[This is a journal in three sections, based on those in the novel. I didn’t start reading a new one until I’d finished writing about the one before, so I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I got to the end.]
7 May 2015
Prologue and Part 1 – The Gate of Flesh
The prologue covers maybe a couple of hours in the morning of 15 August 1945, the day of the Japanese surrender to the Allies. Hirohito is about to broadcast to all Japan, and most people seem to be expecting a call for a last-ditch fight. But that’s only one of the things that’s happening as the jaded cop, in his 40s, arrives at a women’s dormitory in Tokyo to investigate a possible murder. Not only do we get the grittiest possible description of a crime scene – the rotting remains of a woman, dead for three months or more, discovered in a sewage-filled cellar – but also the routine sadism of the local military. A pathetic low-life – a ‘yobo’ or migrant Korean worker – is discovered hiding in a cupboard. According to the caretakers at the place, he is known for his Peeping Tom habits…. After a pause while the cop, his side-kick and two military types listen in disbelief to the Emperor’s broadcast, the officer slashes the man’s shoulder, pushes him alive into the hole the caretakers have dug for the purpose, and orders him to be buried.
So, Tokyo in Year Zero is not a happy place. And it isn’t any better exactly one year later, when Part 1 opens. As though to mark the anniversary, the body of another woman is discovered, and the same detective, Inspector Minami, makes his way through the humid misery of the occupied city. We might recognise the cynical, seen-it-all-before mind-set of the overworked cop, tired of his job and feeling guilty as hell about how badly he lets down his wife and family. But there’s nothing familiar about the hidebound social rules and rigid hierarchies of the post-war police service. Nothing about it seems fit for purpose, as the same systems that led to the failure of the wartime regime seem to be still firmly in place. And, as one of the repeated italicised mantras that run through Minami’s head has it, No-one is who they say they are. Officials with dirty secrets have taken on the identities of the dead, so that even if Minami knows who is who in the force (and I’m not sure he does), I assume that David Peace wants all his readers to feel as disorientated as I do. Even Minami has his secrets, not that we know what they are yet. By the end of Part 1 he’s pretty sure that the murder of his chief informant will lead investigators to his own door….
It isn’t an easy read. Or, to put that another way, I’ve been tempted more than once to give up on it. Those mantras, italicised and repetitive gobbets of Minami’s obsessive thoughts to do with hunger, or the heat, or death (or whatever) slow the action down, sometimes to a standstill. It becomes a mannerism, and the eyes skim over the page looking for the next non-italicised line. If Peace is aiming to give us an idea of what a circle of hell feels like, he’s not doing a bad job. But that’s not what I thought I was buying into when I picked up the book. (Another mannerism is the densely printed single page of what seems to be a different story that precedes each section. The first person narrator of this story, we begin to realise, shares some experiences of fighting against the Chinese with the detective. And this narrator is counting out dozens of a particular brand of sleeping pill, the same brand that our man, a terrible insomniac, obsesses over. Those pages are beginning to look like some kind of back-story. Maybe Minami had a bad time in China….
Not much has actually happened. The woman has been murdered maybe a week or so previously, and Minami looks around the open space where she died. He notices a bundle of clothes that turns out to be the body, little more than skin and bones, of another woman. She seems to have been dead for something like three months, and is going to be difficult to identify. She’s the one that Minami is assigned to investigate – there’s some obscure business to do with why he gets the more difficult assignment – and over five days, he doesn’t really get anywhere with it. The team investigating the recent murder have a much easier time, arrest a suspect who quickly confesses, and are celebrating while Minami continues to stew. The confessed murderer says he had nothing to do with the earlier murder, and Minami is forced to carry on. He follows a hopeless-seeming lead which, near the end of this section, takes him to a brothel where the young woman might have sought work. But it’s thin stuff.
Underscoring all this is the continuing humiliation of occupation, as the ‘Victors’ run what the indigenous population consider to be purges and issue orders that they find arbitrary and unworkable. Nothing works properly, and people only survive by way of the black market. Sanitation is minimal, and basic hygiene is almost impossible. One of the mantras – Ton-ton, ton-ton – is sometimes the sound of policemen hammering whatever they can find on to the soles of their worn-out footwear. Their clothes are falling apart… and the gari-gari of scratching is as insistent as the chiku-taku of Minami’s ticking watch.
There are other stories in Minami’s life. He has a mistress – I think about her all the time – and he treats her much better than his wife and children. There is a local gang-leader, Senju, who runs an important illicit market. Minami is somehow on his payroll, and has to bow and defer to him – and he keeps having to apologise to him for not coming up with the information he wants. This is about who murdered a member of his gang, and it’s going in a very worrying direction for Minami. His informant, a lowlife reporter, has told him that Minami’s own colleague is involved and, right on cue, the man keeps disappearing for hours when he should be on the investigation. The reporter disappears too, but more permanently. His body is found nailed to a door floating down the river. Minami has named him as a suspect to Senju, but the reporter must already have been dead. Nonetheless, Senju lets him have the sleeping pills he craves. They don’t make him feel any better.
Time to read on, I think. (Sigh)
Part 2 – The Bridge of Tears
Unsurprisingly, things don’t get any better for Minami. His boss, while seeming to protect him from the consequences that might otherwise have led to his purging from the force – we still don’t understand either what it is that Minami has done, or what favour his boss owes to him, apparently because of something his father once did for him – is also putting huge pressure on him to succeed. Lead your men, Do your duty – which, of course, become new mantras – in circumstances that are becoming more and more like something from a novel by Franz Kafka. It’s always irritating when a first-person narrator doesn’t simply let the reader know the back story. We’re subjected to his obsessive little mantras, endlessly repeated as though to make his thought processes transparent to us. So why can’t we know the source of the terrible guilt that burns him up from inside? All we can guess is that certain things happened in China that some other people seem to know about, and that our man is keeping so deeply hidden he isn’t even telling himself. Authors always have a choice about how much a first-person narrator will tell, and it suits Peace’s purpose to err on the side of leaving nearly everything out.
So what happens? I’m not sure how much it matters, but Peace has made Minami competent enough to start stirring up some very muddy waters. We’ve no idea yet how much of a link there is between the alleged involvement of his colleague in the gangland murder and the murders of young women by an apparent serial killer. The pathologist’s findings point to the man who has already confessed to the more recent murder as the killer of Minami’s bag of bones, and by following up this apparent link, via a missing woman’s former landlady, he seems to establish beyond doubt the identity of the earlier victim.
Nope. This novel, however unconventional in form, is a whodunit, and he is proved wrong. Following a link to a group of young women associated with the confessed murderer, he interviews a purged ex-copper, recently sacked for admitting to having had sex with a woman later found murdered. The landlady’s identification of her former lodger’s clothes must have been a mistake, because the ex-copper’s current lover turns out to be… the woman Minami has identified as the victim in his case. Oh dear. Having earlier told his bosses he’s got a name, now he has to tell them that he hasn’t. He has to eat the humblest of humble pie – and in Japan, as Peace is always keen to remind us, that’s as humble as it gets. He is demoted, taken off the case, and sent away to investigate another murder miles away.
That’s one thread, and it contributes to Minami’s mantras turning into an unending stream of loathing for everybody in his life, including himself. But there’s also the thread of the gangland killing. His colleague, he finds out at the end of this section, has turned up dead. But who got to him first, Miami’s superiors, or Senju? And why do his police bosses seem keen to send him far away? Long before this happens, I’d begun to assume that there’s been a cover-up, that the real killer on the loose is one of the slippery characters high up in the force who, like everybody, isn’t who he says he is. Whatever, Senju is very pleased, and gives Minami more of the sleeping-pills than he asks for. He seems to have given up entirely on the idea of sleep because, well, that’s how bad it’s got. He makes his way to Tochigi Prefecture, where the final section appears to be set, and we await developments.
Part 3 – The Mountain of Bones
I left off reading for three weeks, but I’m glad I came back to it. Yes, we do find things out, but no, there’s no satisfying resolution. The nightmarish, almost hallucinatory quality of the last days of the investigation remind me of the ending of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. There are big differences, but something like the same obsessive repetition, the remembered images, the mountains, the heat, the storm…. And there’s the consciousness of a man who feels doomed. Lowry’s consul can’t control his own fate. Minami can’t control the truth about a past that he has kept blocked from his own memory for years. It isn’t clear at the end whether the war crime that is confirmed on the last page sends him back to the asylum he was taken to on his return from China.
No-one is who they say they are, of course, and guess what? The serial killer, visited by Minami one last time as he, Minami, evades capture by the police force that’s out to get him, recognises him as someone with a different name entirely. They had both been in China, as had Senju, and it accounts both for the killer’s relaxed, cynical manner around him, and Senju’s habitual reference to him as ‘corporal’. And what we piece together is that for Minami this whole investigation has become part of his own need to expiate a crime he can’t remember. At one point he imagines every moment from the killer’s picking up of one of his many victims to her realisation that this is no ‘nice man’, to the rape, her pleading for her life after regaining consciousness, the approach of the killer pulling her scarf tight around her neck…. And, when he turns the tables on the colleague sent with him to Tochigi, the one who has secret orders to kill him, he replays the scene with himself in the role of killer. Peace repeats whole paragraphs verbatim, so that there’s no mistake: at some level, the killer’s victims are Minami’s victims, and he owes them some kind of expiation.
In the circle of hell that is Tokyo in Year Zero, there is no room for this kind of thing. Nobody can understand why he is so insistent on reopening closed cases. The one at the beginning of the novel is one of them, for which the poor yobo was summarily executed, and there are several others Minami simply won’t let go of. These are mainly in Tochigi, which is where the killer was originally from and where he made a lot of visits trading, among other things, what he’d stolen from his victims. Minami’s superiors have no interest in these, perfectly content to leave them as accidental deaths despite piles of clothes and other evidence that he has found. They are already celebrating the four cases they have closed when he arrives back in Tokyo under cover, and his secret visit to the killer is a part of desire to reopen the others. It isn’t so much that he wants the surviving relatives to reach some sort of closure – although he does visit the ones he can, there’s nothing to suggest that such a thing as closure could even exist in this world – but because the dead should have what is rightly theirs.
We’ve got most of this, aside from the description of the war crime, well before the closing pages. We’ve also got a full explanation of the gangland plot, the one that really did involve his former colleague and Senju’s boss. Senju had used the copper in a coup against his own boss, and has now got rid of him. What’s a tired, overworked detective to do? Minami shoots him in the man’s own office. But before this, Senju had played the same sorts of mind-games as the killer, forcing Minami to uncover within himself some memories he wishes were not there. The mantras increase in number and frequency – many paragraphs are entirely made up of lines we’ve heard many times before – and other memories come crashing in. He remembers the night of the fire-storm, how he saved his mistress before going home to discover his own house burnt out. It isn’t clear at first if this is a real memory – his family are alive, aren’t they? – until he finds them near the ruins, their clothes charred. The whole city seems to have become obliterated, as though this is when Year Zero really starts. Homes, factories, and tens of thousands of people are simply gone.
The war crime is described in the fourth and last of those tightly-printed pages that come before and after each section. It’s become clearer that these relate to his own experiences in China, particularly the summary execution of two civilians. The details aren’t identical to the execution in the prologue, but they aren’t very different and both it, and the other unspeakable things he sees, had been enough to traumatise him completely. By this point in the novel, he’s retuned to the asylum, and details like a blood-spattered scroll that have haunted him are suddenly accounted for. There are faces in the hospital – I hate hospitals is one of his mantras – that he recognises from before the time when his boss found him a new identity and a job on the police force. This boss, the one who has been unaccountably making his life difficult recently, is the one who wanted him killed. Maybe – and I’m only guessing – he fears that Minami will reveal his own guilt.
So, answers of a sort, but no redemption. The relentless pessimism of this novel leaves no room for it, as its narrator encounters the constant smell of death – always referred to as the smell of apricots – and when life is so cheap. People are still dying of hunger, and when one young man is too dazed even to realise that he is on the wrong platform to get to a place to scavenge, Minami tells a concerned old woman that it doesn’t matter anyway. Minami is finally coming to understand the depth of his own guilt, and his dark crisis in his heart – when he can believe that his heart hasn’t been torn out – encompasses the whole of Tokyo. He is an Everyman for a country that is broken into fragments at more than a physical level and that is only slowly – ton ton ton – patching itself up.