Friday, September 6, 2013

From the Fatherland, with Love: A Review

Ryu Murakami's From the Fatherland, With Love (translated by the team of Raloh McCarthy, Charles De Wolf, and Ginny Tapley Takemori is a slow-collapse apocalyptic novel spiced up considerably by an intense catastrophe: a back-door North Korean invasion of the City of Fukuoka on the Island of Kyushu, one of the smaller of the four main Japanese Islands.
Ryu Murakami (from here) was born in 1952 in Nagasaki prefecture, Ryu Murakami is the enfant terrible of contemporary Japanese literature. Awarded the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in 1976 for his first book, a novel about a group of young people drowned in sex and drugs, he has gone on to explore with cinematic intensity the themes of violence and technology in contemporary Japanese society. He appears to be best known in the United Sates for his tour through the Japanese sex trade underworld in The Miso Soup. This novel was published in 2005 in Japan, but the translated version here was released in 2013.

The title of the novel, as best I can tell, is a play on the title of Robert Harris' alternate history detective novel, Fatherland (Amazon, Amazon UK), which is set in an alternate reality where Adolf Hitler has won World War 2.

We have a different sort of alternate history here.  Here we have a very slow, grinding collapse.  Although the novel, with its many narrative points of view, has many people who are still doing quite well, Japan has become even more sluggish and economically desperate than its current long decline from the 1990s when the cyberpunk novels had them being the next rulers of the world.  Most of the action is set in the Spring of 2011, with most of it happening over a very short time frame in April.  So if it is not today's (or 2011's) Japan, it is a possible near-future Japan.
As we noted at the top, the disastrous event that is the focus of the novel is a back door invasion of the City of Fukuoka by a small elite group of North Koreans.  The North Koreans get the idea from a fictional movie (but based on the actual movie "The Eagle has Landed") to land an advanced group of commandos posing as agents hostile to that dictatorship, and escaping persecution:  armed refugees if you will.  North Korea denounces the rebels, and the rebels await a second much larger (120,000 strong) group of fellow "refugees" to arrive on a motley ramshackle fleet.  The idea is to disguise the invasion aspect of the plan with just enough verbiage to slow Japanese reactions.  The Japanese, pretty much take the bate, and treat the group like violent terrorists holding hostages, rather than the advanced guard that they are.  The timeline of the book is set to the arrival of the second large wave of troops, which will essentially mean that the North Koreans have won.

In addition to the general economic malaise, the author takes issues with some trends within Japanese society.  One is, that within their society, people are very cautious and docile.  In an interview the author notes, "Japan is becoming more and more docile... I don’t know why. People maybe think that nothing will change regardless of what they do".  Within the novel they have come to value the life and well being of individuals so highly, that the threat of violence paralyzes them from reacting quickly to violent setbacks.

Which is a problem when one of your neighbors refuses to civilize with you.  In fact, if the process that leads to civilization leaves a group with the losers' end of the spoils, they may be very determined to not civilize on your terms.  Just as to some extent, Japan didn't want to play along with the new "everyone play nice" European dominated post World War 1 era, the North Koreans have a lot that they are also angry about, and a ruling system that makes sure that they stay angry.

Toward the end, a Japanese mother complains about the inactivity of the Japanese National Government:
Listening to his comments only underlined how gutless the government seemed to be. It was the same kind of attitude her husband had.  He hadn't want to leave his job, but he couldn't bring himself to turn down a friend's request. Similarly, the government didn't want the fleet to reach Fukuoka, but they couldn't risk any [retaliatory] terrorist attacks.  Choosing one thing meant sacrificing something else; so many people didn't understand this... p. 561.
The overlapping, immediate, ground level narrative switches between four general groups of people.  First is the various members of the North Korean advanced guard.  Second, and less frequent as the novel progresses, are the higher ups within the Japanese government. Third, is the Japanese in the city of Fukumo who are forced by circumstances to come into contact with, and variously deal with the occupying Korean forces, and finally a group of criminally disturbed young men who occupy a group home under the auspices of a retired criminal turned poet.
The Japanese officials in Tokyo are, if not exactly incompetent, are paralyzed by the
threat of immediate violence, and handcuffed by their own perception that violence is to be avoided at all costs.  When the Koreans counter some of their early efforts to interrupt their operations, they are paralyzed into passivity.  Having always expected the Americans to provide an umbrella of safety, they are not sure what to do when it is not forthcoming.

The local government officials, and media people are in a difficult situation.  They are very much afraid of the Koreans, but feel like Tokyo has abandoned them.  Being in a position where they are subject to immediate violent repercussions, they tend to give the North Koreans what they want: with the obvious irony that from a slightly more distant view, this makes the Koreans appear to be acting in good faith and responsibly.

The youngsters in the group home are a very mixed group.  Although at first they are rather fond of the North Koreans for beating up the local Japanese establishment, they fairly quickly realize that they are a hostile group.  All of the children suffer from severe personal isolation, and are very unstable.  These are not cute little "bad news bears" turned to good.  They have either become insane through suffering violence at an early age, or were insane and turned to violence at some point.  Throughout there activities, various individuals are apt to become casualties as temporary mental breakdowns lead to personally disastrous outcomes.

The North Korean are an interesting group.  Much like the children, they have also suffered from extreme violence, and many of them grew up in times of extreme starvation (the 1990s).  They have some of the same emotional issues as the children (isolation), but because the conditioning plays out within the backdrop of a totalitarian ideology, they tend to channel it through a rigid concept of duty and order.  They start having difficulties when faced with the extreme wealth of Japanese society.  The underwear that they are given (to keep for themselves!) is the finest clothing they have ever seen.  A distribution of watches, as reward for their commitment to duty, causes some breakdown in discipline, as the rank-and-file are not used to dealing with this type of larges.
In the end, the youth-group, through their violent insanity, winds up being the only group that mobilizes quickly to counteract the North Korean Advance Guard.  One of  adults associated with the group, a criminal financier of sorts, has spent large sums of money sneaking in a variety of deadly weapons.  The beauty pageant, of-sorts, where he displays this very deadly, but highly eccentric grouping of weapons and uniforms, is a gut wrenchingly funny moment in the annals of mall-ninja psychology. But while they have some weapons, and a lot of strange violent talents, having seen the North Koreans in action, they are very aware that they are absolutely no match toe-to-toe.  So it becomes of contest of violent, brutal, discipline, against violent, poignant, chaos. 

The novel is excellent. It is a rare apocalyptic novel that manages to portray both a grinding slow collapse, and a potentially, lighting fast collapse, simultaneously.   It shows the way that economic chaos, and social disintegration, play into the potential for further problems, and the paralysis that can make solving these problems very difficult.  The portrayal of various types of people, many of them facing very difficult situations, is very telling.  Surviving a collapse is not very likely to be a heroic event, and apocalyptic shoot-em-ups, are not going to be as much fun as they are often portrayed.  The bad guys are not always going to be a bunch of idiots, they often will be better trained, and, for that matter, their "badness" will not always be all that clear.

We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high. Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting. Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation. Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.
Outside of the North Korean backdoor invasion, which the author himself says is highly improbable, the only possible demerit is the use of an alternate timeline.  But if you pushed the Japanese dystopia a little further into the future, even that doesn't seem all that improbable.  It deals with a lot of very real events: people losing their jobs, people worried about losing their jobs, the plight of the unwanted homeless, even living life in a cruel totalitarian state.  The paralysis of a troubled modern democratic state in responding to a crisis is frighteningly real.  The Japanese cultural assumptions are not everyone's, but all cultures have their blind spots.  It is a 7.

Readability is straightforward.  It is a very well written, and the translation is excellent.  Adjusted for its long length, it is a 6.

Area of North Korean "Rebel" Encampment.  They control the box like peninsula area, with their main troop quarters (red box) being between the high rise hotel (top right) and the large hospital (bottom right).


PioneerPreppy said...

It sounds rather odd I guess, yet has shades of Mishima mixed in. Maybe his message finally resonated with the young?

russell1200 said...

Pioneer: It sounds odd, but in the reading comes off as rather realistic.

I am not particularly familiar with Mishima, but on the surface, this sounds correct.