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Peace follows turbulent times

It took Tokyo-based author David Peace six novels before he wrote about his adopted city, reports David Hickey. Now he can't stop

by David Hickey

“It was a nightmare,” laughs Tokyo-based author David Peace of a recent trip to Paris to promote the French version of his most successful novel, “The Damned Utd.”

A fictionalized account of Brian Clough’s tumultuous 44-day reign in 1974 as manager of Leeds United Football Club, “The Damned Utd” has not been out of the top 100 hundred best-selling paperbacks in Peace’s native England since publication in 2006. Two years on, and its author is still dragging himself around the world promoting it, although Peace first made his name almost a decade ago with four crime novels known collectively as the Red Riding Quartet — in part based on the Yorkshire Ripper murders — and his recent book, the historical crime fiction “Tokyo Year Zero,” is his most acclaimed to date.

But back to Paris.

“They’d just released ‘The Damned Utd’ in France,” explains Peace. “And in January, ‘Tokyo Year Zero’ had been published there. I was live on radio taking part in a panel discussion, and there was this English girl translating. And at one point she’s going (under his breath), ‘You’re not going to believe this. She thinks your dad is Jack the Ripper.’ I say, ‘Does she mean the Yorkshire Ripper?’

“So the interviewer’s like, ‘OK, so your father was the Yorkshire Ripper?’ I’m like, ‘No.’

“But your mother was a victim?”

Peace’s interlocutor that day could be forgiven for confusing his story, given the furious pace at which he has worked and the ground he has covered. Since his debut in 1999 with “1974,” which followed crime reporter Edward Dunford — like Peace, from Osset in West Yorkshire — on the grisly trail of a murdered schoolgirl, the 41-year-old has written seven novels, is halfway through another and has at least three more knocking about in his head.

That he can see the funny side is a relief.

Peace — married with two young children — doesn’t look like he’s going to strip me naked, nail my hands and feet to the wooden door of his office and hurl me into the Shiba Canal, as is the fate of one of the police detectives in “Tokyo Year Zero.” Wearing black, thick-rimmed glasses and dressed in dark trousers and a buttoned-up Fred Perry shirt, Peace is nonviolent. Friendly, even. He has lived in Tokyo since 1994, although his West Yorkshire brogue remains intact (books is pronounced “boooks”).

“Tokyo Year Zero,” published last year and now available here in paperback in English or Japanese, impressed The New York Times Book Review so much that they mentioned Peace in the same breath as Fyodor Dostoevski, William Burroughs and Alain Robbe-Grillet. Hallowed company indeed, although there’s nothing hallowed about the novel’s subject matter: It follows pill-popping protagonist Detective Minami’s pursuit of the real-life sex killer Yoshio Kodaira, who raped and murdered at least eight women between 1945 and 1946. “Tokyo Year Zero” is the first in a planned trilogy of historical crime novels set in Tokyo during the Allied Occupation, where “a long-dead fish is a whole week’s wage” and corrupt police make calls at the shabby apartments of “hostesses and mistresses . . . balladeers and gangsters.”

Peace is currently “halfway” through the next novel in the trilogy. “Tokyo Occupied City” is about the Teigin Incident of Jan. 26, 1948, in which a man passing himself off as a health official convinced 16 people at a Tokyo bank to drink a poisonous liquid he said was a remedy for dysentery, killing 12 of them. The final installment, “Tokyo Resurrected,” should examine the Shimoyama Incident of 1949, in which the president of the Japanese National Railways was found dead on train tracks, apparently struck by one his company’s own trains.

Next year will see the release of the film adaptation of “The Damned Utd,” starring Michael Sheen (“The Queen”). As well, three of the books in the Red Riding Quartet (so called because they are set largely in the West Riding area in Yorkshire) are being adapted for British television.

Clearly, Peace’s star is very much in the ascendant. But asked if he’s ready for fame, he’s phlegmatic.

“I think I’m better off here,” he says, laughing.

From where did the idea come for a trio of novels set in Tokyo during the Occupation, and why focus on these crimes?

Initially, what I wanted to do was write four books that were going to tell the story from the aftermath of the war till the 1964 Olympics, which I see as the date when Tokyo was accepted back into the world community. And I wanted to use crime to tell the story. Of course, in that period 1945-64, there were many sensational crimes, but (what interested me) was whether these crimes had any political significance. The Kodaira case, the Teigin case and the Shimoyama case I felt could only have taken place in Tokyo in these years. So from being a Showa Period (1926-89) reconstruction quartet it came to be about the Occupation.

When I first came to Tokyo in 1994, I was writing these books about the Yorkshire Ripper and the initial interest in Kodaira came about as I was writing these books and trying to find out about Tokyo at the same time as a kind of hobby. I’d read Ed Seidensticker’s “Tokyo Rising: The City Since the Great Earthquake” and Mark Schreiber’s “Shocking Crimes of Postwar Japan,” which both mention Kodaira, and what struck me was that this was a serial killer whose crimes were very much rooted in the time and place. You can make a political argument about any crime, but basically Kodaira had been a soldier, he’d raped and murdered in China and had medals for it and came back and continued to do what he’d done before. And he was able to do so because of the social and economic conditions of the time, whereby he was catching his victims with promises of food and jobs, which, had there been food and jobs, he wouldn’t have been able to do. So I felt this case was a way into that time and place.

What do you think turned Kodaira into a killer?

Before he went into the army, he’d killed (Kodaira bludgeoned to death his Shinto priest father-in-law with a steel club in 1932 and spent eight years in prison) and the army I felt helped him refine his techniques. I don’t think the army turned him into what he was; I think he was somebody who benefited from being in the army, was given license to do these things. With Kodaira, a lot of it comes down to sex. He was motivated by the urge for sex and then the killing was almost secondary, as a way to cover up the rapes.

Would you agree that one of the themes in your work is that you’re giving a voice to the voiceless?

I’m giving a voice to the victims. In “Occupied City,” the very first voices you hear are the voices of the dead, the victims. In all the books — except “The Damned Utd” — the reason I’ve written about the cases is because I’ve wanted to put these victims at the front.

Where does your interest in the victims come from?

It really comes from an interest in crime. The time I grew up in West Yorkshire was the time of the Yorkshire Ripper and that did have an effect on me, maybe because at that time I was into Sherlock Holmes and I did really like crime fiction — Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Jim Thompson, all the American noir. As a 10-year-old, I wanted to be a private detective like Sherlock Holmes or Philip Marlowe. I used to keep the press cuttings from the case from about that age and I had this dream of solving the case.

When I arrived in Japan and began to write “1974,” which is about Yorkshire and the ’70s, they still talked about Tsutomu Miyazaki (who was sentenced in 1997 for killing four girls and was executed last month). That was one of the first cases in Japan that I tried to look into, and I then tried to transpose that case, in a very kind of strange way, onto Yorkshire and the ’70s.

What I realized when I was writing “1977″ (the followup to “1974″) and through writing about police and prostitutes and the kind of people that get dragged into these inquiries were the political possibilities of crime writing. They’re not “whodunits,” they’re “whydunits.” Basically, the question I was trying to answer was, why did the Ripper case occur in Yorkshire? (I wanted to) look at the social and economic conditions and the sexual politics between the way men and women interact. And that very much applies to “Tokyo Year Zero” and the Kodaira case.

Did you grow up with violence?

No, not personally. The violence is the thing I find hardest. I often think that the majority of crime novels and film and TV, while their often very graphic, they sometimes sanitize (the violence). I don’t think it’s portrayed in a realistic way. With, say, the Yorkshire Ripper or Kodaira, one of the things I’ve tried to do in the books is show the suffering of the victims. But in order to show their suffering you have to show the violence inflicted on them. You have to show it in a way that, (although the reader is) never going to be able to suffer in a way the victim suffered, to some extent (the reader is) able to feel some empathy for the victims. But it’s a fine line.

In America, some female critics thought that “Tokyo Year Zero” was somehow voyeuristic in the rape scenes, saying it was designed to turn on men. It’s the hardest thing to get right. I’ve yet to meet a bloke who’s said to me, “I’ve been turned on by the stuff you’ve written.”

Do you think you’ve ever gone too far?

No.

Is there a single theme that connects your books?

Some people said from “The Damned Utd” to “Tokyo Year Zero” was a big leap — “It’s the first book you’ve not written about Yorkshire” — but actually the themes are quite similar. I’ve always been interested in places and people at times of defeat, for example, Yorkshire in the ’70s with the Ripper, and during the miners’ strike (in Peace’s fifth novel “GB84″). “Tokyo Year Zero” is taking that to an extreme — the defeat of a city, but also, as well, with all the characters, I never buy into this mainstream idea that there are good guys and bad guys. In “Tokyo Year Zero,” Detective Minami is the narrator and ostensibly the hero, but he does some very unheroic things. Personally, too, I do things that I don’t regret but I do things that I do regret.

People are very, very complex. And in the books I try to reflect the complexity.

One expat commentator hailed “Tokyo Year Zero” as “the best novel in English about Japan.” What reaction did the Japanese translation get here?

The Japanese press would ask — and they mean this is a compliment — “How could you get inside the Japanese mind?” As if there is only one Japanese mind. I always find this a very strange concept. Even liberal, well-educated journalists and friends of mine who are Japanese will say, “It’s amazing how you could write as a Japanese.”

The government and media perpetrate this myth of one Japanese mind, as if everyone’s got f**king ESP or something. And yet there’s 120 million people in this country, and I’ve been here 14 years and every single person I’ve met has been a unique individual. So as I was writing, I wasn’t really thinking, “Is this what a Japanese person would do?” I was just thinking, “Is this what this character would do?”

Did you set out to try to write the Big Postwar Japan Novel?

I don’t even think, “It’s going to be a crime novel.” It is what it is. I would never set myself up in competition. I think that’s really dangerous. Basically, I write the books for me. That sounds either selfish or arrogant, but it’s just because I think it’s more arrogant to presume there will be readers. As long as I think it’s all right, then I’m to some degree satisfied.

One of the things I was really surprised at was how positive people (expats) have been in Tokyo about that book. When anyone’s ever written a book on Tokyo, foreigners — myself included — have thought, “That’s just not right.” I’ve read books and thought, “That’s ridiculous.” Often these books are only written by people who make flying visits anyway, but I think anyone who lives in a foreign country, there’s some reason why they’re not living in their own country. Of course, to a great degree we can reinvent ourselves in a way that’s not possible in your own country, and you construct your own version of Tokyo, and the minute you read something that contradicts it, you get upset, you get kind of threatened by it. I think this is why foreigners ignore each other on the trains (laughs).

It wasn’t an attempt to write the Great Tokyo Novel, but it was certainly an attempt to avoid writing a bad Tokyo novel. That was why my Japanese editor was so helpful, because I didn’t want to have anything that was incongruous, a mistake.

As a writer, do you find Tokyo an intellectually stimulating environment?

Yeah, very much so. And also, by the very definition of being an outsider, which will never change, it’s always mysterious and it’s always unknown.

I find cities fascinating places. The more you know the history — (for example) if you know that slope we walked up (near Peace’s office) is called Ijinzaka, Slope of the Foreigners, because when Todai (Tokyo University) first accepted foreign professors they used to have to come to and from university separately from the Japanese. I’m always looking for signs, little bits that are left over that you can see. I don’t really think the past goes away. I think it’s all around us. That’s why I like history.

You’re able to capture so vividly a variety of different worlds, from journalism to police work to prostitution. Is that down to imagination or research?

I think it’s a combination of the two. With the Red Riding Quartet, with scenes between the police and the prostitutes, and to some degree with “Tokyo Year Zero” — I’ve got to be very careful with what I say — but there are large parts based on experience or people I’ve known or friends I’ve known. For the scenes to work, I have to completely empathize with the people involved in the scene. I suppose it’s half empathy and half research. And of course imagination.

I don’t really have an interest in serial killers — at least I hope I don’t. What fascinates me is why these things occur. So with “Tokyo Year Zero,” I started off with the stuff from Ed (Seidensticker) and the stuff from Mark (Schreiber), and went to the Diet Library at Nagata-cho and I went through The Nippon Times, as (The Japan Times) was then, and the Mainichi (Daily News) and went through all that.

My kanji reading is really poor and I was very worried about the research. But (publisher) Bungei Shunju have got a massive archive and about once a week I’d meet my editor there and he’d pull out the papers and read off the headlines to me and if something sounded interesting, like “Baby eaten by rat,” I’d make some notes and ask him about the weather, things about music, films that were going on (at that time).

At the same time, I was also reading as many novels as I could in translation — things like (Osamu) Dazai, some of the early (Shusaku) Endo novels that are all set in the postwar period. As I’m researching, some things will strike me as “scenes.” It sounds utterly pretentious, but the voices start to speak to you. For example, the sound of ton-ton-ton (symbolizing a hammering sound) comes from a Dazai story.

I think the use of imagination is probably stronger in “Tokyo Year Zero,” because it was the first time I was writing about a time and place I hadn’t grown up in, so I wanted it to be kind of ultravivid, as much for myself (as the reader). I know a lot of people don’t like the constant references to the hammering and the scratching, but it was important to remind me that while all this is going on there is this reconstruction and the terrible aftermath of the war.

You mention the repetition, a device you use that seems to have developed over the seven novels. Is this a case of you honing your style, finding your ‘voice’?

Yeah. Techniques used in one book I’ll expand on in another book. In “1980″ (the third in the “Red Riding Quartet”), in order to portray the victims of the Ripper, I use this unbroken stream-of- consciousness text, but that follows on directly from “1977.” The way I check all the text, not just those bits, is to read it aloud to myself. If it works when I read it aloud then I know it’s OK.

Life to me is very fragmented. You have thousands of things going on in your mind and around you. (The questions are), “What is the reality? And how can I convey that?” So the use of italic text, or separating text (both devices that Peace used in “Tokyo Year Zero”), really interested me a great deal. But I feel to some extent I’ve taken that as far as I can.

What also interests me about repetition is the way we replay events. You’ll often have a conversation with somebody or you’ll do something, and then you’ll go away and wish you hadn’t said it or you regret it, and the way you deal with it, I think, is you replay it in your mind until you actually become comfortable with it.

I think (the repetition) also comes from the fact that I tend to construct the sentences more like poems than prose. Life, while it’s fragmented, it’s also repetitious, and the repetition adds a kind of rhythm that it’s hard for me not to listen to. I’ve been really trying to break it, though, with the new book.

How’s “Tokyo Occupied City” going?

It’s been a real struggle, actually. I’ve had to tour a lot, which has broken up the time, but when I got to the end of “Tokyo Year Zero,” for the first time the book in my head was very similar to the book produced. This book almost seemed to me to be a culmination of what I’ve been trying to do with all the books, and so I began straight away to write “Occupied City” and I got about halfway through — this was last year — and I realized it was exactly the same as “Tokyo Year Zero.”

I’d used one of the detectives from “Tokyo Year Zero” to continue the story. While I’m the first to admit there’s a lot of repetition in the books, this was ridiculous. I felt it was becoming like a parody. So I wanted to look for a different way to tell the story. And so I’ve found a different way, but it’s more difficult (to write), which it should be, and which is good. But it means the book’s late. It’s the hardest thing I’ve had to write.

Heinous crimes are still occurring in Japan, such as the knifing rampage in Tokyo’s Akihabara district last month. Why are the three postwar crimes you’re focusing on still relevant today?

So much of the Japan we live in now has its origins in that Occupation period. The Americans drew up the political constitution of Japan, so the political apparatus that we live in was constructed during that period. The course of that Occupation period dictated so much then of the course of what was to become, (for example) the purges, and then the rehabilitation of people who had been purged. And you end up with a situation in 1952 where it’s the same people — look at those in power now in the Liberal Democrat Party and their families and histories, and they go back prewar. It is the key six years in 20th-century Japan.

Do you think it was those six years that established postwar Japan as leaning politically to the right?

The genius of author Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Of all the writers I have ever read, irrespective of their nationality, Ryunosuke Akutagawa is the one writer I come back to time and time again — sometimes for his subjects, sometimes more for his style, but always for his sincerity.

Akutagawa has been translated many times since his suicide in 1927 at age 35, and each collection has something to recommend it. However, the best overview is the most recent: “Rashomon & Seventeen Other Stories,” translated by Jay Rubin (Penguin, 2006). But I would also recommend “The Essential Akutagawa,” edited by Seiji M. Lippit (Marsilio, 1999), with a foreword by Jorge Luis Borges. And don’t forget “Kappa,” translated by Geoffrey Bownas, with a great introduction by G.H. Healey (Tuttle, 1971).

While Japanese literature is well-served by English translations, there are still books I dream of being able to read if I wasn’t so idle and stupid. Top of the list is “Dogura Magura” by Kyusaku Yumeno (Sorceries, 1935), an occult murder mystery set in a mental hospital. My curiosity is only heightened by the French translation and the 1988 film (of the same title) by Matsumoto Toshio, available with English subtitles.

Next on the list would be “Kachikujin Yapoo” (1956) by Shozo Numa, a dystopian science-fiction novel set in the “Fortieth Century” in the “Empire of a Hundred Suns.” Again, it’s available in French, as “Yapou, betail human.” (David Peace — as told to David Hickey)

There was a moment when, initially, in the aftermath of the surrender and the shock of the defeat, there was an opportunity for ordinary Japanese people to have more of a say — more control in their own government and their own direction. There were great attempts to seize that opportunity, but what the Americans were afraid of was, if they let the genie out of the bottle, the genie would be communist.

A huge number of Japanese people wanted to let the genie out of the bottle. There were attempts, and it was crushed.

Would you want your two children to read your books later in life?

I actually dedicated “Tokyo Year Zero” to the children. They were a big part of why I wanted to write it, because I do have to have some reason personally to write the book. One of the things I often think is that for various reasons, a lot of the history here is hidden. The area we live in was destroyed in the 1923 earthquake, it was bombed flat in ’45 — hundreds of thousands of people have died and yet there isn’t anything really about it. Some of the older people talk about it but the kids grow up with no kind of idea.

For example?

My son (who goes to the local Japanese school) told me, “We did the Second World War today.”

I was like, “Oh right.”

And he says, “Yeah, the Americans dropped these bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

And I’m like, “Yeah.”

“And they bombed here.”

“Yeah. And?”

“Well, they’re terrible, aren’t they?”

Of course, you could talk for hours about “What is history, the official history?” I’ve never really been interested in the official versions of history, but I think, unless you know your history — and you have to find it out for yourself — then you’re not going to understand the present and you’re likely to make the same mistakes again.