On Genocidal Organ

The cover.

The first time I heard about this novel I was like “is it about a dude whose kidney popped out of him and started killing people?”. Genocidal Organ (Gyakusatsu Kikan) by Itou Keikaku, an award-winning SF writer. It was his literary debut, published in 2007, made into an animated film ten years later – one of a whole trilogy of Itou adaptations, alongside Harmony and Shisha no Teikoku. It was published in English in 2012 by everybody’s favorite label dedicated to nerdy Japanese fiction, Haikasoru.

Itou Keikaku is a bit of a big deal. He was honored with the Seiun award for his Harmony in 2009 and his career could have become more impressive if he didn’t die of cancer at the young age of 34. He was writing to the very end – he left behind an unfinished novel titled Shisha no Teikoku, which was then finished by Enjou Tou. In 2014, when the film trilogy was announced (which already speaks volumes about his importance), he was being presented as a genius. But is he really a genius? What if it’s a case of people claiming he’s one just because he died a sad death? That’s not unheard of. Maybe it’s only marketing? Guess we’ll find out. My first contact with the story was the film, in October 2017, but I’ve also read the novel twice, so I feel like the adaptation doesn’t really color my perception of the book in any way anymore. I got through the novel for the first time in March 2019 and then decided that writing something about it wouldn’t be a bad idea, and so, several days ago I started a reread of Genocidal Organ with writing this post in mind.

If I were to summarize this 300 pages-long novel, it goes like this. Near future, an unspecified year. Clavis Shepherd, an erudite and a near-future supersoldier is chasing a person called John Paul around the world. John Paul is a PR specialist with a secret – wherever he appears, civil wars break out. Genocidal Organ is a bit of a puzzle of a novel. Not in the usual murder mystery kind of way, though. It’s about figuring out what’s happening and for what purpose.

If you watched the trailer for the movie based on Genocidal Organ, you’d be under the impression that in the book’s world, there was a fictional terrorist attack which transformed the global order forever: Muslim terrorists destroyed Sarajevo with a homemade A-bomb. Doesn’t it sound all kinds of familiar? In the novel, however, your attention is not diverted from the elephant in the room: it’s about 9/11 from the very start. Sarajevo does happen in the novel as well, but gets introduced later and is of smaller importance. I feel like what the film did was a maneuver aiming to avoid controversy. Which is bad! I want controversy! I don’t want insincere, lukewarm shit from my fiction. They could have thrown the Sarajevo plotline out completely and the story would only benefit from it, becoming more genuine. Nothing adds more epicness to a narrative than historical truth. Anyway, Genocidal Organ is many things, but one of them is a vision of the world after the unprecedented terrorist attack on New York on September 11th 2001. That means the surveillance state, but not only that. Clavis might be a soldier, but he’s not a private, one of a whole mass of troops sent by his homeland, the United States, to wars around the globe. Because that doesn’t happen much anymore. He’s more of an assassin. A special ops person. After the States were attacked on their soil, they decided it’s time to get serious about war. No more halfassing, like during the War on Drugs. Instead of mobilizing the whole army, they now send only a handful of commandos to Third World countries they deem threatening with the objective of decapitating the enemy state by killing only one person at the top of the command chain, to avoid a large-scale conflict. Clavis is one of the executors of this new way of making war.

There’s a scene in chapter two in which Clavis and his fellow supersoldier Williams watch Saving Private Ryan, eat pizza and drink Bud while having a blase-sounding conversation about war and about how they’re a bunch of stereotypical stupid Americans who understand nothing of the world. In the film, they’re watching a game of American football instead. In this story, America is its usual self-righteous self. After 9/11, it completely and shamelessly embraced the role of “the world’s policeman”. Where there’s fire, Uncle Sam goes to extinguish it. And he doesn’t care to make excuses about it anymore – lines about “protecting American interests” even where there are none don’t even appear in the novel. The bit with the pizza is symbolic to the novel’s rather scathing portrayal of the United States. However, it doesn’t do it the way a Japanese author would usually do. It isn’t done from the perspective of Japanese nationalism. What’s more, nothing is ever done from a typical Japanese perspective in Genocidal Organ, praise be to Itou-sensei. Japan makes some cameo apperances, but other than that, the protag and the happenings in the story have nothing to do with Itou Keikaku’s homeland. It feels fresh, but I can’t imagine the author made a lot of money off this book. And don’t get me started on the film.

Shepherd’s first mission is to be dropped from a plane in an unspecified post-Soviet country to take out two people – a minister of defense and his press secretary. There, an unlikely civil war between Christians and Muslims broke out suddenly after decades of peace. In the film, the country was Georgia. Meanwhile, in the novel, it was… nothing in particular – no country fits the description, really. Clavis successfully assassinates the minister who, asked why he started the civil war, says he doesn’t know himself. Weird. Seems like he was manipulated somehow. Meanwhile his press secretary, an American named John Paul, isn’t even there. After this partial success, Clavis is sent on a search-and-kill operation in Prague. Turns out the Americans had their sights on John Paul for a while. He’s travelling from one country to another and seems to have some kind of power that causes bloody internal conflicts wherever he stops for a longer while… He’ll need to be taken out. In Prague, Clavis assumes the guise of a tourist and, under the pretense of wanting to learn some Czech, comes in contact with Lucia – an acquaintance of John Paul’s, if the intel can be believed.

Genocidal Organ is generously sprinkled with nerdy knowledge. Trivia and deliberations on all kinds of topics, ones you probably know and some that might seem fresh to you. It’s particularly interested in linguistics. For example, Clavis has conversations with Lucia about the Czech language and the meme claiming the Eskimos have a bazillion words for snow. All those language-related trivia are there to foreshadow what the titular genocidal organ is. We slowly learn that while John Paul was working for a governmental agency, he discovered a way to slip something, “grammatical patterns”, into publicly distributed messages that makes people kill each other. He thoroughly researched his new trick and put it to use – that’s how he causes genocide and that’s why the US wants him dead. As an accomplished linguist, he offers Third World countries his help, becomes involved with their media, and then poisons the nation’s minds unnoticed. It works like subliminal messaging. After he’s done making one country fall into homicidal amok, he goes to another. I have to say, though… all the linguistic trivia ultimately mean nothing. The genocidal organ is just a thinly explained thingy that makes people kill. All those bits about semantic bleaching and the Sapir-Whorf theory are meaningless. Or maybe I just don’t understand what Itou-sensei is trying to tell me. Does he believe the “grammar of genocide” is real? I don’t think so, even Clavis himself is incredulous. And if he doesn’t believe so, why did he write about all the linguistic stuff meant to explain it? For a while I even expected Genocidal Organ to end at an eyeroll-inducing platitude of an aesop like “actually, words can kill”. That would be disappointing. That’s not what happened, though.

Then, Shepherd experiences some more adventures during the pursuit of John Paul, like talking to freedom fighters resisting the surveillance state in Prague, being on a derailed train in India and landing at the banks of Lake Victoria (the ecological disaster of the lake gets a fictional continuation here). It’s all there to paint the picture of a bleak, dystopian future world divided clearly into the First World and the Third World. The lavish Burgerland and the poor rest of the world, exploited so that the rich can have their burgers fast, cheap and convenient. Clavis Shepherd finally finds his antagonist and asks him the big question the reader had probably been asking themselves the whole book. Why is John Paul causing genocides in Third World countries? Turns out the linguist lost his family in the Sarajevo incident and decided to prevent it from happening again. He says “why not make them hate each other?”. If the Third World is busy fighting its civil wars, it will stay away from the First World, the people who truly deserve their hatred. You could say that Clavis and John Paul ultimately wanted the same thing. A shocking, genuinely surprising conclusion which redeems the whole book. In the end, the Lord of Genocide dies, but Clavis inherits his notes and puts them to use against the United States in the epilogue.

Nice. For the longest time I’d thought a satisfying conclusion to the story just ain’t happening. But it did. Genocidal Organ was a pretty damn good novel. A solid 8/10. From what I’ve seen/read of Itou Keikaku, that’s his best work. In case you’re wondering if you should watch the film instead of reading the book… I advise against it. This story just works better as a literary work. It wants you to stop and think about the ideas it’s densely filled with. It’s definitely not something you can passively sit through – now that I’m thinking of it, making those three movies out of his bibliography probably wasn’t such a great idea. The film is physically unable to focus properly on the mass of intellectual content the book is trying to serve you. Genocidal Organ is all about the food for thought, after all. And if that’s so… what are you waiting for? Read it!

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