The "other" Murakami – Ryu, rather than the marginally older Haruki – is best known in the UK for short, sharp novels like In The Miso Soup and Audition, books that dig away at a contemporary Japanese culture obsessed with youth, sex and violence, and familiar to us through manga, anime and horror films.
From The Fatherland, With Love is a rather different proposition, a long and closely-written narrative about a fictional North Korean invasion of the Japanese island of Kyushu, in April 2011. It runs to over 600 pages, with multiple prologues, introductions and epilogues, and a six-page list of principal characters – the kind of thing you might expect from Tom Clancy or Frederick Forsyth. 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.
With a belligerent North Korea in the news – a regime that would be funny if it weren't so scary, if not vice versa – the book (first published in 2005) might seem particularly timely. In Murakami's then speculative, now counter-factual fiction, Japan is ripe for attack after a near-total economic collapse leaves it spurned on the global stage. The invasion strategy is simple. First a squad of ten crack soldiers take a baseball game hostage in Fukuoka, then 500 more are flown in to occupy the city, with a flotilla of 120,000 to follow in a week. Faced with a self-proclaimed "rebel expeditionary force" intent on setting up an independent state on the island, the Japanese authorities lurch between paralysis and panic, sending in a tiny, ill-prepared anti-terrorist unit that only makes things worse.
If Murakami's book is in part a critique of how Japanese stoicism can tip over into passivity, that is borne out by the disaster that did hit the country in the spring of 2011: the earthquake, tsunami and subsequent meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. The dithering and kneejerk misinformation that characterises the response of politicians and bureaucrats in the novel could equally have applied there. Murakami treats the North Koreans as anything but caricatures, brutally efficient killers though they are. He is interested in what life under such a regime does to you, and he lavishes attention on the soldiers' memories of home, and on their astonished reaction to Japan - even the softness of the underwear.
The one element that could have stepped out of Murakami's previous novels is the gang of outcast teenagers who form the only real response to the invaders. Their counterattack, involving motorcycles, high-end weaponry, explosives and thousands of poisonous insects, provides a fittingly cinematic finale, but they are the most one-dimensional thing here. There is so much else that resonates, and the team of translators who put it all in unfussy English prose – Ralph McCarthy, Charles de Wolf and Ginny Tapley Takemori – have done their author and his ambitions proud.