Rising Son - David Peace does Japan
This article is from 2009.
Having recently moved back to his native Yorkshire from Japan, crime writer David Peace has avoided a few media storms. He tells Brian Donaldson that the clock is ticking on his life as an author
Although generally viewed as one of the most crime-free countries in the developed world, when Japan does crime, its felons certainly step up to the mark. In their back catalogue is the notorious cannibal (is there any other kind?) Issei Sagawa who killed and feasted upon a Dutch woman Renée Hartevelt in 1981. The case earned him a swathe of notoriety and upon his release, he even appeared in magazine articles about fine dining, though the rumour that he had become a restaurant critic is probably a myth. Then there was the sarin chemical attacks on the Tokyo subway in 1995 by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult which left a dozen people dead and a nation permanently scarred.
Although now residing back in Wakefield, David Peace had made Tokyo his home since 1994 and on researching for his novels about the country, he came across a book entitled Shocking Crimes of Post War Japan which has helped him sketch out his Tokyo trilogy. Peace claims his prime motivation for dabbling in the crime genre is not so much to write about the acts themselves as to explore how those crimes somehow feed into telling the story of a city or a country. Previously, he has done it with The Red Riding Quartet featuring corrupt police in West Yorkshire and he did it with GB84, analysing how the miners strike left bruises and blood all over the map of Britain.
‘My original intention was that I was going to write a quartet about the history of Tokyo from the end of the war up to the Olympics of 1964 which was the first time that Japan was rehabilitated and brought back into the international community. But the crimes needed to have some social or political resonance beyond the cruelty or voyeurism involved.’ So, in Tokyo Year Zero, he writes of a rapist who killed ten women in 1946 by luring them with promises of food and jobs, giving us an insight into how it must be to live in a country that has suffered wartime defeat. With his new book, Occupied City, the story centres on the man who walked into a Tokyo bank in 1948 and administered poison to the clerks who believed him to be a government official saving them from the effects of a possible dysentery outbreak.
‘There are a number of reasons that give it a resonance beyond the bare facts. First a man goes into the bank wearing the armband and appearance of working for the occupation and talking about disease which gives him an authority within the eyes of the people there and makes them do as he tells them. Then there was the way in which the investigation was handled and the various conspiracies that have been written into the case involving the legacy of the Japan and China war and chemical war and maybe the complicity of the Americans and possible involvement of the Russians. It made me feel that only in January 1948 could this case have taken place.’
The third book, Resurrected (original working title was Regained: ‘but it sounded too much like a sports drink’) focuses on the death of the head of the Japanese national railways in 1949 whose body was found on the train tracks in Tokyo. Some people believe it was murder, others that it was suicide but the case remains unsolved. In the first book, there’s a clear killer who was caught and convicted and executed and in Occupied City there was a man who was caught and convicted but never executed and there remains a great air of doubt about whether he actually did it. In the third one we don’t even know whether the man was murdered or killed himself.’
Still, without any shadow of doubt, David Peace is one of the most visceral and sharp-minded writers in British fiction today. If you agree, then please enjoy him while you can as he has a fairly rigid plan about how many books he has left in him. ‘I’m beginning to regret having said that because it’s started to make me sound a bit like Gary Numan. Beyond the final Tokyo book, there are two more under contract with Faber and then there’ll be a 12th book and that will take me up to about 50 years old.’ Surely you’re not telling me you’ll then be too old to be a writer? ‘Maybe it’s a midlife crisis or something, but to my mind the best is behind you at that age and I do think that the worst thing is writers outstaying their welcome.’
Whether we are soon to see the back of Peace as a novelist (he expresses frustration over the limited nature of the fictional form) he’s been doing it too long to ever stop the process of writing: ‘maybe I’ll go on and write terrible poetry or bore people with plays.’ Perhaps though, he was simply put off the life of a novelist by the furore which revolved around The Damned Utd, his 2006 book (dubbed a ‘faction’ by some critics) which focussed on the stormy 44 days of Brian Clough’s rein at Leeds in 1974 having taken over from the immensely popular Don Revie.
Legal wrangles surrounded the publication with minor text changes made for the paperback edition after complaints by Leeds player Johnny Giles while the Clough family expressed their displeasure at the depiction of Brian as a moody drunkard. Peace certainly regrets having caused them any grief but is hacked off by many of the comments.
‘I don’t want to appear churlish and ungrateful because so many people have said so many positive things about the book and it’s sold well. But what I find annoying is somehow there’s the insinuation that it’s controversial; well, it’s just not actually. The family are upset and I’m sorry about that, that was the last thing I wanted, but it’s not controversial. I’ve written about police corruption, the miners strike, Tokyo in the aftermath of defeat and I could accept that those might be seen as controversial. But the life of a football manager … ?’
In spite of (or due to) the controversy that has followed some of his work (he has been slammed by everyone from John Stalker to Michael Parkinson), Peace’s profile has risen significantly in the last couple of years. Much of this is down to synchronicity with this year’s dual release of The Damned United movie (he hasn’t seen it) and Channel 4’s three-part squeezing of his Red Riding Quartet (believes they did a ‘fantastic job’) while he was named GQ Writer of the Year in 2007 and had a South Bank Show dedicated to him.
‘The problem with film and TV is it’s like putting your head above a parapet, and suddenly people who would never have come across your work start making pronouncements about it. So with Red Riding you had editorials in the Yorkshire Post and Stalker writing in the Radio Times to say that this is the most despicable portrayal of a named police force in the history of whatever and stuff. I know people think I like having my cake and eating it, but the way I see it is I grew up round here, I knew police corruption was going on and my memory and my impressions are my own.’
What is also undeniably David Peace’s own is his stark writing style, which often merges the brutal with the seemingly mundane, always slowly building a barrage of detail which culminates in a punishing image or psychological meltdown. He admits that having written two unpublished ‘sub-Paul Auster’ novels, he then sought to blend together the hard style of the three US James’ (Ellroy, Crumley, Lee Burke) with the angry young northern man portrayals of John Braine, Alan Sillitoe and David Storey.
The result of his reading and writing was the apocalyptic Nineteen Seventy Four and the subsequent three books of that major series. ‘The way I’ve always worked is I keep these cardboard boxes and I’ve planned the books by keeping stuff in them. Soon, I won’t have any more boxes.’ And the British fiction world will also feel a little emptier.
David Peace, Charlotte Square Gardens, 0845 373 5888, 22 Aug, 8pm, £9 (£7).