Friday, September 14, 2012

Tokyo Year Zero

David Peace's detective novel set in a defeated Japan in 1945, Tokyo Year Zero (Alfred A. Knopf, 355 pages, 2007), first came to my attention, appropriately enough, through the radio. I heard a NPR reviewer talk about the emotional impact of the author's use of Japanese language words that sound like the action they describe. For instance, gari-gari represented the sound of scratching. Ton-ton is the tap of a hammer.

In a nation that lacked dependable clean water and soap, and had been leveled by American incendiary bombing, there was lots of scratching and hammering. Peace is able to create a virtual background soundtrack for his book by the continuous use of these onomatopoeic words. He also, by monotonous repetition, gives the reader a sense of the desperate drudgery of life at the subsistence level.

"I itch from black-headed lice. I scratch. Gari-gari. I get up from the low table. I itch. I scratch. Gari-gari. I go over to the kitchen sink. I itch. I scratch. Gari-gari. I comb my hair. I itch. I scratch. Gari-gari. The lice fall out in clumps. I itch. I scratch. Gari-gari. I crush them against the sink. I itch. I scratch. Gari-gari. The skin lice are harder. I itch. I scratch. Gari-gari. They are white and so more difficult to hunt. I itch. I scratch. Gari-gari. I turn on the tap. I itch. I scratch. Gari-gari. The water starts. The water stops. The water starts again--

I itch, I sctratch. Gari-gari. I itch. I scratch. Gari-gari..."

Few writers would be able to find the delicate point of balance between perfect depiction and tedium. Peace, luckily, is able to bring it off, and in the process creates a vivid backdrop for his compelling story of a detective's hunt for a serial killer. Tokyo Year Zero is more than just that, though. As the main narrator, the bitter and angry Detective Minami, continually suggests, no one is who they say they are and nothing is what it seems. There is a growing certainty that the killings are linked to other crimes, perhaps crimes involving the police themselves. The author selectively lets us listen to Minami's thoughts, which are almost as repetitive and monotonous as the sounds of scratching and hammering in the background. They are also mean and ungracious, unlike the polite Japanese ritual that Minami curses even as he graciously performs it.

Peace has given us a novel that works on three levels. It provides the narrative readers expect from fiction, complete with characterization and plot; it creates a virtual audio accompaniment for the book; and it gives us a glimpse of the inner mental workings of the key character. The result is important, because it provides entertainment which ought, given an intelligent and imaginative reader, to compete with video. The unintelligent and unimaginative will continue to prefer the passive video experience, and being the vast majority of the population the film industry needn't fear losing much of its audience. But for those of us who prefer to use the screen in our own minds, books like Tokyo Year Zero may be the novels of the future.

Sacred Games

Vikram Chandra's novel, Sacred Games (Harper Collins, 916
 pages) is a big, sprawling, wonderful read. This is a book one curls up with for evening after evening. It's easy to enter the lives of its characters and become fascinated with their activities. Chandra's characterization reminds me of Dickens: his characters swell with a perfectly believable eccentricity. The description of Mumbai is so well done you almost smell the place. You certainly see it in all its garish color.

It's a sad commentary on our video obsessed times that many reviews complain of the length of the book. One would think critics would approve of a modern author proving once again that the more subtle aspects of life can only be delivered by the long fiction form. In fact, most of the reviews I read seemed to miss the point. They complained that the "inserts" Chandra uses to tie the characters and their lives together in an unbroken whole are unnecessary and don't contribute to the story. In fact they inserts make the novel work. Without them we wouldn't understand one of Chandra's main themes: the interconnectedness of all life. Maybe Harper Collins and Chandra were trying to give us a hint by the design of the American cover: a vine on which objects that play key roles in the story hang like fruit. I found the American edition more attractive than the lurid Indian cover, which features realistic drawings of the main characters.

As other reviewers have noted (Paul Gray in the New York Times, January 7, 2007) Sacred Games combines several standard formulas of popular literature to provide a framework for his story. This makes the non-Indian reader comfortable in dealing with the unfamiliar aspects of Mumbai and Indian culture. Sartaj Singh may be a Sikh with a full beard and turban, but he's the familiar detective from thousands of cop stories: single, lonely, trying to maintain his dignity in a corrupt society. Ganesh Gaitonde is believable as a Hindu gangster because we've encountered his type in all the Mafia stories we've read. Gaitonde carries on a telephonic relationship with Jojo Mascarenas, who comes from a background many westerners would find incomprehensible, but practices as a high class procurer who we've all encountered before in popular fiction.

As believable as I found the formulaic characters presented by Chandra, I occasionally squirmed a little when they moved outside the limits imposed by the genres they are drawn from. Gaitonde, as a gangster, is quite acceptably investing his money in the film industry. After all, the complexity of the business makes it a favorite laundry for dirty money. When he takes an active part in writing the scripts, becomes emotionally involved with the characters, and fancies himself a critic, he verges on the unbelievable. I can also see a gangster who is superstitious, even religious in a sense, but Ganesh's involvement with his Guru is a little too spiritual for me to swallow. This is, after all, the same guy who unblinkingly guns down anybody who stands in his way.

All-in-all though, Chandra has taken the best parts of our comfortably worn modern literary conventions and melded them together into a wonderfully readable novel. Prove the critics wrong--read it.