Occupied City by David Peace
26 August, 2011
I read David Peace’s first novel in his Tokyo trilogy, Tokyo Year Zero, in my pre-blogging days and was blown away by the sheer ingenuity of his writing. The story itself was gritty and you could almost smell the desperation and feel the dirt of war-torn Tokyo. It’s not exactly the easiest book to read because of the novel way in which Peace tells his story. The incessant repetition and verbal reiterations could become grating at the end of a long day, yet I found his use of onomatopoeia simultaneously annoying yet visually descriptive. The min min of the cicadas, the gari gari of nails scratching skin all added to the tension and paranoia of Tokyoites living an uncertain present in what can only be described as hell: the American GIs taking advantage of the half-starved and desperate Japanese, the Japanese climbing over their own countrymen in order to secure food, the disgusting food, the unsanitary living conditions. Not a pretty picture of a fallen nation. Yet there is something incredible about what Peace is trying to do with his Tokyo novels.
A few years later, I finally have my hands on the 2nd in the trilogy, Occupied City. I can’t explain how excited I was about this. It’s 1948 and a terrible crime has been committed in post-war Tokyo. A man describing himself as a medical officer from the Ministry of Health and Medicine presents himself at the Teikoku Bank (Teikoku Ginko or Teigin) to vaccinate 16 employees against dysentry. It’s the end of a normal working day and the employees are dying to get home. They obediently follow the doctor’s instructions and by the time the police and ambulance arrive, 10 are dead and 6 fighting for their lives and the man has vanished with a lot of money. As the police hunt the killer, nothing is what it seems.
Using the murders, based on the real life Teigin Jiken, as a springboard, Peace embarks on an exploration of post-war Japan coupled with digging deep into Japan’s disturbing association with biological warfare and Unit 731 in Pingfan, near Harbin in Manchuria, home of the Death Factory and human experimentation.
This is a very ambitious novel and I’m not sure that Peace succeeds. First of all, it seems as though it’s a straightforward mystery, yet it isn’t. Each chapter is told from a different character’s point of view and is written in a different style: prose, top secret US military letters, police notes, voices from the other side of the grave, etc. There are variations in font, caps, space, etc. You get the picture. I like experimental fiction, but added together with Peace’s characteristic repetitive prose style, I found this very tough going. In his afterword, Peace acknowledges that he consciously imitated Akutagawa Ryunosuke’s Rashomon and In the Grove. And a big black gate does appear at the end of each chapter where all the characters, of whom most are dead, appear before a ghostly clairevoyant.
I think part of the difficulty lies in the structure. The plot is pretty simple and never really moves forward, just circling as each new character adds a little more to the puzzle, sometimes not really making anything clearer. By the end, I didn’t really care who the killer was as it didn’t seem that important. I just wanted it all to end.
I don’t thing I’ve read anything like Occupied City before, but I’m not sure I would go back and actively look for another book like it. However, as the style and content was pretty different from Tokyo Year Zero, I have to admit I’m very curious as to what the third book in the trilogy will be like and will no doubt be seeking it out. Although I found this to be a tough and, at times, very exasperating read, I cannot help but think that Peace is an extremely brilliant and innovative writer when it comes to the structure of the novel.
I read this as part of Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 5.