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:

I pick up the razor. Nobody knows my name. Everybody knows my name. I open up the razor. Nobody cares. Everybody cares. I untie the kimono. The day is night. The night is day. The yellow and dark-blue striped kimono. Black is white. White is black. It falls open. The men are the women. The women are the men. The razor in my right hand. The brave are the frightened. The frightened are the brave.

And so it goes on, twice as long again.

In Occupied City, the place of the detective is taken by a writer, a writer who gives every sign, except the name, of being David Peace. Like a detective, the writer-character is a finder-out; but is he, like a detective, pursuing the truth behind a real-life mystery, or, like many of the writers Peace admires, confronting the mystery of real life? If ‘both’ was a debatable answer in Tokyo Year Zero, it is an unequivocal one here. Although, again, the book is concerned with a locally famous actual crime – the robbery of a Tokyo bank in 1948 by a lone criminal masquerading as a health official who poisoned the staff, killing 12, with fake medicine – it’s not a journey to the cathartic revelation of the culprit that gives Occupied City what strength it has. We find out early on what Japanese readers would know from the start, that a real suspect was arrested, charged, tried and convicted of the actual crime. Hirasawa Sadamichi was sentenced to death in 1950; he died in prison of pneumonia almost four decades later, despite 19 appeals by his lawyers. Many have argued that the real culprit was an unknown veteran of Japan’s wartime Unit 731, the biological warfare complex that tortured thousands of prisoners to death in medical experiments; and that American, Soviet and Japanese leaders conspired to hide the truth, to protect the militarily useful information held by the ex-731 cabal. This is the line that Peace, the actual Peace, pursues in his novel, cautiously. His doppelgänger, the writer-character, expresses it more fervently, saying of Hirasawa:

  for this is the man who brought you here –

To the scene of this crime, to the words of this book; this book-to-come, that will not come here –

Here beneath the Black Gate

The man whose case inspired you, inspired you to write this book, this book-to-come, this old man whose name you had hoped to absolve, exonerate and clear –

Through your words,

through your art, to bring him justice, to give him redemption, to bring you attention,

  recognition

Admirers of Tokyo Year Zero have praised Peace’s visceral evocation of the miserable, bomb-trampled capital in the months after Japan’s surrender, and it is very good. A vignette on a train bringing hungry city-dwellers back from the countryside, in which an old woman dies and a couple loot her rucksack for food, is moving. Were Year Zero the only Peace I’d read, I would still chide him for bringing to his imagining of Tokyo in the 1940s a certain rich-world sensibility, like the full-spectrum pity we tend to radiate towards the citizens of famine-prone, dictator-cursed lands. Those poor, hopeless people: how they are suffering; they must all be feeling rotten, all the time.

But consider this Peace extract:

  The dark arches, black mists and broken windows of industrial decay, industrial murder, industrial hell –

Dead city abandoned to the crows, the rain, and the Ripper.

  . . . A bloody castle rising out of the bleeding rain, a tear in the landscape –

This isn’t Tokyo in 1946. It’s Leeds in 1980, described in Red Riding, the Gothic novel of crime and corruption in 1970s and 1980s Yorkshire that first made Peace’s name. This is a writer who compares St James’s Hospital in Leeds to Dachau. I don’t suppose the now closed Stanley Royd Mental Hospital in Wakefield was a merry place in 1980, but was it really, as Peace described it in Red Riding, ‘an Auschwitz, a Belsen’?

Red Riding was published in four parts between 1999 and 2002. It is more than 1400 pages long, and portrays West Yorkshire as a wasteland inhabited by broken, rotten people. It has many smells, all of them bad. There are three kinds of weather: too wet, too cold and too hot. Most of the few loved people portrayed have been or will soon be murdered, or go mad, or go mad and be murdered. West Yorkshire police rape, pimp, kill and torture with impunity and relish. A murdered child has swan’s wings sewn on her back in a secret tunnel. After being tortured by the police, a senior journalist on the Yorkshire Post turns vigilante, guns down a businessman and some crooked cops, and disappears. Another Post journalist asks to be trepanned by the priest who provoked the murder of his ex-wife when he exorcised his ex-wife’s husband; the priest hammers a nail into his head. A third Post man is beheaded in a suspicious glazing accident after warning of death squads.

Peace’s best books to date, GB84, a treatment of the 1984 miners’ strike, and the excellent The Damned United, came between the grotesque melodrama of Red Riding and the Tokyo books (this is the second book in a planned trilogy). The last episode of the first sequence was published five years before the first episode of the second. Yet the thematic and stylistic ties between the two crime series are strong. A writer may write about crooked cops in a putrid, corrupt and sinister 1970s Leeds; he may write about crooked cops in a putrid, corrupt and sinister 1940s Tokyo. But when he writes about both in such a similar way, one a city that hasn’t been flattened by aerial warfare and one that has, one occupied by a foreign power and one not, it speaks of a dark worldview, running deep.

Both series have real-life crimes (in Red Riding, the Yorkshire Ripper murders) intercalated between the fictional storylines. They have protagonists whose concern for the murdered dead is stronger than their concern for the living, who demonstrate strong emotions by constantly throwing up, and are prey to madness. They have Twin Peaks-y hints of supernatural powers working from the shadows. There are even occasional signs that at some arcane level of Peace’s mind Red Riding and the Tokyo trilogy form a whole. ‘It’s 30th May 1977, Year Zero, Leeds, and I’m back at work . . .’ one of the Red Riding journos records in the second book of the quartet. The Japanese phrase ‘black ship’, karofune, referring to the US navy steamships which forced Japan to open up to the outside world in the 19th century and now meaning any untoward foreign imposition, already crops up in Red Riding.

Nonetheless, Occupied City is different. Peace, who has lived in Japan since 1994, adopts a highly stylised structure for the new book, partly based on two short stories by Akutagawa Ryunosuke: ‘Rashomon’, about an old woman who steals hair from corpses at Kyoto’s Rashomon Gate, and ‘In a Grove’, in which the murder of a samurai is described in different ways by different witnesses, altering our perception of the events and of truth. In Occupied City the mental journeys made by the writer-character during his research have placed him in a kind of Dantean underworld, with truth as his quest rather than love. He reads about an old Japanese ghost-story game, played with as many candles as storytellers, where, after each participant has told their story, a candle is snuffed out and the room grows darker. He finds himself in a place in Tokyo called the Black Gate, where a medium is holding a seance version of the game, with 12 candles. One by one, the medium channels the testimony of 12 participants or sets of participants in the Teikoku Bank poisonings and the Unit 713 story, which become the book’s chapters. The stories begin and end with the murder victims; in between we hear from two of the detectives who investigated the case, the convicted culprit, a gangster businessman, and Soviet and American biowarfare specialists, among others.

The stories overlap, contradicting and reinforcing each other. In a way that recalls Italo Calvino’s works of overt, rigid structure, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller and Invisible Cities, the system allows Peace both to show different facets of Tokyo – the Occupied City, the Occult City, the Posthumous City – and to display a virtuosity with different styles. In the first detective’s account of the pursuit and arrest of Hirasawa, for instance, told through his notebooks, Peace voices a pompous, efficient professional cop, with his careless usage and his token expressions of outrage towards the criminal:

All the victims, wholly unsuspicious of the fiendish intention of the offender, whose perfect composure and plausible explanations as well as his armband of Tokyo Metropolitan Office having satisfied them to lay full credit in his words, formed a circle around him . . .

It should be said that the first detective’s account won’t necessarily come to the reader in quite the way this suggests, as pastiche and explication. Its relative clarity compared to other passages might come as a guilty relief, because Occupied City is a challenging read. The chaotic, incoherent ending of Tokyo Year Zero presages, it turns out, a dissatisfaction not just with the form of narrative fiction but its medium, language. (Perhaps there is a pun in the writer-character’s raging at the seance’s medium.) Peace has always been a stylistically adventurous writer and it is language that represents the insoluble mystery his writer-investigator wrestles with in Occupied City: both the unreliability of language as the medium for an overarching truth, and the inadequacy of language to do justice to the dead. In his acknowledgments at the end of the book Peace cites Paul Celan and Heiner Müller, two writers who have stress-tested the weak bonds between words, meanings and extreme human acts. But Occupied City represents the most extreme stage of an experimental process that Peace began in the first part of Red Riding ten years ago.

Even at his worst, Peace is a tight, disciplined writer. The cliché count is exceptionally low, and has been from the beginning. After only a few pages of Red Riding, the reader realises that he has already been imprinted with the writer’s staccato rhythms of short paragraphs and curt sentences. The realisation comes when a single sentence leaps out of the page as an aberration: ‘I sat down on the arm of my father’s empty chair, thinking of seaview flats in Brighton, of Southern girls called Anna or Sophie, and of a misplaced sense of filial duty now half-redundant.’ Nothing like this archaic remnant ever appears again. A few pages further on, we get this:

‘Then we think alike,’ grinned Hadden, picking up a thick manila envelope and handing it across the desk to me. ‘This is all the work that Barry’s done so far and submitted to the legal department.’

  ‘The legal department?’ I felt like fucking Polly the bleeding Parrot.

It is the first and so far the last time Peace jokes about repetition. Repetition, in all its forms, has become the sine qua non of Peace’s work, an obsession. It has become more frequent with successive books, and Occupied City is dense with it. It happens first on the level of the clause, with a steady thickening of anadiplosis, anaphora and antistrophe, like this, in Part 3 of Red Riding:

And she’s crying and so am I, unable to hold back my tears, unable to catch hers, unable to stop them, and all the things we’ve lost, there’s so much, we’ve lost so very much, too much, the things we’ve lost, there are so many, we’ve lost so very many things, too many, and I put my arm around her and lead her back up the drive and into her parents’ house, her parents’ house like the house that was our house, the house that was our house until Thursday night, her mother and father stood in the hall, his arm round her, her hands to her face, my arms round Joan, her hands to my face, my black ash face . . . .

Eventually, whole sentences are being repeated, as here in Tokyo Year Zero:

The Shibuya police station is tense. The Shibuya police station is armed to its teeth. Nishi and I should have taken Masaoka to either the Meguro or the Atago police station. But the chief told us to take anybody we find into the Shibuya police station. The Shibuya station is tense. The Shibuya station is armed to its teeth. The Shibuya station raided the headquarters of Kakyo Sokai, the association of Chinese merchants. The Shibuya station took away Ko Gyoku-Ju, the vice-president of the Kakyo Sokai. The Shibuya station tense. The Shibuya Station armed to its teeth.

Finally, entire scenes are repeated at enormous length – not quite word for word, but with enough similarity to question the justification. It is possible to understand why Peace might want to repeat the West Yorkshire Police’s favourite torture routine over and over again – because it seemed so unlikely the first time – but not why, in Occupied City, he needs to spend several pages towards the end of the book redescribing the bank murders he has already described in scrupulous detail at the beginning. Because we might have forgotten? Because our pity for the victims might have faded? There are better ways.

Over his career, Peace has become increasingly dissatisfied with the full stop, and has taken to ending paragraphs with dashes, a device that works surprisingly well to capture the arbitrariness of discourse, and lends more immediacy to narrative than the bogus now!-ness of the present tense. He has begun sprinkling his texts with onomatopoeic pairings, many of them Japanese – like ‘ton-ton’, the sound of the hammers in the ruins of Tokyo, or ‘potsu-potsu’, the sound of water dripping into water. But my favourite – his own, I think – is ‘krk-krk’, the sound of police radios during the miners’ strike in GB84.

Peace likes parallel perspectives in the voices of his narrators, indicated by alternate roman and italic fonts – the second perspective being the narrator’s memory, the narrator’s inner observation, or some obscure and unsettling sample from another’s text. He uses parallel narratives, too; pages, scattered through his books, which tell a different but related story, and can with a bit of riffling be read in sequence. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I still don’t understand the use of the letter ‘e’ in isolation in the hard-to-read accounts of the Ripper’s murders that stand at the heads of chapters in Part 3 of Red Riding. On the other hand, the parallel narrative in GB84, the story of two miners and their families, is the best thing in the book.

In Occupied City all these techniques are deployed, and then some. In one hard-to-follow passage there are three parallel perspectives, alternating clause by clause, without punctuation – one in roman, one in italic and one in capitals.

Old Tojo, laughs Horie, he’s not important. He never was. He’s just a scapegoat. Maybe a martyr, the way things are going detectives are suspects, suspects are detectives ALL HEARTS ARE STONE I shake my head, I light a cigarette, I cough and cough criminals are judges, judges are criminals IN THE GORGON’S GAZE

The book’s incantatory opening has no fewer than four different kinds of hyphenated coinage. One is the repetition hyphenation: step-step, ton-ton. Two is the poetic compound of adjective and noun: loose-leafs, shard-storm. Three is the word that is coined or altered, then cloven by hyphens: in-snared, in-prisoned, be-specter-ed. Four is the compression of a clause into a hyphenated phrase, where an event is transformed into a state: ‘you stagger in the night’ becomes ‘in the night-stagger’, ‘here there is no one else, only the fingertips of night’ becomes ‘here there is no one else, only the finger-night-tips . . .’

We’ve become so used to American and Irish novelists polishing their sentences till they glitter with ingenious similes and wise passions that the notion of another kind of poetic prose, one where the poetry is in the larger structure rather than word by word, seems alien now. But that is what Occupied City is, and perhaps the novel as collection-of-poems-and-prose is where a novelist takes shelter during the periods when the prose can’t seem to take the weight of the stories any more. It doesn’t always succeed, and it is not easy to read, but what it is trying to do is ambitious. The rhythms of its framing passages are poets’ rhythms; its repetitions are choruses.

Ash for hair, soil for skin, among the flakes and the sod
We defy the fire and the rake, the spade and the grave
The grave in the earth, the grave in the sky
In the abyss of the sky, in the abyss of the earth
Your earth, your sky. Not our sky, not
our earth
not here, not now
Now into the heights, we
fall, into the depths . . .

Historical research is a perilous endeavour for novelists. The research tail can end up wagging the imaginative dog, and Peace, whose lists of sources consulted are long and scrupulous, isn’t immune. When, as in Red Riding and the Tokyo series, the history involves the murders of actual people, their names inscribed in the chronicles only because they were killed by a famous killer, the conscientious writer’s position becomes still more difficult. He risks his own imagined story becoming hemmed in on one side by the weight of information he has amassed to give his book the fictively spurious quality of accuracy, and on the other by his concern to do the right thing by the dead-but-real bystanders who are in his novel by chance. In Red Riding, he changes the names of the Ripper’s victims, as well as that of the Ripper himself (the real Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, recently passed his 63rd birthday in Broadmoor Hospital). Occupied City becomes an elegy for the victims of the bank poisonings, whose presence fills its opening and closing chapters. The book’s strength is its end, thoughtful and poignant, written with compassion and an uncharacteristically complex feminine voice that offers hope of richer books to come from a novelist who has until now been relentlessly masculine.

Not all the actual people in Peace’s novels rely for their fame on being killers, or on being killed by killers. The Damned United, his 2006 novel about the late Brian Clough’s short, unsuccessful spell as manager of Leeds United in the 1974-75 season, remains the standard measure of Peace’s talent. The book proves that it is possible exhaustively to research a real person from the TV age, use great chunks of recorded speech by that person, and still find space within the person to invent a character.

Usually it takes an entire culture to do this: to take the actual human Elvis or Michael Jackson and reset them so that, though dead, they continue to exist in new stories, rumours, jokes and lies. Peace manages it single-handed, while remaining true to his style, his curt paragraphs, his hyphens for periods. The choral repetitions remain, but they’re reined in, as is the parallel perspective. The parallel narrative remains, but it makes sense throughout, as the stories of Clough’s rise at Derby County and his subsequent fall at Leeds converge. The book has all this, but it also has elements lacking in Peace’s crime fiction, notably humour and real relations between characters (in the crime books, the main relationship axis is protagonist-environment, not character-character). It has some of his best writing, too. You will not find a better characterisation of time, place and mood in one sentence than this description of Clough’s first meeting with his Leeds players in their lounge at the Elland Road stadium in 1974:

The smell of shampoo and Christmas aftershave as they file in from the dressing room in their denim and their leather, with their gold chains and their wet hair, teasing and touching, picking and pinching, a gang of apes after a fuck, they form a circle, their heads as low as their knees in their easy chairs, they spread their legs and touch their balls and try not to look my way –

All this without sentimentality or nostalgia. Nobody gets murdered; there’s no killer to be found. As the game days come round and Leeds keep losing, as Clough faces failure and drinks and drinks and drinks, as he alienates those around him and consults himself about himself, a greater mystery becomes tangible at Elland Road. It is the unalterability of the numbers on the First Division table counting out Clough’s doom. It is Melville’s whale and Dostoevsky’s roulette wheel: it is fate.