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Symphony of darkness

Tokyo Year Zero A Novel, David Peace, Alfred A. Knopf: 354 pp., $24

September 09, 2007|Sarah Weinman | Sarah Weinman writes the "Dark Passages" online column, which appears monthly at She blogs about crime and mystery fiction at

Most writers of crime fiction start their careers with the seeds of a dependable series franchise or splashy commercial thrillers, but David Peace had loftier plans for the "Red Riding Quartet," novels documenting the years before, during and after the Yorkshire Ripper's five-year reign of terror, beginning in 1975.

The tetralogy, with its drumbeat prose structure, brutal imagery and wellsprings of despair, not only garnered Peace comparisons with James Ellroy but also landed him on Granta magazine's 2003 list of best young British novelists with the likes of David Mitchell and Zadie Smith. The accolade proved prophetic, as Peace expanded his ambition and reach with "GB84" (2004), a fictionalized account of the miners' strike that paralyzed much of northern England in the mid-1980s, and the soccer-themed British bestseller "The Damned Utd" (2006).

The trajectory of Peace's literary career comes with a great deal of irony. The Yorkshire native's deeply visceral, lightly fictionalized recounting of events dear to him required geographical distance, in the form of a move to Tokyo in 1994. By turning his attention to his current abode, Peace has finally snared U.S. publication. (The "Red Riding Quartet" and "GB84" are technically available here, though distribution is haphazard at best.) "Tokyo Year Zero" is Peace's most accessible work, the culmination of years of fine-tuning his idiosyncratic voice to its truest frequency. It is a book teeming with the harsh howls of damaged souls forced to live in a world seemingly populated by those already dead.

As in the quartet, Peace uses a real-life case -- the 1946 rapes and slayings of several Tokyo women by a man dubbed the "Japanese Bluebeard" -- to make a larger point about his chosen microcosm and the seeds of human frailty, corruption and fatalism. It is the year after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the smell of apocalypse hangs in the air like rotten apricots, one of many evocative metaphors repeated throughout the novel. "We are the survivors. We are the lucky ones," intones Peace's protagonist, Inspector Manami, knowing full well that "[d]eath follows us as we follow death."

To call Manami a tormented figure is to understate considerably; the novel's events bind him in a vise-like grip to a blackmailing journalist (a plot device Peace repeats from his early "Red Riding" entries), crafty organized-crime figures, byzantine police politics and a marriage long past the "in-name-only" stage. He cannot form a proper relationship with his two young children because the investigation keeps him away from home for weeks at a time. His emotional salvation comes in the form of Yuki, a prostitute he obsesses about and who teeters dangerously close to being wholly invented -- or, at least, highly idealized. If anything, Yuki is a mirror image of the one murder victim who remains unidentified to this day -- one who could be, as a brothel owner Manami encounters says, "all of us. . . . Every woman in Japan."

Mere plot summary and character trait listing, however, cannot do "Tokyo Year Zero" real justice. The book is more accurately described as a lengthy prose poem, its emotive power and accessibility gained from the use of repetition, distilled imagery that evokes all senses and the stacking of one-line paragraphs to focus the eye on single words -- such as "bang!" to conclude a chaotic riot pitting policemen against insurgents. When Manami repeats, "I itch and I scratch. Gari-gari," alternating English and Japanese meaning as he prepares to confront an enemy or to continue his investigation, it creates a palpable buzzing sound in the reader's mind; chiku-taku, chiku-taku is not only the sound of a ticking clock but also a reminder of how easy it is to fritter away time in quest of ugly truths; and the harshly guttural ton-ton that Manami hears as he walks to and from work adds a sense of foreboding to the Japanese word for the sound of hammering, then pushes far past it.

What we have here is not just a novel with voice, which is a natural gift honed into publishable shape, but also with rhythm, which must be learned and sharpened by the writer and is extraordinarily difficult to get right.

Peace's use of repetition serves many purposes: It furthers the narrative, adds overtones of meaning and, most astounding, provokes an urge so primal that it seems rooted in ancient texts. Alternating regular and italicized phrases brings to mind the call-and-response style of biblical psalms and Buddhist chants -- adding yet another layer as joyful noise that, in Peace's hands, is mutated to illustrate terrible tragedy.

"Tokyo Year Zero" is billed as the first in a trilogy of novels with true crimes as their initial narrative focus. No doubt, as the stories come closer to Japan's current social climate, Peace will continue to mine its history for a symphony of darkness and dread -- a project that is necessary and almost transcendent in its importance. The ton-ton, ton-ton refrain has haunted my dreams since I finished reading this novel, and I expect it will have the same effect on those willing to reach for magical literary music.

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