Books You Really Should’ve Read By Now (number three million and five): Tokyo Year Zero by David Peace

David Peace is one of the top three writers writing in English today. There, I’ve said it. Disagree all you want, call me an idiot, accuse me of fawning hyperbole, tell me ‘yeah, he’s good but he’s not that good’ but you will not change my mind. On recent form, David Peace quite simply makes countless other writers seem lazy, artless and cowardly. He should certainly make us feel envious if nothing else because at the moment David Peace is moving in a literary stratosphere that would choke most dead. In fact the sheer ambition of his work alone would make most heads explode never mind its realisation.

Let’s look at the facts: Not content with producing the great Red Riding Quartet, or wading through the minefield of the Miners’ Strike in GB84, or even pretty much resurrecting Brian Clough in The Damned United, Peace has now turned his attention to a trilogy detailing the rise of post-war Japan. That’s right – the rise of post-war Japan. Hardly a book about how hard it is to find love in north London is it?

Tokyo Year Zero is the first book in this trilogy. Narrated by the drug-addicted Detective Minami, a man haunted both by his past and futility of his future, we are guided through the ashes of post-surrender Tokyo as Minami works the case of a serial killer operating in the city. This is an almost impossible task given the state of the ravaged Police Department where corruption and mistrust rule and officers are more interested in survival and vendettas than the public they serve. So advanced is this putrescence that officers themselves are zombified, claiming the names of the dead as their own to wipe records clean and evade the constant purges that fuel the fear powering the whole establishment.

Using such rotten institutions to dissect society is a technique Peace has become a master of. Likewise, his blurring of the lines between real events and those of the imagination has become something of a hallmark. In some hands this would become a research-fest, a gluttonous bellyache of library-sourced lecture or an embarrassed and apologetic hand wringing exercise, but so fearless is Peace’s blend of fact and fiction that he produces a greater human truth than either form does alone.

It is this truth that stays with us throughout Tokyo Year Zero. Because, yes, stylistically this is typical, dazzling Peace – clipped simple sentences, swirling repetitions, switches between the inner and outer world, the hammer-blows we have come to expect when his words strike. Yes, the characters and their environment seem completely authentic – the onomatopoeias of the Japanese language themselves creating a vivid sense of place: the scratch of gari gari; the chiku-taku of time ticking down too slowly. Yes, the plotting is tight. Yes, the pages turn ceaselessly toward conclusion. Yes, we rush to reach our seeming truth but it is still the human truth that lingers, the greater truth: What happens to man when he is conquered? What happens to man when he conquers? And how can man possibly confront the aftermath of both?

Peace doesn’t simply drag up dead history to tell us a tale; he uses history as the mirror it is. Tokyo Year Zero’s scorched earth and arid moral landscape has only a short distance to travel in the mind of the reader before they are picturing the rebuilding of Baghdad; the continual failure, infiltration and corruption of Iraq’s own establishment; gangsterism disguising itself as patriotism, sectarianism cloaked as justice, democracy trampled threadbare.

Of course, in Tokyo Year Zero there is no insurgency of the type we see in Baghdad Year Four, the headlines tell a different story there, but the human story is identical in both Peace’s Tokyo and Bush’s Baghdad: the theatre of war has no curtain call, only encores that the audience have rarely requested.

Any Cop?: Bleak, despairing, real and horribly, horribly human. David Peace tells us more about the human condition in one scratch of a character’s neck than most writers manage in a whole novel. An outstanding piece of work.

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