Polly the Bleeding Parrot

James Meek

  • Occupied City by David Peace
    Faber, 275 pp, £12.99, July 2009, ISBN 978 0 571 23202 4

Stories rely on mystery. Who killed the old lady? We don’t know, so we read on to find out. Perhaps we do know, so we read on to see if the killer will be caught. It may be that we know the culprit’s identity, and know they’ll be caught, but we read on to find out how, and why they did it. Or perhaps we know all these things, but, having been introduced to a set of characters, we stay to get to know them better; and, having got to know them, we stay longer, because it is a mystery how they are going to deal with the problems we now know they have. To tweak a thought by Philip Roth, the mystery of the man who doesn’t know he is set up for mystery – that is every man’s mystery.

The many mysteries boil down to three. There is the kind that can be solved: who planted the bomb? Will the travellers reach their destination? What is Mother’s childhood secret? There is the supernatural: dark metaphysical forces, never to be fully exposed, yet hinting of themselves in a way that suggests the author could reveal more if he chose, and might do, in his next book. And there are the insoluble mysteries: what lies beyond life, what beauty is for, why the innocent suffer and the guilty prosper, what goes on in the heads of other people, why life keeps fucking us over just when we’re doing all right – these are the mysteries the books dealing with them can’t solve, and it is for this reason that the best of these books are the ones we keep rereading.

Tokyo Year Zero, the 2007 predecessor to David Peace’s new novel, conforms in its early pages to the first kind of mystery, specifically those described with cool backhandedness by Elizabeth Bowen when she wrote that ‘the only above-board grown-up children’s stories are detective stories.’ Japanese readers would understand quickly that Tokyo Year Zero concerns a real-life serial killer, as notorious there as Peter Sutcliffe here, but to non-Japanese, the novel seems to introduce us to a conventionally anti-heroic modern fictional detective, hunting a murderer of young women. Will the policeman track him down before he kills again?

Stepping out in the over-eager thriller convention of first person, present tense, Detective Minami is cynical in thought, dutiful in deed. Erudite, tired and unillusioned, he nurses old wounds to his conscience that would have felled lesser men. He has a wife and children; he has a mistress. It is 1946 and his city has been bombed to pieces. His colleagues and superiors are corrupt. Actual power is divided between the occupying Americans and organised crime, to which Minami is beholden for the sleeping pills he’s addicted to. By page 68, not yet a fifth of the way in, Peace’s terse paragraphs seem to have set his detective impossible multiple tasks of the sort that commercially successful sleuths handle regularly (deal with your secret past, find the serial killer, solve the gangland slayings, break up with your wife, make it right with your lover) and to be offering his publishers a valuable franchise along the lines of the late Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen.

From the start, it would have been a frail scheme to rely on. The book’s prologue, in which a Korean labourer, falsely accused of killing a young woman, is beheaded in front of Minami by a military policeman on the day of Japan’s surrender, pointedly sets the absurd context for an investigation into a handful of violent killings. In 1946, violent killing has touched every family in Tokyo, whether through blood ties to soldiers and sailors fallen in the war, to any of the hundreds of thousands of victims of American bombing, or to the perpetrators of the atrocities in which the Japanese killed millions of civilians.

Peace uses the paradox adroitly, and not just through our growing awareness that Minami himself was a war criminal in China. Early in the book, the police interrogate a man accused of carrying out the killings Minami is investigating. Prepared to despise and, if necessary, torture the suspected serial murderer-rapist, the detectives find themselves congratulating him instead for having bayoneted six Chinese soldiers to death in the service of the emperor. Gradually we realise that Minami is clinging to the murder investigation as a kind of mimetic rite, play-acting a part from the vanished, perhaps imaginary, order of justice and law that existed before darkness fell on Tokyo, and on his soul.

Halfway through the book, it looks as if Peace is about to give us an important missing piece of Minami, a righteous loathing of the mainly American occupiers, referred to as the Victors. Looking for information, the detective visits the mega-brothel set up by the Japanese government to service the occupiers (the historically real idea being that if they gave the Americans some women, they wouldn’t rape the rest – with the result that both sides’ prejudices about the other were confirmed). Here, in the corridor, he sees a Victor buggering a naked girl, ‘no older than 14’:

she stares down the long, long corridor at Nishi and I with tears running down her cheeks, down her cheeks and into her mouth, saying: ‘Oh, very good Joe. Thank you, Joe. Oh, very good Joe. Thank you, Joe. Oh, oh, Joe . . .’

She is better off dead. I am better off dead . . .

  This is America. This is Japan. This is democracy. This is defeat. I don’t have a country any more. On her knees or on her back, blood and come down her thighs. I don’t have a heart any more . . .

Six pages later, Minami chooses a prostitute on the Tokyo streets, uses the power of his badge to force her to submit to his demands without payment and does to her exactly what he saw the Victor doing. Addict, liar, coward, abuser of women, abuser of office, faithless husband, feckless lover, war criminal, corrupt cop: it is at this point that we realise Peace may not be going to offer his central character redemption.

In fact, he offers him less than that. Inspector Minami does not reappear in Tokyo Year Zero’s sequel, Occupied City. In the final confused pages of Tokyo Year Zero, where the lines between what Minami imagines and what Minami experiences are not drawn clearly enough for the reader to understand which is which, a great shredding of certainties, identities and conclusions takes place. The wildness with which Peace takes an axe to his novel’s structure hints at his own frustration at the expressive constraints of the crime thriller, even an impatience with the limits of fiction itself. One passage, part of a scene which may or may not actually be taking place, reads like a writer’s admission of defeat:

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