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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

From the Fatherland, with Love

Murakami Ryu

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To purchase From the Fatherland, with Love

Title: From the Fatherland, with Love
Author: Murakami Ryu
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 664 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: From the Fatherland, with Love - US
From the Fatherland, with Love - UK
From the Fatherland, with Love - Canada
From the Fatherland, with Love - India
  • Japanese title: 半島を出よ
  • Translated by Ralph McCarthy, Charles De Wolf, and Ginny Tapley Takemori
  • With an Afterword by the author

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Our Assessment:

B : solid thriller; interesting national-character study

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 31/5/2013 David Pilling
The Independent B+ 9/8/2013 Jonathan Gibbs
The Japan Times . 23/6/2013 Eli Kirzner
The Observer . 21/12/2013 Alexander Larman
South China Morning Post . 12/5/2013 Julian Ryall
TLS . 28/6/2013 Ben Jeffery

  From the Reviews:
  • "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 (.....) The novel reads like the psychoanalysis of an ill-at-ease nation stuck in a region it once sought to control militarily. (...) From the Fatherland is a bit too sprawling. (...) But overall, the novel moves at an exhilarating clip and is intriguing on both a narrative and a psychological level." - David Pilling, Financial Times

  • "Indeed, it might best be described as a procedural thriller, with as much time spent on detailing events inside the military and government machines on both sides as on explosive action sequences, though there are those too." - Jonathan Gibbs, The Indepenent

  • "Readers comfortable with heavy amounts of exposition will find much food for thought here, not to mention action and some dark humor." - Eli Kirzner, The Japan Times

  • "The questions Murakami raises about sovereignty and Japan's changing place in the world are dealt with as provocatively as one might hope, but readers who simply want a page-turning thriller laced with jet-black humour and a pleasing sense of the absurd are not going to be disappointed." - Alexander Larman, The Observer

  • "It all makes for compelling reading (.....) The translation reads swiftly and crisply, and retains a flavour of "Japaneseness"; they have not cluttered the text or encumbered it with over-explanation of matters that may not be immediately recognisable to a non-Japanese reader. It's a plus to be on that fine line of too much explanation that detracts from the flow of the narrative and too little, which may leave a reader not completely at home in Murakami's world." - Julian Ryall, South China Morning Post

  • "Where Murakami excels is in his sense for the obscene as a catalyst for kaleidoscopic parables about social exclusion. (...) It may sound like a slight to liken From the Fatherland to a high-grade Tom Clancy novel, and yet the relish with which Murakami goes about his geopolitical thought experiment, and the care he gives to detailing combat strategy and equipment, does invite the comparison. As a work of literary engineering, however, the book is an impressive feat." - Ben Jeffery, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A six-page guide to the novel's 'Prominent Characters' of the sort usually found at the beginning of those teeming nineteenth-century Russian novels, not those by Murakami Ryu, might already lead readers to suspect that this is not your typical Murakami novel -- but then the sheer size and heft of it already serves as warning too. Murakami has gone long-form before -- Coin Locker Babies -- but his novels that have appeared in English translation tend to be tightly focused stories of disaffected young men (with some unusual but extreme violence thrown in for good measure). Here, the cast of characters alone suggests a much more diffuse work.
       Murakami fans might be reassured to find a familiar character in the novel's opening section, 'Prologue I' (yes, this sweeping novel has more than one prologue -- followed then by two introductions, and it concludes with three Epilogues (and an Afterword, for good measure)), as Nobue, from Popular Hits of the Showa Era, appears there. A couple of decades have passed (the Showa Era ended in 1989; From the Fatherland, with Love begins in 2010), he's now 55 and currently homeless -- but, as is quickly established, not completely down and out. He's also still in touch with another character familiar from the good old days, Ishihara, whose had some success as a poet (and now presides over a rag-tag collection of the very misfit). But these familiar faces are only a part of a very elaborate story (and, indeed, Nobue's appearance turns out to be little more than a cameo).
       From the Fatherland, with Love is an ambitious novel that offers traditional Murakami-fare (especially with its quirky (meaning also: prone to violence) characters) but incorporates it into a larger, more conventional(-seeming) thriller. Not that Murakami can conform to convention for too long, but in its carefully built-up plot and elaborate structure, and unfolding in meticulously detailed description, From the Fatherland, with Love comes across more than just superficially as a fairly traditional thriller novel -- complete with over-the-top-but-with-that-grain-of-plausibility type premise.
       The premise is pretty damn good: Murakami sets the novel slightly in his future (written in 2005, the action gets going in 2011), with Japan shaken and weakened by economic crisis and the North Koreans hatching an ingenious plan to take over the metropolis of Fukuoka in Kyushu, in southern Japan. The bulk of the action, and of the book -- aside from the introductory sections and the Epilogues -- covers only the first eleven days of April, 2011. A small North Korean commando force is sent to infiltrate Fukuoka. A well-conceived initial foray -- taking a enormous group of people hostage, but without killing anyone -- provides cover allowing a larger second wave of North Korean militants to move in, and they in turn set the stage to prepare for a hundred and twenty thousand additional troops to ship over from North Korea. The unlikely plan has a ring of plausibility because the North Koreans come not as invaders but as rebels, ostensibly opponents of Dear Leader Kim Jong Il's regime -- he's gone too soft for them, they claim.
       (The situation is also a historically freighted turning of tables, as the Japanese notoriously occupied Korea not all that long ago, officially annexing it in 1910, almost exactly a century before the events in the novel.)
       The situation stymies the Japanese. Weakened by a collapsing economy, they are no longer seen as a vital nation and American support is much more lackluster than it used to be. Because the rebels -- who call themselves the Koryo Expeditionary Force -- aren't traditional invaders, it's unclear what actions the Japanese government can take internationally, in any case; in many respects, it looks (and is treated by the outside world) like an entirely domestic problem. Attacking North Korea in retaliation, for example, isn't a particularly viable option, because the Dear Leader's regime has publicly disassociated itself from the rebels (though many commentators state the obvious: that it's unlikely much of this could unfold without the full support of the North Korean government).
       The Japanese are faced with an unusual situation. As one character notes:

The only occasion in recorded history that any foreign force had tried to invade Japan were the Mongolian expeditions in the thirteenth century. The Americans in Japan at the end of World War II had been an occupying force, not an invading army.
       Positioning themselves as well-meaning occupiers, the Koryo Expeditionary Force cleverly manipulate Japanese weaknesses to establish themselves. Meanwhile, the Japanese prove ill-equipped to react, for any number of reasons -- and prove inept when they do take any action.
       A fundamental difference in character also plays an enormous role: the North Koreans have been hardened to endure anything, and have become inured to a capricious, violent world. Meanwhile:
These Japanese simply weren't used to violence; they lived in a soft, tissue-paper world.
       Japanese bureaucracy, and a culture of deference to seniority and titles (as opposed to competence and qualifications) also help doom the Japanese reaction. Unprepared for such a situation, they quickly let it get out of hand -- rather than responding decisively at any point. In wanting to avoid the bad publicity that could come with any civilian casualties they doom the entire population.
       The North Koreans are similarly rigid and hierarchical -- seniority means everything -- but their blind obedience is also marked by a willingness for complete self-sacrifice (these are soldiers who practice throwing themselves on the grenade) and an absolute ruthlessness.
       There's a countdown here: less than two weeks after the initial appearance of the Koryo Expeditionary Force on Japanese soil, the hundred-twenty thousand rebels are set to arrive -- and if that happens, it's all over for the locals. The suspense lies in the question of whether the North Korean plan can be stopped in time -- and of course Murakami has the ships and boats well underway before things come even close to any sort of resolution. As was also the case with the second wave of several hundred troops that arrived earlier, among the ironies is that the North Koreans are poorly equipped, traveling in vessels barely fit for their purposes -- and yet they threaten once proud (and militarily strong) Japan, which seems paralysed even in the face of this flimsy armada -- "ships that look as if they'll sink on their own, without any encouragement from us" (i.e. barely any action at all is needed -- and yet even that is too much to ask of the Japanese).
       From the Fatherland, with Love is a thriller, and Murakami ratchets up the suspense quite well as the days count down. But beyond that -- or, indeed, primarily -- the novel is a study of national character -- both that of the Japanese as well as of North Korea.
       The Japanese society Murakami exposes is one that has gone completely soft and hidebound, with a bureaucracy in place that facilitates large scale social control (in a way that also plays right into the hands of the North Korean's plans and helps them rapidly gain control over the local population). Here the Japanese rely on a system whose only advantage is that everyone knows their place in it -- a system that has held up because modern insular Japan faced no real outside threats, even as the system had brought the country to its knees (as evidenced by the economic collapse that Murakami extrapolates into this slightly futuristic novel (written in 2005, mainly set in 2011)). With the introduction of a completely foreign element, which doesn't play by the same passive rules, the system isn't just threatened, it's completely punctured, and deflates help- and hopelessly like the bag of wind it was.
       North Korean rigidity -- drilled into them, regardless of the toll it takes -- is similarly an Achilles' heel. North Korea is not the flip-side of the Japanese system; rather, it is perverted (and more disciplined) version of it. One reason the North Korean takeover goes so smoothly is because the two systems mesh surprisingly well -- though Japanese passivity in the face of the North Koreans' take-charge mentality certainly helps, too.
       Murakami's panoramic novel shifts between various sets of characters, from the initial troop of the Koryo Expeditionary Force to Japanese authorities to the locals of Fukuoka. The North Koreans find themselves in a foreign world -- stunned by the softness of the underwear (as opposed to the communal underwear they're used to ...) and other creature comforts, not all can withstand some of the temptations so readily available here. The Japanese, meanwhile, find themselves almost all in a state of constant appeasement, going along with whatever the North Koreans demand, while the authorities refuse to make any of the necessary hard decisions:
They didn't want a terrorist attack, but neither did they want the fleet to land -- so they just dithered over what to do.
       Officials who understand that decisive action is called for don't even bother speaking up because the system has no place for them or their concerns.
       Murakami is particularly good at showing how quickly authoritarian might can impose itself on a society that doesn't fight back. Among the creepiest scenes are how, within days, the North Koreans have set up holding cells and begun rounding up what they consider criminal elements (focusing on those who have ill-gotten gains that they can expropriate), and treat them like they do prisoners back home (i.e. not well). Certainly, Murakami means his novel to be a corrective against the prevailing, blind 'it can't happen here' attitude.
       Beyond the figures representative of these two degenerated national systems, Murakami introduces a third alternative, which brings the book back into more familiar Murakami-mode -- back to Ishihara and his band of misfits, who happen to be living in Fukuoka. These misfits are true outcasts of society -- they did not play well with others, and Ishihara has collected them here in a very unusual sort of commune. As youths, many committed horrific crimes -- murder, arson, awful stuff. They do not feel the constraints of Japanese society; indeed, they liberated themselves from these years earlier, embracing instead a very personal sort of über-nihilism. (But, under Ishihara's guidance, most of them are really into reading -- literature might not soothe the savage breast, but it does offer them something.)
       Among the misfits is one who is fascinated by dangerous insects and small animal life of that sort, and his expertise (and large collection) play a major role in taking on the Koryo Expeditionary Force; tellingly, it is nature and an anarchic group of outcasts that lead the charge against the invaders, rather than the authorities and the military.
       Ultimately, the constraints of the traditional thriller hem Murakami in a bit. There are glimpses of the over-the-top violence of Popular Hits of the Showa Era, and certainly some of his North Korean protagonists (as well as some of Ishihara's gang-members) make for examples of single-mindedly focused obsessives who are capable of extreme violence, but he's also at pains to make much of the action much more realistic -- even as you can sense him itching to break out of that mold. The balance, then, is a slightly uncomfortable one.
       From the Fatherland, with Love is quite a fascinating (and completely damning) national-character study: Japan and North Korea both are presented as societies and systems that have twisted themselves into painful, rigid knots, leaving them terribly vulnerable. Murakami set the novel slightly in the future when he wrote it, but the global financial crisis that came soon after it was published and Japan's continuing economic malaise make the Japan he writes about seem even closer to the one it has actually become; despite the death of the Dear Leader, North Korea, too still seems entirely on the same course (i.e. in its own absurd fantasy-land) Murakami has it on.
       The enormous cast of characters served as a bit of a warning at the start of the novel, and indeed Murakami perhaps spreads himself a bit too thin in following so many figures. He also doesn't quite have down the practiced pacing of the true thriller writer, making for a slightly lumpy read that doesn't quite know how to sustain suspense with the necessary constancy. But there's also a lot of insight into national character and the consequences of these for individuals here, as well as many impressive, vividly presented episodes.
       Not entirely a success, From the Fatherland, with Love is nevertheless a worthwhile big read, both thought-provoking and quite entertaining.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 May 2013

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From the Fatherland, with Love: Reviews: Other books by Murakami Ryu under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Murakami Ryu (村上 龍) is a leading Japanese author.

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© 2013-2021 the complete review

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