Occupied City is a short novel, but it's not an easy one. Ostensibly, it is about the poisoning of the staff of a Tokyo bank. Twelve people die.
In reality, the novel is about war and its aftermath; research into chemical weapons, war crimes and what happens when the rules change. Through a series of 12 first person narratives - many of them very fractured - we see different facets of the murder investigation, the weapons research and the world of gangsters. A common theme is the need to adapt or die.
The structure of the novel matches a traditional Japanese ghost story game where narrators sit around a circle of candles. As each concludes a ghost story, he or she extinguishes a candle. The room gets darker, the atmosphere gets heavier, until in the end there is darkness. But in this novel, it is not the stories that are ghosts - it is their narrators.
Some of the stories are lucid and take the narrative forward - although with 12 narrators covering common ground, there is an element of repetition. Other narrators, though, are in the depths of madness and serve to create atmosphere. As with other David Peace novels, the repetition is not confined to the plot; many of the narrators repeat mantra like phrases over and over again. It is intense.
David Peace doesn't provide easy answers. This is not a whodunnit where the culprit is unmasked in the last scene. One man, Sadamichi Hirasawa, an artist, is destined to be convicted of the poisoning despite clear evidence in both the real world and in the Dark Gate of stories that he could not be the killer. We do eventually meet the killer but his identity remains an enigma. In a sense, it doesn't matter. We know what he is, even if we never know the name on his birth certificate.
This is not a novel where things join up. Things touch, they overlap, they diverge, but there is no single answer. We see a city that was secure in its reverence for the Emperor, justified in taking whatever action necessary to protect him, brought to its knees, occupied by foreign powers and those who were most diligent in their support for the Emperor are now those who are held up to be the worst war criminals. Unless, of course, they can remain hidden in the shadows. The powers of the state - and the powers of the occupiers - are focused on creating a mutually acceptable outcome. They manipulate, distort and treat individuals as expendable.
As living people, the twelve victims were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. And as ghosts seeking justice, again, they are in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Occupied City is a difficult read but a very satisfying one. It towers over the its predecessor in an apparent trilogy, the somewhat lacklustre Tokyo Year Zero. In fact, it is so radically different in style and content that most readers would probably not place them in the same set at all.
I have long wanted to read this series of books and started with 1974 a few months ago. Little did I know that it would be so grim, so gritty, so grimy that I wouldn't be able to read them one after the other and haven't picked up 1977 yet. This isn't to say that the book was bad or so depressing that I couldn't face the next book, far from it, the world Peace created is so realistic and so...I haven't even got the words...grim doesn't begin to encompass it.
Eddie Dunford is a journo, 1974, Yorkshire and he gets caught up in a child murder that captures the public imagination and threatens to tear apart everything and everyone it touches. The girl is found with swan wings stitched to her back. But no one is a angel here and heaven is an impossible ideal.
The murder serves as a black hole that all aspects of public life get pulled into and corrupted. The most interesting aspect is watching Eddie Dunford's destruction as he spirals downward carrying out his investigation.
I have seen the TV drama based on these books, in which Andrew Garfield plays Dunford. I don't feel that my having seen this show has spoiled my reading of the book in anyway - so would recommend anyone to read them. I am both looking forward to 1977 and fearing it.
Red Or Dead is a long, complex and powerful novel.
In his previous works, David Peace has addressed themes of the British class system, office management, corruption and politics. His novels have tended to focus on Yorkshire, albeit with two set in post-war Japan. In Red Or Dead, David Peace departs from his usual hunting ground to narrate the career of a Scotsman managing Liverpool Football Club.
Peace has a distinctive style. He focuses on repetition and lists. Indeed, the first three words of Red Or Dead are: “repetition, repetition, repetition”. This is used to build narrative up into a kind of chant, a kind of mantra. In this novel, following 15 seasons of football matches (that’s 630 matches in the league, plus cup games, every single one mentioned), the repetition illustrates the sheer monotony of football. Match after match after match, season after season after season. Every game the same as the one before, every season the same as the one before. Yet, still the game fascinates Bill Shankly, still it fascinates the fans. And despite knowing the outcomes in advance, it fascinates the reader. This hypnotic repetition of venues, attendances, team line ups, goal scorers, position in the league table. It draws the reader in whilst, at the same time, conveying the grinding chore of it all. And sometimes there will be a happy ending at the end of the season. But, as often as not, there is disappointment and the need to start all over again next year.
David Peace does not use “he” and “she”. Characters are named, every time. Whether at Anfield Stadium or at his home on West Derby Road, we find Bill doing this and Bill doing that, obsessively, over and over again. The language is simple to the point of being monosyllabic. And with the repetition and obsessive setting out of detail, it feels almost Biblical. There is a sense that something momentous is happening. That those who see Liverpool Football Club are the chosen people, and those who meet the Messianic Bill are somehow blessed. It is obviously heavily stylized. There is no pretence that this is an accurate reflection of Bill Shankly, his speech or his mannerisms. Parts of it may be right, parts may be imagined – but ultimately it doesn’t matter. It’s the story that counts.
So to the story. Anyone of David Peace’s vintage is likely to know the Liverpool FC of the 1980s – a team that believed it had a right to win everything and was seldom disappointed. They were hard to love – unless you were one of the young people wearing Liverpool shirts to school despite never having set foot on Merseyside. Their manager, Bob Paisley, was the most successful football manager in history, yet people spoke of this mythical figure of Bob Shankly, without whom none of this would have been possible. David Peace uncovers the myth, starting with an ambitious man taking over a mediocre second division team in 1960, the watching him build and rebuild a successful team. We see a man who is independent in mind, decisive, but has emotional intelligence. Unlike Brian Clough in The Damned United, he has respect for, and is respected by his Board, his staff, his counterparts in other clubs, and the public. As a manager, he came across as level headed, grounded by an almost silent but devoted wife and his invisible daughters. He was not driven by money and shunned the symbols of status.
The reader is drawn into this culture. Even those who would support 91 clubs ahead of Liverpool (yes, including Gillingham) will find ourselves rooting for Liverpool, hoping they will lift a trophy, hoping that the history books might be wrong and that the likes of Everton, Leeds and Manchester City might be denied. Peace’s achievement in doing this is breathtaking.
As well as feeling for the club, the reader feels for the man. The endless trudging up and down the land. Travelling out, alone, on a wet and windy night to watch a player at Scunthorpe. And then doing it again. And then calling that player for a meeting in Liverpool. The distances are considerable, and football managers and their players were simply expected to be where they were needed. There is a mention at one point of sending back a bus with no heating, but that’s pretty much the only sop to creature comforts in this long novel. Mostly it is spartan.
Then, the second half of the novel (half the chapters, rather fewer than half the pages) sees Bill in his sudden, perhaps premature retirement. This is a point at which the reader’s sympathy runs out. Despite seeing his counterparts hang around their former clubs, despite his determination not to do the same, Shankly just can’t take the hint. It is painful to watch him trying to hang on, hang around, still believing he has a role even years later. In one scene, he writes a boy a note to exchange at the stadium for a behind the scenes tour. One can only wonder what the club would have made of that. Shankly betrays envy of his successor; he betrays hurt pride at being kept apart from the players. He claims perfect memory of the past, yet starts to become confused by his own stories. In two excruciating scenes, he conducts broadcast conversations with Sir Harold Wilson, whom we now know to have been diagnosed with dementia. The reader is left wondering whether Shankly is similarly afflicted.
The time of Shankly’s story – his time as a manager and his time in retirement – saw significant change in social attitudes. Shankly is portrayed as a fair man who expects his supported to applaud their victorious opponents. He eschews contracts, being a man of his word and his handshake. He expects players to earn their money and receive the same pay, regardless of status. But as time progresses, more of the players are motivated by money; the fans start rioting; the tackling becomes harder. Shankly appears to stand there, not noticing the change. And when he does see it, he simply wrings his hands helplessly. Not, of course, that Shankly was quite as pure as he made out – advising his team to get their retaliation in first and producing false evidence at an FA disciplinary hearing in an effort to exonerate his player. But perhaps that was more honest cheating.
There are also wider social issues at play. Shankly was of the age when loyalty to an employer was more common, and there was an expectation in return that the employer would be loyal to the employee. That culture still, perhaps, clings on in Japan, where David Peace now lives. In part, Red Or Dead explores this theme. But at the same time, this was a loyalty denied to his players. As Ian St John found out after being dropped into the reserves, he was not allowed to touch the big, juicy turkeys at the Christmas party – they were for the first team. Shankly told him: "it comes to all of us”. Yet, the only one who never quite got it, it seemed, was Shankly himself.
Football is an interesting backdrop for social and organisational change. It is a world where one individual can change a lot; a flat structure with only one boss. The results of change can become visible quite quickly and the feedback is immediate. Red Or Dead is a football book. It would be difficult to appreciate it if you didn’t like football. But it is so much more. It is a novel, based on fact but nevertheless fiction, exploring the soul of a man and the soul of his football club. It leaves an impression.
Tokyo Year Zero was a disappointment.
I have admired David Peace for some time. He has a very distinctive style, using repetition, mantra and leitmotiv to generate a claustrophobic and compelling interior monologue. He has focused in the past on Yorkshire icons of the 1970s and 1980s - the Yorkshire Ripper investigations, the Miners’ Strike, and Brian Clough.
Tokyo Year Zero sees a major change of scene - Japan in 1946. Tokyo lies in ruins and a serial killer stalks the streets. In the context of a nation reeling from the utter annihilation of two entire cities, with bodies piled up in mounds, the concept of investigating murder is rather surreal. And as ever, Peace focuses on the investigators and their office politics, sleaze and decay rather than on unveiling the identity of the killer. In Tokyo Year Zero, the killer is identified early, and the challenge for the investigation is to find evidence to link him to various victims.
In theory, this should work well. There is enough to make this novel, in theory at least, differ from his previous works. In particular, the absence of personal greed; the sense of defeated honour; the obedience - should all work into giving Tokyo Year Zero something new to say. Yet it doesn’t quite work.
Firstly, the repetition and mantra are done to death - to the point that they become really irksome and boring. Peace has an interesting trick of making blocks of text pare down into triangular shapes - a bit like the blade of a guillotine. But this trick, too, is done to death. The plot itself is confusing, particularly at the end, which seems to use confusion as a metaphor for insanity. But it is hardly satisfying for a longish novel to splinter in this way at the end. One of the attractions of [most of] Peace’s previous novels was that the end was known from the outset (the Yorkshire Riper was caught; the miners lost; Brian Clough got sacked), and the beauty was in working slowly, inevitably towards that conclusion. That is not the case here, so the confusing end cannot even fall back on a wider public knowledge of events. And the confusing plot doesn’t help itself with a cast of many, many people - all with Japanese names that are unfamiliar to an anglophone ear - and which therefore tend to blur into one.
Tokyo Year Zero feels too formulaic - as though Peace has heard praise for his technical brilliance and decided to play to this perceived strength - when in fact his real strength was injecting his work with the lifeblood and soul of his own experience. This is the first of a trilogy of Japanese novels - I hope the others see David Peace back to his brilliant best.