Tomiichi Murayama does not necessarily believe everything Antonio Inoki says when he describes the places he visits on his diplomatic missions, but the Prime Minister of Japan does continue listening to the soon-to-be-retired wrestler with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other member of his Diet. He treasures these travellers’ tales, having long given up hope of understanding the globe, of encompassing it with his mind and giving it solid form. His world is desolation: the rains, risen from the ocean in which his father toiled, which deluge the prison his Kantei home has become, the smell of damp foliage creeping up the guard tower above the palace’s left wing and of the endless starched documents that treacherous coalition partners conjure upon his desk faster than he can read them, the glint of baubles from foreign lands with which his retainers have presented him, tributes of oudhs from Arabia and golden ashtrays from the Philippines and jewels from darkest Africa sparkling in the corner of his eye as he drafts a dozen letters of condolence to the families of gas victims, eyes down, perceiving no space but the planar. Only in Antonio Inoki’s accounts is Tomiichi Murayama able to discern, through the bars of his window and the glass that will crumble to sand, returning to the dirt and the sea, the tracery of the cold lands to the north whose freezing in climate and history may yet stay the Earth’s dissolution.
If by lucky hap you are able to cross the thirty-eighth parallel and arrive in one of this world’s many zones between two nations, you will reach a village called Kijŏng-dong. You will find the meaning of its name in the planet’s lingua franca – Peace Village – to be accurate, for it is here that humankind has finally achieved Utopia, Shangri-La, Elysium, names only latterly given to this eternal dream which exceeds, traverses and creates language. The collective farms have never once produced a yield insufficient to feed the place’s inhabitants, the schools have never been forced to fail a student or enforce discipline for bad behaviour, and the hospital has proved fully equipped to deal with all the maladies that have been thrown at it, to the point that not one person has ever died there. The village’s poured concrete buildings are humble but perfectly functional, their blue roofs and white sides evoking the firmament towards which mankind has forever reached.
Outside the village stands a wall. Only on the brief occasions when those on the other side peer over do they remember that the cool blues and piercing whites are there to distract the eye from the absences Utopia requires so that it may endure. The lights turn on and off at strictly regimented intervals as an army of phantoms, paid nothing because they demand nothing, sweep the streets, and more spirits weave in and out of glassless windows, brushing past bare, uniform interiors. It does not take you long to realise that Kijŏng-dong is a village of peace because it lacks humans to disturb it, tromping the earth uneven beneath their boots, their calls and whoops breaking the still air into fractals.
The village stands empty because its population live beyond the wall. Twenty hours a day, loudspeakers urge disgruntled, bricked-in southerners to come home, but their noise does not disturb the peace. It is peace. Farmers and soldiers are implored to enjoy, to fill, to take the reins of all the delights that Kijŏng-dong has to offer. If only you would make the plunge, the voices blare, you would find a happier life free of worry, complication and ill thoughts. As with the televised, metronomic parades of arms and bodies in the country’s most visible of visible cities, projecting power through its great works, the harbinger in stone blowing the clarion call, the ship formed of dozens of red flags with people massed extraneous to their embrace, their grey hands holding the triptych of tools that guides the ideal society, an attempt at working the marks is perpetually in progress.
Yet those over the wall know what you know, what the loudspeaker messages fail to account for: that Utopia is not eternal but takes forms relative to the hetero- and the dys-, that time has reformed the edges this Potemkin village’s technologies cut at the time of its founding into a static, unitary pool. The southern exiles choose estrangement in distance and history because they perceive no need to run the risk of moving north and disturbing perfection by cultivating fallow land, dying of disease, disgracing the flag which sits in blue and white and red atop a tower five hundred and twenty-five feet tall, twisting upwards, wrought of steel, made for the sole purpose of supporting the emblem. A few yards away rises a much smaller stone obelisk, names commemorating war dead etched in chosŏn’gŭl. Here in Kijŏng-dong, the nation overshadows its people, and for some this is a responsibility too burdensome. It certainly is for you, you decide, as you trek north in search of other -topias, other topoi.
The finest military advisors in the country tell Murayama of the arcane, abstruse plots being hatched in the north, running their bony fingers over pins on crinkled maps. Because nobody quite knows the form into which the towns, cities, people and armies unite, the paper is pocked by thousands of little round perforations, scars which betray the legacy of a pox on the Earth. Yet the places that Inoki describes take on still different configurations unthought by these stiff, honourable officers. Sometimes Murayama wonders if he is being hoodwinked by this charismatic mystery from a strange world. He has been warned of the traveller’s looseness with facts, and with his own ears has heard him make outlandish claims that cannot possibly bear any resemblance to truth. Inoki fought fifteen rounds with the world heavyweight boxing champion and got the better of him, practises a new Dīn-i Ilāhī formed from equal parts Buddhism and Islam, and negotiated the safe return of hostages from the Middle East without government assistance, if he is to be believed. Murayama’s job is complex enough without more lies than are necessary, and often he has considered barring Inoki from his inner sanctum, the draughty cell constructed to keep wrongdoers out and him in. But when he attains this refuge from his ever-shifting yet deadening drudgery, and begins again to slip out of the hairline crack in the window and remember how to follow the threads of hopes, deceits, hates, delights and joyous howls of which villages, towns and cities are made, Inoki’s gestures seem to communicate words without need of speech or script, so that Murayama joins his strange interlocutor in treading the dusty, muddy, chalky, arid, watery path through the uncharted and unchartable.
Just when you begin to think that the miles of parched, patchy fields will never end, you come to Hongwŏn. Nowhere here are the missiles and monuments of the city or the border zone’s phantasmal simulacra. As you gaze up at the full moon that illuminates your path past an elm tree far more majestic than any buildings in the vicinity, something in the back of your mind tells you that you have left your own time far behind.
The country is proving a model colony; everything is going according to plan. Others will follow, Manchukuo Mengjiang Hainan, but for now this territory serves as the empire’s primary laboratory and its inhabitants the most vital subjects. Even so, Hongwŏn is so isolated as to have remained all but unmolested. In years to come, a different yoke will crush the maimed flat, but for now Juchē does not rule this land. The self-reliance, self-sustenance, self-defence, self-criticism and self-denial the ideology will one day teach are all present, but have yet to be brought under the collective aegis of the future’s eternal signifier.
A little way off the soft dirt track leading to the dark coastal sands that have brought your trudge to a temporary halt, you hear screams coming from the direction of the village thoroughfare. You begin to panic, lurid tales of colonial exploitation springing to your liberal mind, but there is a perfectly innocent explanation for the yelps and guttural howls that cut piercingly through the thud of the pounding rain, one you might discern if your eyes were to follow the robust figure of Kim Sok-Tae as he strides hurriedly, carrying hot water and towels, in the direction of a stone cube at the end of a muddy groove in the lawngrass by the road. He has left his rice paddy behind, in the care of a fitfully competent nephew, so that he may fulfil a more important duty.
The farmer thinks of the hundreds and hundreds of bags standing in his barn, their millions of grains ready to be distributed to the village’s bowls and hungry stomachs, extracted painstakingly from among coarse bran and hull, sitting there idly or spilling onto the ground through little rips in the sackcloth, without so much as a monk’s minuscule writing to differentiate them. He deals in the multiple, the mass. But today he will help to produce a singular, unique form of life, though only in the scantest way. Really, his wife will be doing all the work. A baby is on the way. He hopes.
A crowd watches Kim Sok-Tae as he opens the splintery door and disappears. The members of the gathering emit murmurs of concern. That lovely young woman has been in labour since the previous morning. Images of deformities and stillbirths flash across worried minds. Pak Kyung-Hwa, a fortysomething seamstress who lives in the big elm’s shadow, places her left hand on her midriff. Her sister grasps her shoulder and squeezes as they both pray that nothing bad will happen. Kim Sok-Tae and his wife contribute to their community’s upkeep and cheer more than most. Such a couple deserve only good fortune. Their family name is common, but out of all the Kims in Hongwŏn they are the most loved, at least for the moment.
Inside is Song Ji-Min, a stooping man bordering on the elderly with a bumpy mole the size of a twenty-sen piece on his right cheek: a physician from the capital who moved to the coast for a change of scene and has only recently begun fully to appreciate the tedium and deprivation this entails. It is not this that has occasioned his current irascibility, however. Put simply, he thought that this farrago would be over by now. Kim Chon-Gi and her part-born sprog are testing his patience.
After passing through the bare corridor that fails quite to pass for a reception room, Kim Sok-Tae enters the house’s makeshift birthing parlour. Patches of the floor are stained brown and the odour recalls his farm. His wife lies upon a table, etherisation sadly absent, her back arched in acute discomfort if not outright agony, her gradually unravelling modesty obscured only by the wispy-haired back of the good doctor’s head. He almost cries out upon seeing what appears to be smoke rising from within the womb, until he realises that Song has lit himself a cigarette again. An empty packet rests upon the desk, next to a half-empty one. Not a demon birth, thank goodness.
Kim Chon-Gi howls again. Her husband, ever dutiful, rushes over and clenches her slender arm with his free hand. Song, focused on the task in hand, remains unmoved by both.
“Come on, you little bastard.” He notices Kim Sok-Tae at his side. “Ah, you’re back from your little errand. Put those towels down there, will you? She’s shit three times already. Can’t get the damn smell out of my nostrils. But then what do you expect with all the pushing?” Song attempts a fraction of a smile, but even this much levity does not come naturally to him.
“Done. And the hot water?”
“That was really just to get you out of here for a while.”
The father-to-be frowns. Like most people in the village, he does not care for the doctor, who discharges his duties with a cold detachment that could be called professional if it did not come leavened with frequent off-colour jokes that take the genital as their primary source of humour. But Song is good at his work. And Kim Sok-Tae is starting to think that preserving his wife’s wellbeing is going to require a large amount of skill. The irregular, dull jolts of pain that characterised the first hours have abated, but she has become wracked with new cramps, her insides wrenched and twisted out of shape. No matter how many times the doctor says not to worry, it is proving impossible for Kim Sok-Tae to watch the woman he loves be split in two and not feel anguish at her growing suffering and his inability to stop it.
He asks a question he has already asked many times. “Are you positive this is normal?”
Song tears himself away from looking for signs of crowning to fix Kim Sok-Tae with his most withering glare. “No, I don’t know anything. I spent every waking moment of medical school out on the piss or at the whorehouse.” Kim Sok-Tae flushes and balls his fist, so the doctor tries a more conciliatory tone, if only because if he gets knocked unconscious then there’s no way the baby’s coming out. “Look, I won’t pretend that labour generally lasts this long. But it’s not as if the thing’s stuck in there. The early stage was a bit of an ordeal, but now she’s fully dilated, we should be able to see the head any minute. If she starts gushing blood, it’ll be time to worry. Until then, just let me do my job.”
As if the doctor’s words have summoned the child from its slumber, Kim Chon-Gi lets out an inhuman grunt and opens wider. Song emits a sigh of relief, making sure to be quiet enough for the other man not to hear. He needn’t have worried, for right now Kim Sok-Tae would not hear even an approaching tsunami until the moment it sweeps him away in its embrace. The only thing he can perceive is his child wending its way into the world.
“I can see the head! He’s got hair! Oh, he’s got hair all right!”
“If you could conduct your celebrations a little more circumspectly, I need to concentrate. Hand me another fag.”
Kim Chon-Gi screams again. Both men’s eardrums rattle.
“It’s no good just screaming, woman! You need to push!”
“You can do it, darling,” adds Kim Sok-Tae rather more tenderly. His wife only hears the doctor.
For the next half hour the thin glass in the windows shakes constantly with the noise, almost leaping from the frames and creating bare, weather-vulnerable holes of the kind that dot most other homes in the village. Kim Sok-Tae, his feeling of impotence increasing, grips his wife’s arm harder and harder until she bellows at him to stop. Song, who has become hungry and hence increasingly cranky, repeats his curt instruction to push. Kim Chon-Gi obeys, pushes, pushes and pushes some more, feels herself stretch and tear down below, until an otherworldly screech emerges from the lowest depths of her soul and the newborn slides stickily out.
The doctor scrabbles around for a tool with which to cut the umbilical cord and busily begins preparing to collect the various effluents that are sure to follow birth. The new mother pants, tears of exhaustion in her eyes, while her husband can only stare wordlessly in wonder, noting the miniature penis, at the flaky-skinned, yowling tyke that somehow, surreally, is his.
They have both talked about their wishes for their offspring. A good education, a steady occupation. Not givens around Hongwŏn by any means. More ambitiously, perhaps a notable reputation in music, art or sport. They have even sometimes hoped that their child may unite people the world over, or at least a nation that still struggles to throw off the yoke under which it cringes. Kim Chon-Gi and Kim Sok-Tae cannot foresee what destiny will ordain. But the young couple, one delirious with agony, the other delirious with disbelief, know one thing for sure.
The baby has a name. They decided ahead of time that if it was to be a boy, it would take the given name of its maternal grandfather. And so, though the exact shape of the child’s path through a poor, dangerous, ever-changing world is yet unknown, he is to forge it as Kim Sin-Rak.
I could enumerate Hongwŏn’s other sights, such as they are. I could describe what has become of it in our age. But there would be no point. It was a nondescript coastal village then, and it is one now. Although I have told of many villages, towns and cities, have hoped to delight your ears with the marvellous ways their spaces furl and unfurl, knit together and tear asunder, sometimes their geography betokens nothing. It is far less important what happens there than who happens. When great people grow up and attain greatness it is not their homelands which shape their being, cram them into conformist cubicles and break them down so that they follow the norm, but they who, through their shining example to their kinsmen, become their homelands.
Some even become the world.
Tomiichi Murayama has noticed that Antonio Inoki’s villages resemble each other, as if the passages from one to the next take place not in space but through a recapitulation of streets and themes. He has long ago lost the ability to ascertain whether they have been journeying through memory, fantasy or something in between, such is Inoki’s talent at making the most surreal inventions seem like concrete fact and the most taken-for-granted truths appear preposterous and pernicious.
One day he summons the courage to ask Inoki why his stories have begun to blur into one. Inoki smiles enigmatically, his absurdly long chin extending further towards the cold stone floor, and says: “Every time I describe a place I am saying something about Tōkyō.”
Once upon a time Murayama would have probed further, would not have been satisfied with such an opaque, suggestive answer, but he has more important things to consider and duties to undertake, as he prepares to apologise to all the planet’s nations, including his own, for the now almost fifty-year-old war that he fought but did not start. At any rate, it suits him to accept Inoki’s statement as fact, for once. Save for a few trips to the provinces, secluded behind a mass of guards and the thin surface of the political bubble, Tōkyō is the whole world as far as he is concerned. The notion that his reality mirrors actual reality comforts him.
Inoki continues to smile. “I do hope that you are not beginning to find my little tales boring, Murayama-san. It would be a shame, for we must make the most of these opportunities while they remain in our grasp. I am sure you are not too proud to recognise that your time in office will almost certainly prove as fleeting as it has been for your predecessors. Who knows, perhaps my tenure in the Diet will one day come to an end too.”
Murayama sighs. He strokes his preternaturally long and pointed eyebrows, which would bring sharpened silver blades to mind if he were not so unflappable and unthreatening. “Not at all, Inoki-san, and I hope you are not too proud to recognise when somebody is being kind enough to protect you from a tongue-lashing, against their inclination. If I seem distracted, it is because my mind has been preoccupied, as I am sure you can appreciate. Who would have known that simple words could prove so contentious? In that sense, your stories have provided me with a thorough schooling in language’s slipperiness and intransigence. I find it infuriating. If I offer a statement that appears too conciliatory, the Liberal Democrats are at my throat like wolves. If I bow to their wishes, my own party starts making plans to stab me in the back. If I am perceived not to be writing with a sufficient quantity of Lord Buddha’s spirit within my heart, the damn Kōmeitō start moaning. I’m long past my wit’s end, so you will forgive me if I show little interest in the birth of some Korean brat.”
Inoki strokes his cheek thoughtfully. Then he speaks. “I am surprised, Murayama-san. The answer is surely simple. Do not apologise at all.”
Murayama throws his head back and laughs a disbelieving cackle. “I am sure you think that to be the easy way out of my predicament, but it is in fact the most difficult. Impossible, even. The world expects an apology from us. It always will, and it always should.”
Inoki remains stony-faced. “If an apology is expected then it is no apology at all, but rather an unwilled capitulation. And who genuflects most but the one who delivers it? Both our houses can debate the exact wording all they like, with vigour and rancour and glee. They know they are only cogs in a machine. They will never have to speak the words, but you will. The duty will fall on your shoulders, and will they be broad enough?
“Events happened which we may regret. But never apologise, not even if you think you should, or know you should. The world must move beyond the past, reach into the future arm in arm. This is what I have been attempting to tell you all this time. We two are one, all the world is one, all its people and villages and cities are one. The West and the East, the North and the South. The centre and the periphery. If it is not out of place to say so.”
Even Inoki’s wildest yarns have contained at least a few sparse grains of plausibility. But this is the first time he has failed utterly to convince. Murayama feels profoundly betrayed. The stories, the scant pockets of wonder that dotted his tedious, toil-filled life, were in fact vehicles to sneak some cheap universalist platitudes into his mind via the back door. He politely but firmly asks Inoki to leave. The MP looks crushed, but Murayama remains adamant. Besides, the hurt expression might be another deception. These wrestlers are adept at making a pantomime of pain.
After closing the door, Murayama sits back down in his chair, stares at the barred window for a minute or two, then begins again to read. No astonishment here, but duty, which ultimately carries more meaning.
Outside, a tiny bird pecks idly at the glass pane. The heavens open and rain batters him. He flies away.