The three books:
- Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje (Sri Lanka)
- Tokyo Year Zero by David Peace (Japan)
- Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco (Philippines)
Not my original list, you may note, and though in deciding on these three titles, I’ve more-or-less adhered to the guidelines of the 2014 Global Reading Challenge, I’ve had to revise my self-imposed ‘rules’ somewhat.
Most significantly, none of the three titles feature series characters. I just wasn’t able to find any Asian sleuths that suited.
Of perhaps lesser importance, none are written by native-born residents of their book’s locale, though all three writers have strong ties to their respective locales. I would have preferred Asian crime fiction series written by Asian writers, but I had great difficulty finding any that fit Moody Sleuth’s rather specific criteria. So, why did I choose these three?
- All are murder mysteries of a sort. I’ve not deviated from that self-imposed requirement.
- The challenge. All three step beyond the murder mystery genre structurally and in various other ways, demanding a bit more work on the readers’ part.
- Peer recognition and accolades. All three titles have taken prestigious awards. I don’t always agree with the judges choices, but I do like to read at least one or two on the short lists to see what’s getting attention.
- The protagonists – the deciding factor, I think. In two of the three, Anil’s Ghost and Tokyo Year Zero, the protagonists would definitely qualify as moody sleuths (if they’d been ‘cloned’ into noir-ish crime series). Not so moody as the others, the protagonist in Ilustrado is an amateur sleuth, and I haven’t found many amateur sleuths lately, so I thought it was about time for another.
Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje (Sri Lanka)
Though born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Michael Ondaatje has been a Canadian since the ’50s, so technically a Western writer. He’s probably best known for The English Patient, winner of the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1992, and an Academy Award-winning film in 1996.
Anil’s Ghost (1997) Awards: Giller Prize, Prix Médicis étranger, Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction
First the raves:
This is a beautiful book; I’d love to be as articulate in describing it as the reviewer, Michael Pakenham, at the Baltimore Sun: (condensed to this ‘blurb’ for the Amazon.com review)
“[Anil’s Ghost]… unfolds as a detective tale…The details of forensic analysis is an ongoing, fascinating fabric of the book…Ondaatje produces a timelessness that is sustainingly moving…But what is most compelling is the power of language…. Ondaatje is a magnificent writer. Precision of expression, concision of thought, cleanness, clarity of detail permeate every page. He is a storyteller, and his stories work marvelously, but he is also a thinker, an explorer, a seeker of truth…”
The story and the sleuth:
Anil Tissera, a forensic pathologist, returns to Sri Lanka, her birthplace, after fifteen years in the West. Under the auspices of an international human rights organization, Anil is sent to investigate four ‘modern’ skeletons recently discovered in a sixth century Buddhist monks’ burial midden, in an area of a government archaeological preserve supposedly only accessible to the current military. Anil and Sarath, a Sri Lankan archaeologist assigned by the government to work with her, excavate the four skeletons, nick-naming them Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor. Upon examining the bodies, Anil determines that ‘Sailor’ is a murder victim, tortured, burned, and buried, then dug up and reburied in the Bhuddhist midden.
And who was this skeleton? In this room, among these four, she was hiding among the unhistorical dead. To fetch a dead body: what a curious task! To cut down the corpse of an unknown hanged man and then bear the body of the animal on one’s back . . . something dead, something buried, something already rotting away? Who was he? This representative of all those lost voices. To give him a name would name the rest.
As Anil’s search for Sailor’s identity and proof of his murder becomes an obsession, she risks her own safety to unearth secrets the government, and other forces, will preserve at any cost.
I’d thought I might explore Anil’s ‘moody sleuth’ qualities, but since she’s in a stand-alone novel, I’ll refrain. Instead, before moving along to my take on Tokyo Year Zero, I’ll leave you with an excerpt from the book… the pleasure of Michael Ondaatje’s way with words:
She woke early the next morning in her rented house on Ward Place and walked into the darkness of the garden, following the sound of koha birds busy with their claims and proclamations. She stood there drinking her tea. Then walked to the main road as a light rain began. When a three-wheeler taxi stopped by her she slipped into it. The taxi fled away, squeezing itself into every narrow possibility of the dense traffic. She held on to the straps tightly, the rain at her ankles from its open sides. The bajaj was cooler than an air-conditioned car, and she liked the throaty ducklike sound of the horns.
Tokyo Year Zero by David Peace
Born and raised in Yorkshire, David Peace has lived in Tokyo since 1994. Probably best known for The Red Riding Quartet, Peace was chosen as one of Granta’s 2003 Best Young British Novelists, received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the German Crime Fiction Award, and the French Grand Prix de Roman Noir for Best Foreign Novel.
Tokyo Year Zero – the story and the sleuth:
1946, one year after the end of WWII, Japan’s emperor formally accepts the victors’ provisions of defeat. On the same day, the bodies of two young women are discovered in a local park; one has been murdered recently, the other is merely a skeleton with a few items of clothing.
In the words of Detective Minami of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police:
It takes three hours for us to report the finding of the second body to Metropolitan Police Headquarters. I stare at her white half-sleeved chemise. Three hours for them to send Suzuki back here to photograph the second body. I stare at her yellow and dark-blue striped pinafore dress. Three hours for the Keiō University Hospital to send out another ambulance to take away the second body. I stare at her pink socks. Three hours for my men to seal off the crime scene and the immediate area around the second body. I stare at her white canvas shoes. Three hours for us to requisition the necessary uniformed men from the Atago, Meguro and Mita police stations in order to secure the area where the bodies were found. Their red, red rubber soles. Three hours sweating and swatting, itching and scratching, gari-gari, while I stand and I stare at this second body –
Her flesh far from here, carried in the mouths of others …
I stare at the bleached white bones of her fingers –
… Her last, contorted smile …
Passed over for the more recent murder, Detective Minami is assigned the more difficult task of identifying the second skeleton, then tracking down her killer.
Theguardian.com review of Tokyo Year Zero reveals that the story ’emerged’ from an actual case:
…out of a newspaper article (Peace is a great fossicker in archives) with the headline ‘Sex maniac confesses to killing four young women’ and the information that the accused, Kodaira Yoshio, ‘was executed at the Miyagi Prison in Sendai Prefecture on the fifth of October, 1949’. Out of these facts, Peace weaves a thriller that is both a gory psychological whodunit and a meditation on the origins of modern Japan.
The result is something dark and bloody, the tone lying somewhere between Kurosawa’s Macbeth and the caricatures of the more violent manga cartoons.
I almost find it regretable that Detective Minami doesn’t follow on into the next book in Peace’s Tokyo Trilogy, in light of the following snippet from the New York Times online review of Tokyo Year Zero. The tormented Detective Minami is the epitomy of moody-sleuth-ness!
… starving, lice-infested, plagued by the ceaseless heat and dressed in rags, he’s troubled by a drug habit, a neglected family, a mistress who obsesses him, an uneasy relationship with the local crime boss, treacherous subordinates, impatient superiors and disturbing memories of wartime atrocities in which he may have participated. He hardly needs to add an unsolved murder to his woes.
I consider David Peace’s Tokyo Year Zero the darkest of Japanese noir. It’s definitely not an easy read; I moved between reading it on my e-reader and listening to the audio version, which had me agreeing with Sarah Weinman of the LA Times:
[Tokyo Year Zero]..is more accurately described as a lengthy prose poem, its emotive power and accessibility gained from the use of repetition, distilled imagery that evokes all senses and the stacking of one-line paragraphs to focus the eye on single words…
And finally, my third choice:
Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco (Philippines)
Miguel Syjuco, born and raised in Manila, currently living in Montreal, Canada, received the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize and the Philippines’ highest literary honor, the Carlos Palanca Memorial Award for Literature, the Filipino Readers’ Choice Award, the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, for the unpublished manuscript of Ilustrado, which was finally published in 2010.
The judges for the Man Booker prize 2008, had high praise for Syjuco’s work:
…Ilustrado seems to us to possess formal ambition, linguistic inventiveness and sociopolitical insight in the most satisfying measure. Brilliantly conceived, and stylishly executed, it covers a large and tumultuous historical period with seemingly effortless skill. It is also ceaselessly entertaining, frequently raunchy, and effervescent with humour.
Ilustrado- the story…
When the author’s life of literature and exile reached its unscheduled terminus that anonymous February morning, he was close to completing the controversial book we’d all been waiting for. His body, floating in the Hudson, had been hooked by a Chinese fisherman. His arms, battered, open to a virginal dawn: Christlike, one blog back home reported, sarcastically. Ratty-banded briefs and Ermenegildo Zegna trousers were pulled around his ankles. Both shoes lost. A crown of blood embellished the high forehead smashed by crowbar or dock pile or chunk of frozen river.
… and the sleuth:
The narrator, also named Miguel Syjuco, disagrees with the coroner and with public opinion; he believes his friend and mentor, Crispin Salvador, was murdered:
I, of course, believe the conspicuous lack of clues is stranger than the disarray of the domestic scene from which he was mysteriously absented. Ockham’s razor is chipped. Every bone in my body recoils at the notion Salvador killed himself. Walking through his apartment afterward, I saw his viridian Underwood typewriter loaded, cocked, and ready with a fresh blank page; the objects on his desk arranged in anticipation of writing. How could he have brought himself to the river without passing his conscience reflected in that Venetian mirror in the hall? He would have seen there was still so much to do.
To end his own life, Salvador was neither courageous nor cowardly enough. The only explanation is that the Panther of Philippine Letters was murdered in midpounce.
Ilustrado is often as hilarious as Tokyo Year Zero is desolate, and the structure so exhuberantly complex, I’m quite willing to believe that Syjuco experienced a ‘Eureka moment’ while watching a documentary about the T’Boli people’s T’nalak weaving, which prompted him to take apart the completed draft of his novel and reassembled it, inspired by their unique methods of creating patterns. (from a review by Marya Salamat at Bulatlat.com)
I really must ‘wrap up’ Asia now as 2014 is rapidly coming to an end, but all-in-all, despite not discovering any moody sleuth series on this leg of the 2014 Global Reading Challenge, I am gratified to have found crime fiction of such high calibre.
But I do have to ask – are Asian writers not producing the type of ‘moody sleuths’ I’m looking for? Is there cultural reasons? Okay, I will allow that there’s also the possibility that I haven’t been diligent enough in my searching, so if you have recommendations, please share.