contentious events of the novel.

According to his afterword, Murakami incorporated the accounts of some 20 North Korean refugees he personally interviewed into his fictional commandos. Stories of life amid famine in bleak mountain villages, harsh military academies and so on, show us that beneath the surface of these soldiers is a sensitive humanity that has been tortured by a brutally oppressive society.

Scenes of almost pornographic gore, described in Murakami’s trademark visceral style, are scattered throughout, but reach their gruesome crescendo in the showdown between soldier and misfit. Some may accuse Murakami of celebrating violence in many of his works, but in this case, violence is closely tied to the novel’s central theme.

As in his science fiction novels “Gofungo no Sekai” (The World Five Minutes Away) and “Utau Kujira” (The Singing Whale), Murakami uses a hypothetical scenario to highlight certain aspects of present-day politics. The government’s incompetent and dithering response to the invasion illustrates that Japan’s greatest enemy is not North Korea but itself. Naively caught in the illusion that America will fight all Japan’s battles for it, officials and regular citizens alike no longer know how to take initiative and defend themselves.

Only the maladapted teens, who have been ostracized by the “mojority,” understand the reality of violence, which exists at the heart of human society even in times of peace, and their struggles speak to the inner outcast in all of us.

Readers comfortable with heavy amounts of exposition will find much food for thought here, not to mention action and some dark humor.

Eli Kirzner is a translator and writer living in Japan. A voracious reader of social sci-fi, he hopes to soon publish his own dystopian novel set in a future Tokyo.