I bring you a book by an author who’s already visited my blog and left a lasting impression. Here it is:
Return to Hiroshima by Bob Van Laerhoven
1995, Japan struggles with a severe economic crisis. Fate brings a number of people together in Hiroshima in a confrontation with dramatic consequences. Xavier Douterloigne, the son of a Belgian diplomat, returns to the city, where he spent his youth, to come to terms with the death of his sister. Inspector Takeda finds a deformed baby lying dead at the foot of the Peace Monument, a reminder of Hiroshima’s war history. A Yakuza-lord, rumored to be the incarnation of the Japanese demon Rokurobei, mercilessly defends his criminal empire against his daughter Mitsuko, whom he considers insane. And the punk author Reizo, obsessed by the ultra-nationalistic ideals of his literary idol Mishima, recoils at nothing to write the novel that will “overturn Japan’s foundations”…
Hiroshima’s indelible war-past simmers in the background of this ultra-noir novel. Clandestine experiments conducted by Japanese Secret Service Unit 731 during WWII become unveiled and leave a sinister stain on the reputation of the imperial family and the Japanese society as a whole.
PRAISE FOR RETURN TO HIROSHIMA:
Van Laerhoven’s Return to Hiroshima might well be the most complex Flemish crime novel ever written.
Fred Braekman, De Morgen, Belgium
A complex and grisly literary crime story which among other things refers to the effects of the nuclear attack on Japan.
Linda Asselbergs, Weekend, Belgium
Van Laerhoven skillfully creates the right atmosphere for this drama. As a consequence, the whole book is shrouded in a haze of doom. Is this due to Hiroshima itself, a place burdened with a terrible past? Or is the air of desperation typical for our modern society
Jan Haeverans, Focus Magazine, Belgium
Van Laerhoven won the Hercule Poirot Prize with Baudelaire’s Revenge. You’ll understand why after reading Return to Hiroshima
Eva Krap, Banger Sisters
About the author:
Bob van Laerhoven was born on August 8th, 1953 in the sandy soil of Antwerp’s Kempen, a region in Flanders (Belgium), bordering to The Netherlands, where according to the cliché ‘pig-headed clodhoppers’ live. This perhaps explains why he started to write stories at a, particularly young age. A number of his stories were published in English, French, German, Spanish and Slovenian.
Van Laerhoven made his debut as a novelist in 1985 with “Nachtspel – Night Game.” He quickly became known for his ‘un-Flemish’ style: he writes colourful, kaleidoscopic novels in which the fate of the individual is closely related to broad social transformations. His style slowly evolved in his later novels to embrace more personal themes while continuing to branch out into the world at large. International flair has become his trademark.
Bob Van Laerhoven became a full-time author in 1991. The context of his stories isn’t invented behind his desk, rather it is rooted in personal experience. As a freelance travel writer, for example, he explored conflicts and trouble-spots across the globe from the early 1990s to 2004. Echoes of his experiences on the road also trickle through in his novels. Somalia, Liberia, Sudan, Gaza, Iran, Mozambique, Burundi, Lebanon, Iraq, Myanmar… to name but a few.
During the Bosnian war, Van Laerhoven spent part of 1992 in the besieged city of Sarajevo. Three years later he was working for MSF – Doctors without frontiers – in the Bosnian city of Tuzla during the NATO bombings. At that moment the refugees arrived from the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica. Van Laerhoven was the first writer from the Low Countries to be given the chance to speak to the refugees. His conversations resulted in a travel book: “Srebrenica. Getuigen van massamoord – Srebrenica. Testimony to a Mass Murder.” The book denounces the rape and torture of the Muslim population of this Bosnian-Serbian enclave and is based on first-hand testimonies. He also concludes that mass murders took place, an idea that was questioned at the time but later proven accurate.
All these experiences contribute to Bob Van Laerhoven’s rich and commendable oeuvre, an oeuvre that typifies him as the versatile author of novels, travel stories, theatre pieces, biographies, non-fiction, letters, columns, articles… He is also a prize-winning author: in 2007 he won the Hercule Poirot Prize for best crime novel of the year with “De Wraak van Baudelaire – Baudelaire’s Revenge.” “Baudelaire’s Revenge” has been published in the USA, France, Canada, the Netherlands, Belgium. Russian and Italian translations are in the making. In 2014, a second French translation of one of his titles has been published in France and Canada. “Le Mensonge d’Alejandro” is set in a fictitious South-American dictatorship in the eighties. The “junta” in this novel is a symbol for the murderous dictatorships in South-America (Chile and Argentine, to mention two)during the seventies and beginning of the eighties. In The Netherlands and Belgium, his novel “De schaduw van de Mol” (The Shadow Of The Mole) was published in November 2015. The novel is set in the Argonne-region of France in 1916. An English translation of the novel will be available in the US in 2017.
“Baudelaire’s Revenge” is the winner of the USA BEST BOOK AWARDS 2014 in the category Fiction: mystery/suspense.
In April 2015 The Anaphora Literary Press published the collection of short stories “Dangerous Obsessions” in the US, Australia, the UK, and Canada, in paperback, e-book, and hardcover. “Dangerous Obsessions” was voted “best short story collection of 2015 in The San Diego Book Review. In May 2017, Месть Бодлерa, the Russian edition of “Baudelaire’s Revenge” was published. “Dangerous Obsessions” has been published in 2017 in Italian, Portuguese, and Swedish editions. Spanish and Chinese translations will follow in 2018.
Thanks to the author for providing me a paperback copy of the book that I freely chose to review.
I read and reviewed Baudelaire’s Revenge some time ago (you can check that review here) and I was fascinated and intrigued by it, so I did not think twice when the author told me he had published a new novel. Van Laerhoven’s work has won awards, been translated into several languages, and he has a unique voice that stays with the reader long after finishing the book. I don’t mean the stories and the plots of his books are not interesting (they are fascinating), but the way he writes about the historical period his stories are set in, and the characters he follows and analyses are distinct and unforgettable. His words are, at once, poetic and harsh, and they perfectly convey both, the utmost beauty and the extremes of cruelty and dejection that can be found in human beings.
When I reread my previous review, while I was preparing to write this one, I realised that much of what I had written there (apart from the specifics about the plot and the characters) applied also to this book. The author once more writes historical fiction, although this time it is closer to our era. The main action takes place in Japan in 1995, although, as the title might make us suspect, the story also goes back to 1945 (and even before) and towards the end of the book we have scenes set in that period, with all that involves.
The story is mostly narrated in the third person from the points of view of a variety of characters, a police inspector (who has to investigate the murder of a baby, a strange attack at a bank with a large number of casualties, and a bizarre assault on a tourist), a female photographer, a young man and a young woman members of a strange sect, a strange man/God/demon (who is more talked about than actually talking, although we get access to his memories at some point). There are also fragments narrated by a woman, who is in hiding when we first meet her, and whose identity and mental state will keep readers on tenterhooks.
Apart from the mystery elements and from the bizarre events, which at first seem disconnected but eventually end up by linking all the characters, I noticed some common themes. Families, family relationships, and in particular relationships between fathers and sons and daughters, take centre stage. The inspector’s search for his father and how that affects his life, the young woman’s relationship with her father, at the heart of the whole plot, the photographer’s relationship with her father, another famous photographer, and her attempts at finding her own identity as an artist… While some characters seem totally amoral (perhaps because they believe they are beyond usual morality), others are trying to deal with their guilt for things that they did or did not do. Some of the characters might feel too alien for readers to empathise with, but others experience emotions and feelings fully recognisable, and we feel sad for some of them at the end, but relieved for others. The claustrophobic and pressured atmosphere running against the background of the atomic bomb and its aftermath are perfectly rendered and help give the story an added layer of tension and depth.
This is a book of extremes and not an easy read. Although the language used is lyrical and breath-taking at times, there are harsh scenes and cruel behaviours described in detail (rape, drug use, torture, violence), so I would not recommend it to people who prefer to avoid such kinds of reading. I’ve seen it described as horror, and although it does not easily fit in that genre, in some ways it is far more unsettling and scarier than run-of-the-mill horror. This novel probes the depths of the human psyche and its darkest recesses, and you’ll follow the author there at your own peril.
I wanted to share some samples I highlighted that should not provide any spoilers for those thinking about reading it:
Books protected me from reality. I remember them as a choir of pale shapes, sometimes hysterical, other times comforting, vividly prophetic, or disquieting, like a piano being played in the dark. I’ve always been convinced that stories influence the mind: they haunt regions of the brain where reason has lost its way.
This one I find particularly relevant to this book (and I think most writers would know perfectly well what it’s getting at):
“Writers are like God. They love their characters, but take pleasure in the suffering they put them through. They torment themselves through the puppets they create and in the midst of the torment they discover a sort of rage, the rage you need to create. There’s a lot of sadomasochism in the universe and literature has its own fair share.”
Here, one of the characters talks about how she feels when she is depressed:
Her malady gave her the impression that the buildings and the people she saw were nothing more than pixels of energy bundled together by an insane artist who could shift around the worlds inside him like pieces of chess.
This ‘ultra-noir’ novel, as the blurb aptly describes it, is an extraordinary read, but is not a book for somebody looking for a typical genre thriller with slightly twisted characters. This is far darker than most of the thrillers I’ve read. But don’t let that put you off. As I said in my previous review of another one of the author’s novels, ‘if you’re looking for a complex and challenging historical novel and don´t shrink from dark subjects, this is a pretty unique book.’
Thanks to the author for his book, thanks to all of you for reading and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, and keep smiling!