March 1995. On the tumbledown, deserted mining-island of Hashima, lying in front of Nagasaki, the pregnant girl Mitsuko flees to the mainland to escape her dominant father, a Japanese yakuza-boss with a giant, deformed body who carries the mythical nick-name Rokurobei, the Lord of Lies. Mitsuko, herself two meters tall, is considered by the people on the mainland as being a hibakusha, a descendant of the second generation of parents, deformed by the nuclear bomb “Little Boy” in 1945.
Mitsuko travels to Hiroshima and makes an appointment with the private clinic of dr. Kanehari to give birth. In strange circumstances, dr. Kanehari comes to the conclusion that she isn’t pregnant but suffers from pseudocyesis, phantom pregnancy.
Totally confused after this news, Mitsuko roams the streets of Hiroshima, where she meets the girl Yori, a young street-peddler. Yori introduces Mitsuko to the Suicide Club, a group of youthful Japanese outcasts, living together like a sect in a squatted old warehouse.
Inspector Takeda finds a malformed embalmed corpse of a baby under the Monument of Peace in Hiroshima. Soon, Takeda follows clues which made him suspect that this mysterious event is linked to the experiments of the Secret Unit 731 during WWII. His superior, commissioner Takamatsu, reacts viciously to this hypothesis. A day later, a gas-attack kills the board members of an important investment bank in Hiroshima. Takamatsu immediately takes Takeda off the case of the embalmed baby corpse. Takeda must take part in a police task-force that investigates the deadly bank robbery.
Xavier Douterloigne, son of a Belgian diplomat who worked for years in Japan, returns to Hiroshima to mourn his beloved sister who died in weird circumstances in Flanders. He too meets the street-peddler Yori. The two young people like each other quickly – like young people often do – and end up in a restaurant. Xavier and Yori don’t know that Yori’s boyfriend Reizo Shiga, leader of the Suicide Club and also an adept of the radical sect of the Fraternity of Aum Shinrikyo, is stalking them. When they leave the restaurant, Reizo, high on drugs, abducts Xavier and locks him up in a van. In his delusionary state, he wants to “experiment” on Xavier with the fatal bite of a Irukandji, a poisonous yelly-fish, in order to describe with “subtle delicacy” Xavier’s death agony in a “terrifying novel that will change the Japanese society.” It’s Shiga’s obsession to outperform the Japanese cult-author Mishima with a “senseless deed of violence”. Psychotic as he is, Reizo truly believes that his novel-to-be will spur the young Japanese to a massive uprising against the old social structures.
Another foreign visitor of Hiroshima is the German “gothic” photographer Beate Becht who wants to publish a photo book about Hiroshima 50 years after the Bomb. In her hotel room, Beate has seen a picture of the malformed baby found under the Monument of Peace in a magazine. She links that photo to a photograph of a baby corpse 50 years earlier, in one of her father’s – a famous war photographer in his time – photo-books, taken shortly after the nuclear explosion in Hiroshima. Both the corpses wear the tattoo of a chrysanthemum on their heel, the Japanese emperor’s symbol of royal divinity.
During an evening stroll, Beate discovers the van with the very sick Xavier. With the help of Yori, Beate takes Xavier to a hospital where he sinks in a deep coma.
The tattoo on the baby-corpse has not escaped the attention of Hiroshima’s medical examiner, dr. Adachi, who informs his friend inspector Takeda, although Takeda has been taken off the case by commissioner Takamatsu. Takeda, not wanting to give up the case, has in his free time been able to link the bank attack and the dead baby to experiments of the Secret Unit 731 during WWII. He discovers that the murdered bank-CEO is a member of the Shiga-family to which also a famous economy expert belongs (later, it will turn out that the CEO is Reizo Shiga’s uncle) But Takamatsu don’t want to hear his theories. Takeda gets humiliated and this time assigned to a “minor task for beginners”: the investigation of the murder attempt on the Belgian Tourist Xavier Douterlogne. Takeda’s dogged investigation puts him in contact with the German photographer Beate Becht.
Meanwhile, via flashbacks of earlier years, the reader realizes that Mitsuko, who’s still hiding from her father in the Suicide Club, suffers from hallucinations and delusions. She believes that Rokurobei has killed her mother, her wet nurse and a young man from one of Rokurobei ship’s crews who was in love with her. Mitsuko is further convinced that Rokurobei raped her and that he’s the father of her imaginary child.
When Mitsuko fled from the island, she took with her documents claiming that Rokurobei is in fact crown prince Norikazu, the firstborn son of Emperor Hirohito and a courtesan in 1927. Because of malformations and general weakness, the baby was meant to die, but the court physician experimented on it with growth hormones(taken from cattle and dead prisoners at that time) and ancient Chinese longevity concoctions. Norikazu survived -although deformed as a result of the massive doses of growth hormone-, but was not acknowledged by his father as crown prince and withdrew himself in the shady depths of Japanese Society. Over the years, he assembled a group of fanatical followers – the Yuzonsha – and identified himself more and more with the classic Japanese demon Rokurobei while expanding his criminal activities as a Yakuza-boss.
Among the documents Mitsuko took with her, there was also a report Norikazu wrote as the head of the Japanese Secret Unit 731 – his father wanted him away from his court and had appointed him – that performed merciless experiments on Chinese war prisoners to produce the “Next Human”.
But…Are the documents genuine? Later on in the novel, Rokurobei reveals that he’s sterile as a consequence of the treatments he received shortly after his birth. According to him, Mitsuko is the daughter of a Japanese colonel who, after WWII, tried to look after the tragic crown prince. When the colonel died when Mitsuko was just a two months old, Rokurobei decided to raise Mitsuko as his own daughter. He treated her with the same cocktail of growth hormones and other ingredients that Unit 731 had concocted. The result is that Mitsuko suffers from acromegaly and is mentally sick.
Is this the truth? Remember: Rokurobei means “Lord of Lies”.
Yori, who has helped Xavier Douterloigne escape from Reizo’s deadly “experiment”, fears the revenge of her boyfriend and decides to escape from the Suicide Club. She steals Mitsuko’s documents in the hope that they can be sold for a lot of money and runs off to Beate Becht’s hotel. Together, Beate and Mitsuko contact inspector Takeda for help.
Rokurobei has followed Mitsuko’s trail to Hiroshima to retrieve his secret documents. With his Yuzonsha, he kills people who have somehow been connected to the case, like dr. Kanehari and dr. Adachi. Takeda is next on the list, but with the help of Beate Becht, he can escape. With the assistance of commissioner Takamatsu, who turns out to be a minion of the Yuzonsha, the yakuza-gang kills Takeda’s wife and blame the murder on him. Pursued by the police, Takeda realizes the possible importance of the documents – if they are genuine – and wants to deliver them in Tokyo to the Public Security Commission to prove his innocence.
When the adepts of the Fraternity of Aum Shinrikyo hear – via a video-message from the Blessed One Shoko Asahara – that they have to be on the look-out for a “deformed giant woman”, Reizo Shiga realizes that the daughter of Rokurobei is the strange tall woman that hides in the squatter building of the Suicide Club. He overpowers Mitsuko but instead of delivering her to the Fraternity, he locks her up in a maintenance cabin of Hiroshima’s small metro. Still ecstatic about his “literary” project, he forces her to write down her life-story, so that he can include that “incredible tale” in his still to be written novel.
Rokurobei finds Reizo before the young drug-addict has had the chance to see what Mitsuko, tied with her left hand to the wall, is writing in her “underground cellar.” Meanwhile, the reader has learned that Reizo’s uncle, the murdered bank CEO, was implicated in the laundering of Yuzonsha-money derived from sales of art items of the “Golden Lily”, hidden treasures of Japan’s war-loot. He withheld parts of the money. The result was his execution under the guise of a bank-robbery. True to old yakuza-ways, Rokurobei won’t rest before all close members of the Riga-family are killed. He forces Reizo to commit seppuku, the ritual suicide. Before he dies, with his last breath, Reizo triumphantly murmurs in Rokurobei’s face that he has locked up Mitsuko, and no one knows where.
Very frustrated and angry, unable to find his daughter, Rokurobei chases Yori and Beate. To save her life, Beate betrays the whereabouts of Takeda who has fled to Tokyo and admits that Takeda will hand the documents to the authorities. Unwilling to kill a foreigner and thus attract more unwanted attention to himself, Rokurobei proposes Beate Brecht a deal…
It turns out that Yori is a hibakusha, the daughter of survivors of the Atom Bomb. Her right hand is deformed and resembles a claw. She always hid that hand by wearing gloves all the time. Rokurobei, convinced that Mitsuko is dead, accepts her as his “new” daughter.
To retrieve his documents, Rokurobei sets up a sarin attack on the subway train Takeda is taking in Tokyo to reach the Public Security Commission. A lot of people die to hide the fact that the terror attack was only meant to kill Takeda and to retrieve the briefcase with the documents. It is ripped from Takeda’s dying hands by a member of Aum Shinrikyo.
Days later, two subway workers find the corpse of a giant woman in the storage room, chained to the wall with one hand. With the other, the woman, who apparently has died from thirst, has scribbled a lot of text on a heap of paper sheets…in an unreadable language of her own invention.
Back in Germany, Beate Becht publishes a series of strongly noticed pictures of a strange island, a giant and his daughter, in the great German weekly Stern. The series is a huge success but everyone believes that the pictures are staged and that Rokurobei and Yori don’t really exist and certainly don’t dwell on the deserted island of Hashima.
Xavier Douterloigne recovers from his poisonous bite and comes to terms with the death of his sister for which he thinks he’s responsible.
Inspector Takeda has, against all odds, survived the sarin-attack, but his brain is damaged, his limbs are paralyzed and he has lost his speech…
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Globetrotter and writer
BORN WITH SAND BETWEEN HIS TOES
Bob van Laerhoven was born on August 8th 1953 in the sandy soil of Antwerp’s Kempen, 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, 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 2005. Echoes of his experiences on the road also trickle through in his novels. Somalia, Liberia, Sudan, Gaza, Iran, 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, books for young adults, theatre pieces, biographies, poetry, non-fiction, letters, columns, articles… He is also a prize-winning author: in 2007 he won the Hercule Poirot Prize for best thriller of the year with his novel De Wraak van Baudelaire – Baudelaire’s Revenge. In 2013, the French translation “La Vengeance de Baudelaire” was published in France and in Canada. The English translation “Baudelaire’s Revenge” was edited in the US in 2014. Also in 2014 came the publication in France and in Canada of “Le Mensonge d’Alejandro”, a second novel (Alejandro’s leugen – Alejandro’s Lie) in French translation. “Baudelaire’s Revenge” won the USA Best Book Award 2014 in the category “mystery/suspense”. In 2015, the short story collection “Dangerous Obsessions” appeared in the US. The collection was voted “best short story collection of 2015” by the San Diego Book Review. Translations were published in Swedish, Italian, and Brazilian (Portuguese). Spanish and Chinese translations are in the works. “Месть Бодлера,” the Russian edition of “Baudelaire’s Revenge” came on the market in 2017. “Return to Hiroshima,” the English translation of his novel “Terug naar Hiroshima” is published in 2018 by the Crime Wave Press in Hongkong. Also in 2018, The Anaphora Literary Press edited Laerhoven’s second short story collection “Heart Fever” in the US. “Retour à Hiroshima,” the French translation of “Return to Hiroshima” is recently finished.