The term “historical novel” usually arouses images of 18th-century swashbuckling. Sweden, however, is a historical novel set much closer to our own time. According to the official record, more than half a million American servicemen attempted to desert during the Vietnam War. Most were simply seeking an early return to their former lives, which made them easy to track down, and the overwhelming majority quickly ended up back under military control. A few, though, were so opposed to what the military was requiring them to do that they were prepared to reject the US entirely and to try to desert to another country. Several nations offered them asylum, but travelling internationally without a passport was a challenge even in the 1960s.
Sweden was one of the asylum countries, and Matthew Turner’s eponymous novel imagines the adventures of three groups of American servicemen who deserted in Japan with Sweden as their goal. All were assisted by the Beheiren, a historically genuine anti-war organization which helped such deserters in the mid-1960s. Turner has conjured up stories for the three groups which exemplify how deserters were hidden and moved around Japan in different ways, explaining in the process how the JATEC (the Joint Technical Committee for Assistance to US Anti-war Deserters, the Beheiren’s underground arm) actually did its work.
Hiding giant Americans with short haircuts who had absolutely no comprehension of Japanese culture was of course almost impossible, injecting many twists and turns into the plot. When moving one of them about, more or less the only feasible disguise was as an American serviceman on leave, which exposed the fugitives to the US military police. The plot builds to a climax as each deserter’s day of escape from Japan approaches. Some make it and some don’t.
The hugger-mugger gives Turner an opportunity to introduce several different regions of Japan and several aspects of its culture and daily life at that time. A couple of his deserters develop relationships with Japanese women, and Turner exploits those scenes to introduce aspects of family life in the 1960s. He has clearly spent a lot of time in Japan himself, and his settings are very realistic. Though realism fails him when he is tempted to include a failed prosecution in one of the tales. Maintaining face requires that prosecutions never fail in Japan. Even when innocent, the accused know that society expects them to confess to something.
Turner handles his three story lines well, inter-leaving chapters from each. His American characters in particular are very realistic. They’re country boys, none too clever, each with his vices and far out of his depth in Japan. They prove quite a handful for the Japanese trying to keep them out of sight, as their real counterparts no doubt did in the ’60s.
So this is not a novel about Sweden, but a few hours with Sweden will be well spent. You’ll come away with an interesting picture of mid-century Japan and an appreciation of a little-known movement with a place in modern history.