Based on the book blurb, From The Fatherland, With Love sounds like a standard by-the-numbers thriller, but that description couldn't be further from the truth. This novel features an alternate vision of the Earth where things are subtly different.
The brazen North Korean invasion-plan quickly gathers pace as the local authorities, rather ineffectually, run around like headless chickens allowing the Korean special forces to gain a foothold on Japanese soil. Things go from bad to worse as a second larger wave of troops arrive and the government still fails to take any action. Their inability to make any decisions allows the invaders to control the entire town of Fukuoka while awaiting the arrival of another one hundred and twenty thousand soldiers.
This situation results in some wonderfully dark moments, mostly due the serious culture clashes that exist between the two nations. The North Koreans, having spent a long time isolated from the rest of the world, are stunned by some of the things they see and experience when they first reach Japan. The outlandish lifestyles that they witness leave them all reeling.
"Many of the men and women looked vulgar, with hair dyed in the manner of Westerners, absorbing the effluence of decadent Western music, and consuming Western food and drink. There was even a man with an earring, as though he were a woman."
With the authorities at a loss, it's left up to a local collective of anarchists, led by a poet, to take matters into their own hands. This group is more than keen to take on the Koreans in their own inimitable style; think the Wolverines from Red Dawn with slightly more sociopathic tendencies.
The gang's leader, Ishihara is a bit of an enigma. Somewhere between an artist and prophet, he offers suggestions, passes comment but never actually does anything himself. He comes across as a bit of a figurehead. He's a surrogate father and the group all idolize him, hanging on his every word. It's the gang's members that really make this story, they're just so dark. All of them display varying degrees of insanity and personal quirks. My favourite characters were Shinohara who breeds frogs and insects, and takes more than a little delight in experimenting with their poisons. Also, there's Toyohara, who is rather fanatical about the samurai sword he inherited from his grandfather.
One thing that I did notice was that Murakami does seem a little obsessed with lists. In some scenes he details every single occupant of a room and their job titles. When there are twenty people in the room that can be off-putting. I found it strange, it felt a little jarring and made the narrative a bit disjointed.
Murakami goes into a lot of detail with his characterization, and you quickly realise that there are no topics which are out of bounds. To give an example, at one point an ex-gang member ponders the economic breakdown of Japan while sitting on a portable toilet. Now, I'll admit that when it comes to fiction that has got to be a first for me, and although it has a slightly surreal air, it actually works surprisingly well. The writing does veer off in some wonderfully bizarre directions, but is so good it always makes weird logical sense.
There are actually many moments when characters take time to ponder the situations that they find themselves in. There is an introspective quality to the writing and this gives the author the opportunity to really explore the human condition. From the Fatherland, With Love is essentially a study in chaos versus order. Both sides of this conflict act as cyphers for each concept, the chaotic Japanese gang members versus the strictly regimented North Koreans. As I said before this is far more than a standard thriller there are many layers and themes at work here.
I would be remiss if I didn't point out that this novel is ENORMOUS. It's nearly seven hundred pages long, hell it has a six pages at the beginning just detailing the cast. It's also physically BIG. If I had the choice I would definitely go for the electronic version over the hardback.
From the Fatherland, With Love is published by Pushkin Press and is available now. I won't lie to you, this novel is quite an undertaking but I found it largely entertaining. Surprisingly insightful, wonderfully quirky and more than a little bit mad, it's a modern epic that would be well worth any bibliophile's time.