Book Features
Jan 4, 2008, 06:55

photo by Charles Glover ©


In a blackened, broken metropolis destroyed by war, where stray dogs gnaw on the bones of the dead under the ruins of sacred temples, the blackened, broken body of a young woman is discovered in the flooded basement of an air raid shelter in a clothing factory. As detective Minami moves towards her corpse through the putrid water in which she languishes, he bangs his leg on the corner of a table, prays for a bruise and not a cut, so that he will not become infected with the death, disease and shit he is wading through.

Minami brings the body of Miyazaki Mitsuko out of her grim tomb and into the daylight just as a squad of Military Police arrive. There is about to be an Imperial broadcast that every citizen is compelled to listen to; a radio goes on. In the meantime, the MPs decide, somebody must pay for this crime. The factory's boilerman tells them that there have been thefts here recently and he suspects that Korean labourers, billeted nearby, are responsible. A quick sweep of the buildings reveals an old, incontinent, itinerant Korean. He is as good a murderer as any. The MPs make to execute him.

As they raise their swords, the radio broadcast begins. Emperor Hirohito announces his country's surrender to the Allied Forces.

For a moment, everyone is paralysed. Then the old Korean tries to escape. Brutally, the scene comes back to life as, screaming his innocence, he is caught, hacked up and buried alive.

Miyazaki Mitsuko lies on the ground. The death, disease, madness and shit begin seeping into the wound on detective Minami's leg. It is 15 August 1945, Tokyo Year Zero, the beginning of David Peace's new novel.

“I've lived in Tokyo since 1994,” says the thoughtful and soft-spoken author. “but it took me a long time to feel confident enough to write about the place and I started and stopped what eventually became Tokyo Year Zero quite a few times. But the longer I've lived here, and with the birth of my children, the more I've felt compelled to write about the city and its history. Particularly, perhaps, because so much of its history is hidden, buried. The area in which we live, for example, which is the East End, was bombed flat and burnt to the ground in one single night in March 1945. The city itself was destroyed twice in the twentieth century by the bombing and, earlier, by the Great Earthquake of 1923.”

Hidden, buried history is what David Peace sifts, with the sense of driven purpose and barely-concealed rage that propels all of his writing. This a different landscape, a different time, from the settings of his previous books. But there is an ominous familiarity about what is going to happen. All the elements are there: a vulnerable woman sadistically murdered; a policeman with too much to hide; a scapegoat picked on purely racist lines; personal, political and societal insanity kicking in.

Toyko Year Zero is based on the true crimes of Kodaira Yoshio, a smiling killer who raped and murdered at least ten women in and around Tokyo while war raged all around. Yoshio, like the fictional detective Minami, was a former solider, the exact kind of psychopath who flourishes in times of conflict, and by honing in on him, David provides a microcosm of the bloody madness that raged across the world in the 1940s.

“I first came across Kodaira in 1995, quite soon after I arrived, as a footnote in a great book called Tokyo Rising: the City Since the Great Earthquake by Edward Seidensticker,” David explains. “A year later, in 1996, he also made an appearance in a book called Shocking Crimes of Post-war Japan by Mark Schreiber. And, as I say, over the years I must have started and stopped writing about him at least ten times. However, he was persistent and there was a resonance. Because sadly, but ultimately, I felt this was a way to examine a time and a place I felt drawn to.”

The resonance is the parallel between Yoshio and the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, who was the focus of David's first four books, Nineteen Seventy Four, Nineteen Seventy Seven, Nineteen Eighty and Nineteen Eighty Three. David was ten years old and living in Ossett, not far from the Ripper's killing grounds in West Yorkshire, in 1977. Sutcliffe's crimes haunted him: “It didn't really sink in until Jane McDonald, the 15-year-old girl who wasn't a prostitute was killed,” he recalls, “and the whole thing went into the public consciousness. I can always remember my sister used to say her prayers out loud at the end of the day and she always used to pray that my mother wouldn't get attacked by the Ripper.”

The events of those years left their indelible mark, and in 1999, Serpent's Tail began publishing his astonishing secret history of the crimes investigated and the crimes committed by the West Yorkshire police within those years. As in Tokyo Year Zero, the serial killer is not presented as a monster loose in an innocent world, but as the literal manifestation of all the darkness within the society he inhabits.

Like Kodaira Yoshio, he is hunted by policemen leading double lives: who are violent, corrupt, sexist and racist, running gangster rackets behind the façade of their uniforms. Like the half-decent, half-crazed copper Bob Frazer in Nineteen Seventy Seven, Tokyo Year Zero's detective Minami is cheating on his wife with a working girl, and is conflicted between the guilt he feels about deserting his wife and children for long periods of time and the obsessive lust he feels for his girlfriend.

“I have a very, very low opinion of men,” states David sadly, “starting in the mirror, every morning, every night. Which is why I write. That is the mystery. There's never any who-dunnit, is there? Because it's always a fucking man and the victims are always women and children. I think I'm getting closer to understanding why; see the last pages of the book. But it's not good news.

“This pursuit of power is perhaps the thing that essentially and fundamentally divides us,” he elaborates. “Personally, I have no desire to have control or power over anyone else. I cannot understand, nor trust, any person who would wish to become a politician. Of course I understand the economic reasons why someone might feel forced to join the army or the police, but I wish they wouldn't. Whatever your initial motives for joining up, you end up a psychopath.”

Indeed, the most powerful part image of Tokyo Year Zero is when Minami's investigations take him to the American-occupied compound of the International Palace, where he tries to ascertain some information on one of Yoshio's victims from the madam of a brothel now servicing the victorious forces. Here he witnesses a 14-year-old girl being buggered by a GI, crying her eyes out but saying: “Thank you, Joe,” over and over as she does so.

To me, this is as powerful an image as George Orwell (a writer often evoked in David's work) and his boot crunching down on a human face for all of eternity. It crystallises the entire point of the book, if not all of David's work.

“I agree with you,” the author nods. “This scene to me also is the whole point of the book. That girl is every girl, every woman, and that GI is every man, everywhere.”

It also illustrates the key to the power of David's work—his respect and compassion for the victim. Minami starts being able to link all the victims to Yoshio when he realises that the killer steals the most precious possessions of his prey to give to the next woman in his line of fire. He even begins to imagine himself as one of the lost girls, Baba Hiroko, walking towards her death in the woods, in a scene shot through with horror and grief.

“As I've often said before, this is the only point to the work,” he says. “And why I detest and loathe these writers and filmmakers who glamorize killers and violence. If you write about crime, then write about the victims.”

There is, of course, further resonance to Tokyo Year Zero. Depicting a society in the aftermath of war is a way of exposing all the ills of society that normally bubble under the surface bursting over the top. Paranoiac purges rage through the police department, gangsters take control of the economy, racial and religious schisms open up with extreme violence. All this is happening in Iraq right now.

“As I was writing, Iraq was uppermost in my mind,” says David. “Particularly as various members of the Bush White House constantly held up the Occupation of Japan as a ‘good Occupation'. And certainly I think the readiness with which Bush and Blair went to war, and the support from countries such as Japan, shows their ignorance of history, specifically war and its consequences for civilians. I'm not sure we ever do recover. In Japan, I feel the history and legacy of the Second World War, or the Pacific War, as it is more often called here, is very much the elephant in the room.”

The self-serving machinations of the establishment and the contempt in which the powerful hold ordinary citizens is something David keeps coming back to. Following the Red Riding Quartet, he signed to Faber & Faber and, two decades after Orwell's prophetic year, recounted the events of the Miners' Strike in GB84. It was another highly personal mission: “When I was growing up, the two most divisive and dramatic things that happened where the Ripper and the Miners' Strike. But there's nothing really written about them, there's no dialogue or debate about them.”

Showing the conflict from all sides—from the spooks running operations for the government, through the NUM's treacherous Chief Executive, to the miners themselves, crushed by year-long poverty, beatings and betrayals, David described how Margaret Thatcher achieved her cherished aim of making ‘society' obsolete. In doing so, he made a persuasive argument that this ‘Third Civil War' is our own elephant in the room. The book ends with Thatcher announcing: “This is England, your England—and the Year is Zero.”

Then came his ‘crossover' book; 2006's The Damned Utd, which recounted Brian Clough's torturous 44-day tenancy as the manager of Leeds United in 1974. As well as being a vivid evocation of one of Britain's best-loved sporting figures and genuine working class hero, the book was loaded with significant references to David's previous work and his intention to create an “occult history of Yorkshire.” Was he surprised by its impact?

“Well, I really wanted to show that the so-called ‘noir' style can be used to write about anything. And so I'm proud that a book of short, sharp sentences, with pages and pages of profanities and repetitions, can cross-over to a wider audience,” he underscores these last words meaningfully. “Because I really hope it encourages more writers and, particularly, more publishers to take more fucking risks and to stop foisting the same old shit on us all the time.”

If there is a touch of the Johnny Rotten about this last statement, it is because David Peace has been forged from the furnace of punk. As a teenager, he played bass and sang in his own band and you can hear the music flowing through his hypnotic prose like an undulating riff from ‘Metal Box' or ‘Secondhand Daylight'.

“I think punk taught you to accept nothing and question everything,” he says, “that there is no divide between the personal and the political, that you always have to push the limits, to challenge yourself but be yourself.

“In short, no compromises, ever.”


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