Sun, Aug 12, 2007 - Page 19 News List

Behold Japan's heart of darkness

David Peace's 'Tokyo Year Zero' is the first of a trilogy of crime novels that promises to address the creation of modern Japan, starting with the horrors of war

by Tim Adams  /  The Guardian, London

Tokyo Year Zero
By David Peace
344 pages
Oxford University Press

David Peace first went to Japan 13 years ago, in his mid-twenties, to teach English as a foreign language, and stayed. You could argue that the prose of the novels he has written compulsively since - seven fat books published in the past eight years - has been heavily influenced by his original day job. Peace uses truncated subject, verb, object sentences in repetitive rhythms to establish the claustrophobia of extreme states of mind. Sometimes, his paragraphs read like a basic English primer: "I haggle. To eat. I barter. To work. I threaten. To eat. I bully. To work. I buy three eggs and some vegetables," he writes here, typically.

To quote small chunks of Peace's writing, though, is to miss most of its intensive craft and appeal. He experimented with his demotic rhythms in the loosely linked novels that explored the two dominant myths of his growing up in England in the 1970s and 1980s: the hunt for serial murderer Peter Sutcliffe "Yorkshire Ripper" and the miners' strike. His real breakthrough as a stylist, however, came in The Damned Utd, his last book, the wonderful fictional rendering of an interior monologue of UK football legend Brian Clough, a deeply paranoid and self-obsessive voice, full of contradiction and drama.

It seems a long way from Leeds United to postwar Tokyo, but a good deal of the internal tension of Clough's hypnotic stream of consciousness is replayed in a different context here. It is 1946 and Japan, disgraced and defeated by the Allies, is living in fear of a third wave of destruction: "Tokyo hot and dark, hidden and cowed; night and day, rumors of new weapons, fears of new bombs; first Hiroshima, then Nagasaki, next is Tokyo ... . " The Japanese nation is under siege both from the "victors" and from Formosans, Koreans and Chinese seeking retribution. The American occupying forces are conducting purges to root out war criminals. In the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, everyone has changed identity to avoid recrimination. The slogans on the Tokyo station walls, parroted by senior officers - "Now is not a time to forget our obligations, they are who we are" or "It is time to reveal the true essence of the nation" - are blood-stained and desperate.

Even so, the Japanese are already trying to rebuild out of the wreckage of defeat and though the foundations are not promising - "rubble and ash ... piss and shit, cholera and typhus, disease and death, death and loss" - Tokyo's reconstruction is relentless. One of the percussive background noises to Peace's tale is that of jackhammers endlessly at work on the new city: "ton-ton-ton-ton-ton." All of the chaos is sharply detailed. I once interviewed Peace and he talked of his fictional method as one of obsessive factual research, total immersion in the news and culture of the time: "Everything that can be fact is fact. People say to me it is always raining in your books. But if it is raining on the day I say it was, then it certainly was raining on that day, I guarantee." In this case, the weather reports - Tokyo, 90 degrees, fine - only add to the oppression.

Tokyo Year Zero is told in the voice of Detective Minami of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police. Minami has been driven crazy by nothing being as it seems, by imperial Japan being occupied. Democracy is good. Democracy is bad. My mouth is dry. The aggressor is the victim. The victim is the aggressor. My stomach aches. The winners are the losers. The losers are the winners ... ." The day Japan accepts the imposed provisions of defeat is also the day that Detective Minami starts finding bodies of young geishas in Shiba Park strangled with their own shawls.

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