Clean flesh pages:
The (female) body of the Empire in David Peace
My work here is part of a larger study on the mythology of the Ripper and on how it has been propagated by author after author in a web of multiple retellings which, in most cases, have combined a process of close recapitulation of the facts of Whitechapel and the apparently irrepressible urge to fill in the gaps in history with fiction and invention. This is what happens, for example, in Alan Moore’s fictional retelling of the Ripper’s murders: in his Appendix to From Hell, the author repeats continually, note after note, that a specific scene, sequence, or character is an invention, though emphatically based on accurate documentation.
Following some of the suggestions arising from Alan Moore’s interpretation of the Whitechapel murders, my analysis develops around a specific focus on the female body, whose iconic and symbolic intensity and primacy — both in the original Ripper killings and in the many subsequent revisions and retellings — stands in sharp contrast to the multiple humiliations that are suffered by the individual bodies of sex workers. These humiliations and violations tend to resurface in many recent versions of the Ripper’s murders and it is my view that they easily comply with some of the rules and norms fixed for femininity in crime fiction. Partly inheriting the role and narrative function of Homer’s sirens — ‘a powerful symbol on several levels’ in crime fiction (Jackson 2002, p. 3) —, the female profiles (in crime fiction) tend to offer their bodies as battlefields where the process that Walton and Jones define as‘a disturbing negotiation of female fears and male fantasies’ (1999, p. 233) is to take place. The centrality of the body, in its material substance, to crime fiction at large and to the hardboiled tradition in particular hardly needs to be recalled here. What we are more interested in, however, is the notion of the sacrificial body in the way it is defined by Gill Plain on the grounds of what Kristeva writes about the corpse as ‘the utmost abjection. It is death infecting life’ (Kristeva 1982, p. 3–4). Repulsive and instinctively hidden from the community, the dead body, particularly when female, exercises an obscure fascination while at the same time calling for its immediate removal from the places where it can be seen. The distinction between male and female in this context is not accessory to this line of reasoning, because, as Clover states and Plain repeats, ‘Sex, in this universe proceeds from gender, not the other way around. A figure does not cry and cower because she is a woman; she is a woman because she cries and cowers. And a figure is not a psychokiller because he is a man; he is a man because he is a psychokiller’ (Clover 1992, p. 13; Plain, 2001, p. 225).
Occupying this theoretical ground, I will focus on David Peace’s Tokyo Year Zero (2007). Opening a planned trilogy set in Japan in the aftermath of its defeat by the American forces, the novel contains Peace’s second rewriting of the Whitechapel murders, this time in a Japanese setting, which replaces the Yorkshire one. Roughly, the plot of the novel develops around the killing of some Japanese sex workers according to a pattern that closely evokes the East End murders, relocating them in Tokyo, at a time when, as Meek puts it, ‘Violent killing has touched every family in Tokyo, whether through blood ties to soldiers and sailors fallen in the war, to any of the hundreds of thousands of victims of American bombing, or to the perpetrators of the atrocities in which the Japanese killed millions of civilians’ (Meek 2009). Within this frame, Peace tells the story of Detective Minami’s investigation of a handful of killings closely resembling the Ripper’s murders and tragically irrelevant in themselves within the context of Japan’s surrender and American occupation. Tokyo as a defeated city is a site of alienation invoking a past that has been instantly destroyed by the nuclear bombing and faces the slow crumbling, both physical and symbolical, of what used to be the hub of the Empire. The Second World War has just ended, and the Victors — as Peace defines them — are devising ways to exhibit, at the same time, their power and their propensity for democracy. At the beginning of the novel, the populace of the city is gathered to listen to the imperial broadcast that declares the end of the empire (Peace 2007, p. 16–21). At that very moment, the ravaged body of a sex worker is found on naval property and an investigation is launched.
We know that the crime is a real one: Peace claims he stumbled on the news, reporting it, while researching for another novel, and found the story intriguing enough to exploit as the hub of a new narrative web — as ever in Peace — of fact and fiction, both connected to the transition from the Empire of the Sun to the Republic of Japan. And, in fact, around the thematic bones of this true crime, the novelist adds the flesh of Japanese history, individual and collective, trying to rebuild the specific atmosphere of the period. Meaningfully, in order to do so, he chooses to focus on a petit récit, a small, barely noticed crime that for some reason seems, to Peace, the most ‘pliable’ thematic core within the horizon of the story he wants to tell. I have chosen the adjective ‘pliable’ with good reason. Mostly, what Peace borrows from the original Ripper ('s) story is the notion of the female body as ‘pliable flesh’ (Grosz 1995, p. 32), a ‘surface for inscription’ (Grosz 1995, p. 33) where the skin is intended as a clean page of flesh where the contradictions of empire are written in blood. In this sense, the female body — suffering, dying, dead, ravaged — may be intended as passive substance or material actively contributing to the dynamics of the plot. Posited as ‘a kind of hinge, or threshold’ (Grosz 1995: 33), the body actively contributes to the text’s transformation into a message. As Halbestam argues, ‘Skin shows’ (1995, p. 128).
Roughly within this theoretical frame, our position is that both the East End sex workers and the Japanese geishas can be read in terms of Foucault's idea of a self-disciplined body that in this case is not simply female (and in that inferior to the male) (Foucault 1993), but also given as despicable and shameful, and therefore not to be respected as a living entity. The Foucaultian definition of ‘docile body’ proves perfectly suited to the sex workers described in Tokyo Year Zero, and at the same time it needs completion. Butler provides some theoretical hints to develop Foucault’s supposed female passivity into the complex ritual of the geishas that Peace describes in his novel. Though ‘docile’, the geishas are not passive, because they are seen in the process of performing established gender norms — as Butler maintains — in an extremely repetitive way, routinely replicating what is expected from them, so that eventually this repetition produces the feeling that their performance is the enactment of internal identity (Butler 1990). The sex workers’ spontaneous adaptation to a negative social rule makes them into socially repulsive gendered subjects whose behavior is legally sanctioned, whose existence is hidden and secluded and whose voice is silenced. Once murdered, they are easily transformed into signs on the body of the city, hieroglyphs that indicate, as Brooks claims, the body’s passage into the realm of the letter. The corpses can ‘eventually, at the right moment of the narrative, be read’ and they enter ‘the realm of the semiotic’ (Brooks 1993, p. 22). Which is exactly what happens in the told and retold story of Jack the Ripper, whose victims have literally become landmarks in the city, reference points in a Whitechapel tour that has been endlessly repeated in popular art and literature. Even when the killing site is different, as is the case in Peace’s Chapeltown — a name so similar to Whitechapel as to seem fictional — the function of the female bodies continues to be the same, and their performance as pages of flesh fits perfectly into the troubled historical framework of England in Margaret Thatcher’s era.
In Tokyo Year Zero Peace moves further away from his archetype, both geographically and chronologically. At the same time, he keeps within his thematic frame, actually re-siting (and re-citing) the familiar Ripper lore in an unusual Japanese context. What makes this new version interesting is precisely its relocation: the murders of sex workers allow the author to develop a discourse on the end of the Japanese empire, while at the same time providing the opportunity to connect the Oriental imperial identity with the Occidental one, shifting the context from London in 1888 to Tokyo in ‘the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the twentieth year of Showa’ (Peace 2007, p. 2), when the end of the Empire of the Sun is officially stated.
Naturally enough, there are historical conditions that facilitate the passage from late nineteenth-century England to early twentieth-century Japan. In both cases, for example, the historical and social context for the murders is established in terms of the crisis of an empire (the Japanese and the British). In one case, as we know, this crisis results from a number of contingencies, including the possible birth of an inadequate heir to the throne, while in the other it is the consequence of a double nuclear bombing and of the consequent defeat of Japan’s forces. If we consider the two stories more closely and take Moore’s and Campbell’s From Hell as the narrative version of the Ripper’s murders that appears the nearest to Peace’s interpretation of the same serial crime, we will see that the element of disorder triggering the dynamics of the story is identified with the dead body of a woman found in a decayed and abandoned urban area that seems on the verge of destruction, or beyond it. The first corpse, besides triggering the investigation, also calls the public’s attention to sex workers as a group at risk, not only for the moral implications of what they do as a job, but also because they are exposed in practice to the intense risk of sexual violation and death.
Alan Moore, like David Peace, provides plenty of historical details, isolating the sources of his information and the specific ‘real’ items he needs in the final part of his ‘Melodrama in sixteen parts’, in a number of ‘Annotations to the Chapters’ that closely recapitulate the large body of writings and hypotheses regarding the Ripper’s murders. Moore also explains the extent to which, and in which situations, he decided to stick to the historical frame and in what other circumstances he decided to provide his own fictional interpretation of a character, an event or a specific development in the story. One of the most positive aspects of the volume — an aspect that makes its film adaptation by the Hughes brothers (2001) tragically ineffective — is Moore’s ability to provide a highly documented and convincing depiction of the Victorian sex workers’ lives before isolating the female bodies that will become the main bearers of the marks left on the city by the Ripper’s murders. According to Knight, whose text on the Whitechapel murders is widely acknowledged as a very reliable one (Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution), the killing of sex workers was deliberately willed and explicitly ordered by Queen Victoria, who — in her attempt to hide the secret marriage (and secret daughter) of her son Albert Edward to a young girl of humble origins — instructed the royal surgeon Sir William Gull to kill the sex workers who were supposed to know this scandalous secret (Knight 1976). Moreover, as Mario Maffi states in his seminal and fascinating study on London, the significance accorded to the murders by the Victorian press served to divert people's attention from a much more political, and therefore dangerous, issue. Maffi writes that soon before the Ripper’s murders, the women workers of a factory in Whitechapel (Bryant & May) went on strike because of the consequences of their unbearable working conditions: the chemical substances used in their work and to which they were exposed every day for many hours, with no protection whatsoever, produced a terrible and deadly disease called ‘phossy jaw’ (Maffi 2000, p. 163–167). The strike made the condition of Bryant & May’s women workers public, which aroused the interest of the Fabian Society. In a curious, if tragic, reciprocity, the ravaged female corpses left by the Ripper are exploited to remove other female bodies from the public scene — the women workers’ — where inhuman working conditions are leaving their fatal, and visible, mark.
On a more theoretical level, what is interesting is the coexistence of at least two levels of meaning. On the one hand, the many representations of the Ripper’s murders replicate the pattern of patriarchal assumptions about women, deeply rooted in the Western (and biblical) stereotype of the female body as naturally sinful and therefore to be disciplined. On the other hand, this body, once ravaged, proves liable to become the bearer of a meaning transcending the individual fate of the murdered woman, which exists only as the metaphor of a broader and deeper evil, infecting the community and finding in the murder of sex workers its only possible exorcism. The killed sex worker’s body ‘speaks’ the language of the victims’ suffering, a suffering which reveals a kind of power that is pervasive rather than singular, and concerns the community as a whole rather than the microphysics of specific social relations.
Therefore, what stands before us at this juncture is a deeply contradictory, Janus-faced, and somewhat paradoxical female profile. As a social category as well as individually, the living sex workers are globally depicted as invisible entities, rejected and censored by their own community, and basically considered as dropouts of the worst kind; however, they stand at the centre of the spotlight when killed. One could say that they start to exist through their violent death. Their corpses become relevant, in the geography of Victorian power, and gain immortality through becoming marks on the topography of the city.
In the first novel of his planned Tokyo Trilogy, Peace goes back to the paradigm of the Ripper, translating a myth born in the Western world into the complexities of an Eastern empire that is crumbling to pieces. In highlighting a relatively unreported though crucial implication of Japanese defeat, Peace exploits the violated female body to ‘show’ and ‘make visible’ the Japanese subjection to the Western occupiers by offering the Japanese geishas to the desires of the American soldiers. The ritual sacrifice of women’s bodies, in this instance, is a pragmatic step: Japan needs some time to get organised, absorb the end of the empire and start elaborating the modes and modalities of modern Japan. This rebuilding also requires time to cover up collective and individual responsibilities, and as the novel develops, we gradually become aware that Minami himself was a criminal in China. Once his previous role and present position have been understood, this also throws a different light onto his ‘clinging to the murder investigation as a kind of mimetic rite, play-acting a part from the vanished, perhaps imaginary, order of justice and law that existed before darkness fell on Tokyo, and on his soul’ (Meek, 2009). In the same way, Jack the Ripper and his Whitechapel murders may easily have been a smokescreen for the political intrigues meant to protect the throne and the man meant to inherit it. In both cases, therefore, the women’s bodies are brought to the fore to hide something much worse and more dangerous, be it an illegitimate son of the heir to the throne, the claim for better working conditions, and/or the underground work of organising resistance in an occupied nation. They do not exist individually, but as raw material for a political message. The language that their body speaks is deprived of awareness and does not result from a real wish to communicate. Rather, it is the bearer of meanings that are not theirs and that go far beyond their individual existences;
I glimpse her as I pull at the doors, but the doors are stuck, submerged furniture trapping her within, closing the doors - Detective Fujita holds the torch as the uniformed officer and I clear the chairs and the tables away, piece by piece - piece by piece until the door swings open - The door swings open and, she is here … the body bloated in places, punctured in others - Pieces of flesh here, but only bones there - Her hair hangs across her skull - Teeth parted as though to speak - To whisper, I am here … (Peace 2007, p.13).
Replicating the fate of the Ripper’s victims, so effectively represented in Moore’s and Campbell’s From Hell, the sex worker’s body is ostensibly offered as a thing, intensely objectified and deprived of individual features. At the same time, this very body acquires a sudden, unforeseen visibility that is by no means connected to the individual identity of the victim but rather feebly commemorates the sex workers as a category, and their body as a shameful one.
We know that in both the Victorian and the Japanese context, sex work undergoes intense censorship, though preserving profound ambiguity: while officially denied legitimacy, the role of sex workers continues to be an intensely political:
In the Victorian East End, Prince Edward Albert is perfectly justified in satisfying his sexual desires with prostitutes in so far as they do not result in the birth of an illegitimate child and an eventual marriage to a girl of humble origins. In the same way, the Japanese geishas are perfectly authorized – and encouraged – to satisfy the American soldiers’ sexual needs in so far as they do that in secret places, removed from the community and secluded from the social and morally praiseworthy practices of the ‘good people’. On the fifteenth of August last year, minutes after the Emperor had last surrendered, the Metropolitan Police Board summoned the presidents of seven major entertainment guilds in Tokyo. These included the heads of restaurants, cabaret, geisha and brothel associations. The chief of the Metropolitan Police Board feared the Victors would soon be upon Japan, here to rape our wives and our daughters, our mothers and our sisters. The chief wanted a 'shock absorber' and so the chief had a proposal. The chief suggested that the heads of the restaurant, cabaret, geisha and brothel associations for one central association to cater for all the needs and amusement of the victors. The Chief promised this new association that it would not lack for funds -The Recreation and Amusement Association was born.Recruits were found or bought among the ruins of the cities and countryside. Dancehalls and houses of entertainment were reopened or created overnight, the biggest and most infamous of them all being the International Palace, a former munitions factory out beyond the eastern boundaries of Tokyo. Five of the workers' dormitories were converted into brothels. Some of the old management stayed on to administer the new business, some of the prettier girls stayed on to service the new customers, the Victors - (Peace 2007, p. 159).
Only when they die, and only if their death is, so to speak, well performed on the stage of history, do they become suddenly visible, and their unforeseen reappearance as ravaged corpses eventually posits their condition as a social and/or political issue rather than as a criminal problem.
In this perspective, the act of retelling the historical murders of Jack the Ripper is by no means innocent or unaware in David Peace. Drawing on the Ripper mythology, Peace implicitly suggests a definite meaning and use of the female body as an object concentrating the different, sometimes diverging meanings of a number of ‘agents’, exploiting it for their own purposes:
There is a girl in the corridor. There is a naked girl in the corridor. There is a naked girl in the corridor on all fours. There is a girl in the corridor on all fours, no older than fourteen, being penetrated up her backside by a Victor as she stares down the long, long corridor at Nishi and I with tears running down her cheeks, down her cheeks and into her mouth, saying, 'Oh, very good Joe. Thank you Joe. Oh, very good Joe. Thank you, Joe. Oh, oh, Joe …' She is better off dead … This is America. This is Japan. This is democracy. This is defeat. I don't have a country any more. On her knees or on her back, blood and come down her thighs. I don't have a heart any more … Her legs apart, her cunt swollen with pricks and pus - I don't want a heart. I don't want a heart … Thank you, Emperor MacArthur - I don't want a country … Domo, Hirohito … Hirohito (Peace 2007, p. 166)
In this passage, quite openly, the geishas are the symbols of the Japanese defeat and they perform their physical subjection to the occupiers in the same, radical and unmistakable way as the average Japanese citizen accepts being totally prone and vulnerable to American power. Sex workers are trained to interact with the American soldiers and their work is openly intended as a service to Japan: as Meek suggests, the historical idea was that if the Americans were given some women, they wouldn’t rape the others (Meek 2009). The ritual of (sexual) subjection is performed in secret, sex workers are kept in isolation: nobody must know about them.
Underlying the required and planned subjection of what used to be the Japanese Empire, however, one can easily spot the ambiguity we mentioned before: the ‘docile’ bodies of the sex workers are also a sacrificial gift offered to the occupiers, to keep them quiet and busy with satisfying their sexual desires while Japan takes care of the slow process leading to the birth of a new, modern nation. Here we thus see a small difference between the Whitechapel murders and the Japanese ones: if the print coverage given to the killing of sex workers in late nineteenth-century London was meant to hide both Prince Eddie’s unauthorised love and the Bryant & May women workers’ strike(and therefore to preserve the empire), in this case the empire no longer exists, and the sex workers’ death (and work) is exploited to divert the occupiers’ attention from the underground work of rebuilding Japan.
'What about your family? Do they know where you are?' 'I haven't any,' she says. 'They died in the air raids.' 'You do know that this place is off-limits now?' She nods her head. She says, 'Yes.' 'Because General MacArthur has banned prostitution?' She shakes her head. She says, 'I didn't know that.' I nod. I squeeze her hand. I look into her eyes. I start to tell her she should leave here and go back home. But then I stop - 'We are her only home now,' says the manager (Peace 2007, p. 162)
Unable to save the geishas sacrificed to the needs of Japan (and for that matter, also an abuser of women, faithless husband, feckless lover himself), Detective Minami makes it his duty to find the killer of the sex worker and, before that, to identify the victims, though in full awareness that these women are ‘better off dead’ (obsessively repeated in chapter 6). Quite openly, the issue of the invisibility/anonymity of sex workers is raised here. The same issue was also there in Moore’s version of the Whitechapel murders, as we understand from the last words Sir Gull addresses to Marie Kelly’s corpse:
Do you understand how I have loved you? You'd have all been dead in a year or two from liver failure, men or childbirth. Dead. Forgotten. I have saved you. Do you understand that? I have made you safe from time, and we are wed in legend, inextricable within eternity. (Moore & Campbell 2000, p. 23).
In the same way, in Tokyo Year Zero, the murdered geishas would have died unknown if they hadn’t been the victims of a famous killer. The search for their true names (and implicitly, their true identity) is a key point in Minami’s investigation, in a context where ‘no one is who they seem’ (Peace 2007, p. 185–186). At the same time, it would be incorrect to state that Minami is doing so to answer an ‘internal’ need and to satisfy his personal interest for the fate of the sex workers. He rather wants to identify some of them and find the killer in order to save himself from the anomie that marks occupied Japan. In other words, he is not able to grasp the individual identity of the victims. He simply sees them as another version of Shakespeare’s drowned Ophelia in a novel where water is everywhere, symbolically evoking a sort of amniotic revelation. Liquid imagery, the hidden texture of the novel and of the city, also gradually builds up, starting from the finding of the first body:
Not rain or seawater, the shelter has flooded with sewage from broken pipes; a black sunken pool of piss and shit (Peace 2007, p. 11).
So, in this intense humiliation of the female body, we come full circle. Japanese sex workers passively endure multiple levels of violation, including death. They are women raped by (American) men. But they are also, and I would say primarily, transactional objects: raw physical material used by the occupiers to show their powers to the occupied (and by men to show their power over women):
‘I am a woman’, she whispers. ‘I am made of tears’ (Peace 2007, p. 46)
Thus, a Western mythology is translated into an Eastern one, replicating a condition and silent subjection, but also introducing some changes on the clean pages of flesh represented by the women’s bodies. The process of translation, an act of ‘re-citing’ Jack the Ripper’s crimes results in a re-siting (relocation) of the story that automatically rewrites and betrays the original texts, (Curti & Chambers 1996, p. 49), producing a new text written on the clean flesh pages of a new female body.