Over the past few months I have repeatedly made weak apologies for the fact that things have been quiet on the blog, and today I'm glad to be sharing one of the reasons why that has been the case. For a while now my reading time has been largely consumed by this epic tale of alternative dystopian reality and its huge cast of characters, each with their own intricate back story. It's been completely immersive and has left me with little time or inclination to read much else, and now that it's finished I'm left trying to pick apart its many facets to try and explain coherently everything I loved about it. Where to start?
The plot is in equal parts absurd and chillingly plausible; the fallout from the economic crisis has well and truly shaken up the global political landscape, the dollar has completely collapsed, and it's a case of every country for himself. Japan is suffering a steep decline, effectively abandoned by former allies such as the USA. The country finds homelessness and unemployment on the rise, with vast expanses of land turned into shanty towns of citizens with nowhere else to go. Seeing an opportunity to profit from their neighbour's vulnerability, North Korea launches an invasion - initially a small band of highly trained officers take over Fukuoka baseball stadium, but before long troops have arrived in their thousands. There are small undercurrents of resistance among the local residents, but how can they stand a chance against the full weight of the North Korean army?
This is an incredibly complex book. Murakami has thoroughly explored the minutiae of this alarming situation from every aspect. We see the Japanese government as they bumble and panic to try and decide on a response to the situation that is neither too weak nor too offensive. We learn about the effects that the invasion has on small businesses, on healthcare provision, on the local media. I was amazed to realise how easy it might be for a bunch of crooks to take advantage of social security numbers and information held in goverment records to completely take over a community.
Perhaps the most interesting for me was to read about the attitudes and experiences of the North Korean soldiers on arriving in this alien environment. It was fascinating to consider how things we take for granted in a Westernised society might seem totally bizarre to an outsider. For example, a complementary packet of tissues given away to customers of a taxi company is seen as unbelievably decadent to the occupying troops, as are the mass-produced white t-shirts and jeans that line the shelves of the Fukuoka shops. I found myself reading about the harsh upbringings that these soldiers had endured and feeling quite sympathetic towards them despite the brutality they unleash on the defenceless Japanese community. I'm not sure how realistic a picture Murakami has painted of life in North Korea - how much can we truly be sure lies behind the facade that they present to the rest of the world? - but it definitely made me pause for thought.
I really hope this doesn't make it sound like a dry political analysis because it most definitely isn't! One of the things I loved most about it was this feisty, punkish spirit behind the narrative. It's odd to describe it this way, because the premise is so disturbingly convincing and really just plain scary, but it is a fun book and Murakami's attention to quirky details repeatedly put a smile on my face. It is as fast-paced as a bestselling thriller in places, but precise and thoughtful in others. It has been a long time since I've read such an intelligent novel. I feel it's really shaken me out of a bit of a reading slump and put me in the mood to seek out more fresh, innovative stories.