Few novelists have as distinctive a style as David Peace; a style that almost demands that he be a ‘cult’ novelist. And so he was until he wrote The Damned United, a novel which so successfully captures the tormented character of Brian Clough – whether accurately or not – that it opened his work to a mainstream audience, something that can only have been accelerated in this last year with the film version, and the television adaptation of his Red Riding quartet. What, then, will his new audience make of his latest novel, Occupied City, the second in a planned trilogy of set in post-war Tokyo?
As with all of his fiction, Occupied City has its origin in fact. On 26th January, 1948, a man claiming to be a doctor entered the Teikoku Bank and told the staff that they had to be inoculated against a local outbreak of dysentery. After the ‘medicine’ was administered, 12 of the 16 staff died immediately. An extensive man-hunt, led to the arrest and conviction of Hirasawa Sadamichi, a painter, though many (including Peace) do not believe that he was guilty. In the novel, Peace links this event to Japanese experiments with biological warfare, and post-war American and Soviet attempts to access this research. All this is, once again, set against the backdrop of a defeated country.
The stylistic tricks which we have come to expect from Peace are all present in this new novel, but are less effective as a result of the borrowed structure which takes the form of a séance at which each individual voice is given an allotted time to speak. These voices include victims, detectives, a survivor, a journalist, an American and a Soviet war crimes investigator, Hirasawa himself, and the real murderer. Each voice speaks and then retires as a candle is symbolically put out. Individual sections are very cleverly done. For example, one section is in the form of a detective’s notebook, written in notes with “various pages damaged, defaced or missing for reasons unknown.” Another is presented as a series of letters, both personal and official. This desire to combine factual reportage with personal comment is perhaps best seen in the Soviet investigator’s chapter where sentences which are not strictly factual are crossed out. However, stylistic variations can, at times, seem merely to conceal a similarity of tone and information that can feel like an attempt to wear down the reader in the way the detectives hunting the killer, and perhaps Peace conducting his research, were worn down. Despite a variety of viewpoints, there is no attempt to use irony: each witness seems to agree, often word for word, on what happened and what was said. New voices frequently add very little to what we know. In previous novels, Peace has used an incantatory repetition to develop character because the same voice is heard throughout. Here, the same effect is less successful, unless used to develop atmosphere, as when the survivor comes to symbolise Tokyo itself:
“On her hands and on her knees, she crawls through the Occupied City. Help me, she says. In the mud and the sleet, on her hands and on her knees, in the Occupied City.”
The phrase is repeated, for example in the ninth chapter, (“on our hands and on our knees”) to make the symbolism clear, but much of the repetition is less nuanced.
The novel is almost anti-detective fiction, as the same evidence is reviewed again and again but with little sense of progress. Of course, this may be exactly what Peace intends. It is clear that the real link between the murders and the experiments in biological warfare is a moral one; that the civilian crime is merely a spill-over of the military excesses. No-one is excused: as the killer is hunted, the American and Soviet occupiers seek to protect those who have done far worse in order to share their knowledge. And, though the appearance of ‘the writer’ as a character is another sign of the novel’s failure to quite connect, he, too, is condemned for not finding the truth that will allow a conclusion; instead we finish with a pause.
Although this may not be Peace’s best novel, it is this very lack of neatness, and his fearlessness in experimenting with forms of expression, that makes his such a vital voice.