War and an Ugly Peace

By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com
Friday, September 14, 2007


By David Peace

Knopf. 355 pp. $24

"You know, none of it makes much sense to me . . . they give us a big medal over there for all the things we did, but then we come back here and all we get is a long rope. " This is Kodaira Yoshio, a serial rapist-killer under arrest, reminiscing about the war to Detective Minami, who's come to see him in jail, to accuse him of even more heinous crimes.

The year is 1946; Japan has been defeated for a little over a year, but Kodaira isn't talking about World War II. He's harking back to a comparatively minor skirmish, the Jinan Incident, which the author describes in his glossary as "the battle between the Japanese army and the Southern Army of the Chinese Kuomintang Nationalist Army in May 1928, when the Japanese army entered Jinan, the capital of Shandong province in China, in order to protect Japanese citizens and business."

Kodaira has reason to believe he remembers the detective from those far-off times, although Minami hotly denies it. But they are the same age, about 41 now, and they would have been young, enthusiastic, patriotic soldiers back in 1928. By 1946, they have lived through a long and terrible full-on war. They have suffered all and seen everything.

The novel begins in the previous year, on the hot day in August when Emperor Hirohito makes his historic radio address, surrendering. His language is so imprecise, his voice so unfamiliar, that many of his people don't understand what he's saying. Minami and Fujita, the man who appears to be his best friend in the Tokyo Police Department, are called out to investigate the first of what will be many cases of brutally raped and murdered girls. They are joined by two military policemen. A wretched innocent bystander, an elderly Korean, is executed on the spot for the murder; possessed by the impotent rage of their country's defeat, the military police sloppily slash the old man with a sword and then bury him alive. But we begin to see that this atrocity is nothing special. Each of the four men has seen this, and much worse, before.

Flash forward to 1946, the year zero of the title. Except for the cessation of air raids, it's as if the war has never stopped. The August heat is still relentless. There is almost no food to be had. Almost no cigarettes. The white "victors" could be living in a parallel universe. Gangs have taken over what mercantile trade remains, and some corrupt police are in on the deal.

Minami is baffled by these circumstances, and the reader will not be able to make sense of it all until later. Minami has trouble enough shaping his own life into some kind of coherent narrative. He has a wife and two half-starving children, and it breaks his heart to see the conditions they live in. They're lice-ridden, traumatized and more than a little afraid of him. Then there's his mysterious girlfriend, Yuki, whom he sees very rarely during the couple of weeks in August that make up this story, but as he says repeatedly, "I think about her all the time." He remembers details of their lovemaking, her summer kimono, even her umbrella.

Something is wrong with Minami's mind. "I don't want to remember," he thinks over and over, and "No one [is] who they say they are." He's driven half mad by the sound of his nails scratching his flea-bitten skin, the incessant sounds of hammers as they're used to rebuild the destroyed city, the irritating sound of rain. Even more -- in a society where strict good manners are rigorously observed, where people bow and apologize about as often as they breathe -- he begins to abhor the fact that most of his peers are on their knees, all the time. "Get off your knees!" he thinks and says repeatedly. But that's just not possible in this culture. Besides, his friends, enemies, companions are all numbed by defeat. They can't, in the American vernacular, stand up for themselves. It's all they can do to stay alive from hour to hour.

In this toxic atmosphere almost a score of those dead girls' bodies begin to turn up in Tokyo and out in the countryside. In the only ironic or humorous line in the novel, one of Minami's colleagues asks a rural policeman impudently, "You often get young women walking in your woods, dropping down dead, do you?" The rotting bodies and pathetic articles of female clothing stack up ominously. Minami is in charge of half of the investigation, and is doing a fairly bad job of it. But it turns out that he himself is being investigated by the police, and he can't bear to think about what crimes they have in mind.

More bodies pile up everywhere. Typhus and typhoid stalk the city. The entire metropolis reeks of excrement. Minami's daughter's eyes become infected; she weeps tears and pus. Minami almost steps on a dead dog. Its stomach has been slit open to reveal a litter of fully formed dead puppies. You get the drift. The horrors of war and all that. The essential ickiness of the whole human race.

The publishers have avowedly high hopes for this novel and have announced a hefty first printing. But "Tokyo Year Zero" has a lip-smacking pornographic feel to it. Guys who enjoy the glories of war won't cozy up to this thing -- too much pus and not enough heroism. Women will (or should!) be just plain grossed out. Perverts might like it, and judging from the Internet there's no shortage of them. But they'd have to be intelligent; "Tokyo Year Zero" is a difficult, demanding, literary novel. The trouble is, it's sick. And it likes its own sickness way too much.

Sunday in Book World

? Denis Johnson's "Tree of Smoke."

? Diane Ackerman's Holocaust tale.

? Two books on the race to space.

? Michael Palin's history of everything.

? And Alexandre Dumas's latest swashbuckler.

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