In 1948, in occupied Tokyo, a man walked into a branch of the Teikoku Bank and informed the workers present that he was a public health official there to inoculate them against an outbreak of dysentery. He dispensed a series of two liquid medicines to each of the 16 workers in attendance. Very soon after, the bank employees collapsed in writhing agony. The man gathered up some (but not all) the cash laying out on the desks and escaped. Twelve people died, and while a murderer was imprisoned, many believe that justice was never really done.
This is the case that David Peace tackles in his latest novel, 2009’s Occupied City, the second in a projected trilogy of novels set in postwar Japan (2007’s Tokyo Year Zero was the predecessor), out this month in paperback. But just as his Red Riding Quartet burrowed deep into the archival history of historical murders and corruption in England’s bleak northlands only to go spinning off into their own dark orbit of depressive madness, this novel uses the Teikoku case as a springboard for Peace’s explorations of human brutality.
While it bears recognition as one of the great crime novels of the past few years – Peace’s writing is just that devastatingly good—Occupied City frequently seems closer to avant-garde denunciation than a simple case of tracking down the killer. Of course, all the best crime writers use the crimes at their stories’ cores as just the framework for their moral fictions. But Peace’s story is a splintered cluster bomb of pain, where the crimes multiply like cockroaches in the night.
Fashioned by Peace after the example set by Akutagawa Ryunosuke’s short stories “Rashomon” and “In the Grove”, the novel is structured in a dozen narrations, each telling their own part (often from beyond the grave) in witnessing or investigating the mass murder. A painter. An “occult” investigator. A detective chases down the man he thinks to be the killer, while his superiors try to quash the case. An American medical officer looks into the connections between the killings and the work of Japan’s infamous Unit 731, which conducted barbaric disease experiments on Chinese civilians and (allegedly) Allied prisoners of war. The case spins out of control, and a cloud of omnipresent guilt hangs over the entire affair, as though the entire city and everybody in it (occupiers, occupied) were implicated.
Told in a repetitive, agitated style that jumps in and around the reality of each scene instead of directly tackling it, Peace’s novel becomes like some incantatory rite. Its narrators fairly scream with the knowledge of evil:
1. The city is a wound the city is a wound THIS CITY IS A WOUND In the half-burnt pages of my half-destroyed notebooks in the half-said whispers of the half-heard voices IN THESE HALF-REMEMBERED MEMOIRS OF THIS HALF-FORGOTTEN DETECTIVE In the Occupied City in the Occupied City IN THE OCCUPIED CITY…
There is a fever to the writing here, as though these narrators have some knowledge they are desperate to impart, but language has failed them. And for all Peace’s attempts to burst through the limitations of fiction, language fails this story, too. For there is more to the crime than a mass murder and a half-hearted robbery.
This becomes apparent the closer that Peace comes to the unspeakable barbarisms of the war, of Unit 731, of the fire-bombed cities, of the fascist state-religion, of the unholy bargains made in the early shadows of the Cold War. A blurred photograph with an unreadable caption begins the novel: a man in white apron and face mask stands near a pile of frozen corpses, icicles hanging over their stiffened feet. There is a mute accusation here with no answer; the atrocities cannot be uncommitted.
Faced with the unspeakable, language almost gives up. And there are numerous times when Occupied City goes beyond the realm of sense, leaving the reader in a welter of pulverizingly vivid but yet amorphous recitations. But Peace’s narrators still try to give voice to their deaths, in order to impart a mad kind of reason to them at the end of all things.