Archive for August, 2009

Occupied City

August 16, 2009

occupied city

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.

Pandora in the Congo

August 4, 2009


pandora in the congo

There’s something irresistible about the deep-green, gold embossed and unashamedly naked (no dust-jacket) cover with its ghost-white hero gasping from a black jungle, cartoon rips in his clothing and literally gleaming (if you wiggle it a little under a light) jewels in his outstretched hand. It may not be quite in the class of Michael Chabon’s Gentleman of the Road – which has a yellowing map inside and an illustration for every chapter – but there is a similar expectation of pulp thrills accompanied with post-modern knowing, a guilty pleasure which still allows the reader to feel clever.

The first example of this knowingness is the choice of narrator, Thomas Thomson, a writer whose career begins when he is given the chance to ghost write for Doctor Luthor Flag – who, of course, specialises in pulp adventures set in Africa. Thomson is given an outline from which he writes – not from Flag himself, but from Frank Strub, another of Flag’s ghost writers. When Strub dies, Thomson discovers that the outlines were reaching him via another two ghost writers (also newly deceased – a coincidence that seems like the beginning of a mystery but is never explained). An attempt to speak to Flag directly at the funeral misfires, but it is there that he meets Edward Norton, a lawyer who wishes him to write the story of his client, Marcus Garvey, who is currently awaiting trial for the murder of Richard and William Craver in the Congo in 1912. Norton hopes that by fictionalising Garvey’s version of events (the modern equivalent would be a televised docu-drama) he can save him:

“It’s not looking good for him….The evidence points to him. And worst of all, the victims weren’t just any two ordinary men. They were the sons of the Duke of Craver.”

Thomson visits Garvey in prison and, from what he tells him, builds a narrative that crosses genres from jungle adventure to science fiction when, at the same time as discovering gold, the Cravers also come upon an underground race, the Tectons. The Tectons are basically human, but with some differences:

“He had a skull a bit more pointy than ours, like the mummies in Peru….His face was full of angles and corners, bringing to mind a chiselled diamond.”

They also have six fingers on each hand. Initially only one Tecton appears, and the brothers respond by treating him as an African: they remove his clothing and tie him up. The first Tecton escapes, but soon a second appears, a woman, Amgam, only to meet similar treatment, though this time she is tied up in William’s tent, presumably to be raped. Eventually, of course, more Tectons appear and attack the camp. These Tectons come to take what they can, regardless of the cost:

“Human life didn’t exist for those Tectons….They saw only objects.”

When they find an African tied up as a punishment, they pull of his fingers and toes with pliers. The parallels between the Tectons and the European colonist are made explicit:

“The white men always do the same thing. First the missionaries arrive and threaten hell. Then, the merchants come and steal everything. Then, the soldiers.”

The brothers manage to fight off the unarmed merchants but they now await the soldiers. They cannot leave because their greed for gold, and arrogance, prevents them.

Pinol reminds us throughout that we are not simply reading Garvey’s story, but Thomson’s recollections of writing that story. There are in fact three novels called Pandora in the Congo: the one Thomson wrote for Doctor Flag, the one that tells of Garvey’s adventures, and the one we are reading. In that, Thomson himself is a fully rounded character, and we also find a layer of comedy created by his landlady and her Welsh lodger, and his editor at the Times of Britain. The intervention of the First World War also throws up interesting parallels:

“Their masks had enormous round glass eyes. The helmets and the masks covered their heads and turned them into creatures closer to insects than humans. They could have been Martians as easily as Germans.”

Here we see one of the novel’s main concerns: how quick we are to believe in the otherness of the enemy, or in the enmity of the other. It is Thomson’s belief in the Tectons that influences the public’s belief, and he is convinced to he point that he believes himself to be in love with Amgam.

Unlike the novel that Thomson writes, this will not change the world, or even the fate of one individual. However, it is great fun, everything has a rational explanation (to a point), and it may provoke a thought or two along the way.