September 21, 2008

Books: Tokyo Year Zero by David Peace

British writer David Peace has achieved recognition and acclaim with his previous novels, which include the Red Riding Quartet and The Damned United, but this is his first novel set in the Japanese capital where he has lived since 1994.

The story opens of the eve of the Japanese surrender in 1945, with the main protagonist, Detective Minami and some colleagues looking into the discovery of a female corpse in the Shinagawa area. The military police soon find a scapegoat and the case is closed.

Fast forward to a year later, and Minami and his team are called to open a murder hunt after two naked female corpses are discovered in a park having been raped and brutally murdered. As the investigation proceeds, it turns out that there are more than two victims and that some of the killings occurred outside Tokyo.

Whilst the murder investigation is compelling, the real appeal of the book is the way that Peace has evoked the whole atmosphere of darkness, depression and despair that must have existed in the period that immediately followed the war. The picture he paints is of a city full of people on the brink of starvation, with people in official positions desperately trying to reinvent their past in order to avoid the clampdowns and purges, a city with a thriving black market, pan pan girls and occupation forces.

Minami himself is a flawed hero, and during his investigations he struggles with his own demons, that continuously haunt him. He ponders on his own (possibly criminal) involvement in the war in China, his failing to his wife and children, his obsession with his mistress, his obligations to a gang leader who keeps him supplied with sedatives, as well as his concerns over which of his colleagues are working against him.

Some may find the staccato sentences and use of Japanese onomatopoeia ("Gari gari. I itch, I scratch") a bit irritating, but over time it helps the narrative falls into a kind of rhythm and it also contributes to the reader's increasing awareness of just how unstable Minami's psyche has become.

The actual murders are based on a real life serial killer, and the author uses this story very well to open a window on to a society trying to pick itself up after a very damaging defeat. It's made me want to look into this period further and I'm also looking forward to the next installment from Peace in what has been billed as a trilogy.

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