Tokyo 1948: a man posing as a health inspector tells a bank manager there has been an outbreak of dysentery nearby. He asks the bank manager to gather together all the staff because he has brought with him a serum that will protect them from the infection. The health inspector shows the sixteen staff how to administer the serum. However, he isn’t a health inspector and the serum isn’t a serum. It’s a deadly poison. The killer disappears with some of the bank’s money though not all of it. A mystery. This is a true story of a crime that still causes controversy in Japan. Many believe an innocent man was hanged for the crime.
Peace uses for his structure a ghost-story-telling game popularised during the Edo period in which each narrator extinguishes a candle when they have told their tale of supernatural horror. In other words, the darkness increases as the night wears on. Peace’s narrators include the victims of the crime, the investigators of the crime and those accused of the crime. He explores one popular hypothesis that the killer was a disgruntled member of Unit 731, a Japanese biological weapons division that bred plague-infected rats and fleas to spread disease in China and infected prisoners of war with deadly incubated toxins.
This is story telling at its most inventive and, you could also say, at its most challenging for the reader. I would argue that the no writer has quite managed to employ rhythm as such a key illuminating component of storytelling as Virginia Woolf did in The Waves. The repetitive rhythm of her sentences in that book is like a hidden accumulative part of its reach and meaning. Peace also is a rhythm-master and here reminded me of Woolf, though like Woolf on heroin. Both he and Woolf use rhythm to probe into the darkness of the human psyche. Except where Virginia seeks out light, Peace seeks out new depths of darkness. His hammering highly stylised repetitive prose style will probably alienate 80% of readers – it doesn’t always work but when it does it’s fabulous. I’m going to quote a passage at random to give an idea of how he writes –
But the War Machine rolls on, never stopping, never resting, never sleeping, always rising, always consuming, always devouring. On and on, the War Machine rolls on, across empires and across democracies, on and on, over the well-fed and over the ill-fed, on and on, and, all the while, from hand to hand, hand into wallet, wallet into bank, bank into loan, loan to stocks and shares, my stocks and my shares, money passes, money changes, money grows-
If you fancy a different kind of read….