Dead in Japan


Empires rarely foresee their own downfall, and Japan’s surrender in World War II brought with it a period of shame that shattered the grand aspirations of an ancient regime. In Tokyo Year Zero, the latest novel by David Peace, defeat effaces the order that had governed Japan for centuries, replacing it with a heavy-handed American authority that would remake the crestfallen nation in its own image.

Loosely following the conventions of a detective procedural, Tokyo Year Zero takes root in the hunt for Kodaira Yoshio, a former soldier suspected of murdering 10 young women in Tokyo. He’s pursued relentlessly by the grizzled Detective Minami, for whom police work provides an escape from the dislocation of postwar Japan. “I don’t have a country any more . . . I don’t have a heart any more,” Minami muses as he scampers through the ruins of Tokyo, more comfortable with mafia bosses than his own family, toiling under the aegis of law and order while struggling to restrain the demons of his own past.

Like Haruki Murakami, who has explored the effects of Japan’s wartime atrocities in such novels as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Peace makes clear that his tortured characters are merely reflections of a society consumed by its own aggressive impulses. But while Murakami’s fiction swoons with the cool rhythms of jazz, Peace recalls the feverish notes of a Bach fugue. The incessant ton-ton of jackhammers per- vading Tokyo clashes with the wa-wa of hungry children; the displaced wander beneath “a low typhoid sky” while prostitutes beckon from shadowy doorways.

The tension of a narrative that aims to capture both personal dissolution and national tragedy is difficult to maintain, and the plot too often dwells on Minami’s inner turmoil without much forward progress. Tokyo Year Zero is the first of a projected three-novel series about modern Japan, and one hopes that future installments will align Peace’s ambitious scope with a measure of narrative consistency. But while his vision of an unraveled society may not be fully formed yet, the exactitude with which Peace untangles Japan’s troubled history shows ample promise.