Death Sentences by Kawamata Chiaki

Death Sentences

Translated from Japanese by Thomas Lamarre

First Published: (as Genshi-gari) 1984. English translation 2012 by University of Minnesota Press.
My copy: bought on Kindle

Memorable quote: “I am not in a position to tell you what is actually written in here. I don’t know myself. To know means that you’ve already fallen into the trap set by words as powerful as any drug.”

This novel came onto my radar in a slightly alarming manner. One day I was browsing through my Amazon Wishlist and there it was. The striking circles on the cover image immediately caught my attention, incongruous amongst the (primarily) polar biographies that populate my wishlist. I had never heard of this title before, nor of Chiaki, so I was somewhat baffled as it how it had arrived there. Clicking through to read the synopsis, my bafflement turned to unease: rather like The Ring, but with literature rather than videotape, Death Sentences, is about a piece of writing that kills its readers. That a work on such a theme could have appeared unbidden on my wishlist did create a certain sinister frisson, I’ll admit.

The explanation, however, was somewhat less dramatic than the premise. It turns out my husband had added it. I’d forgotten that because our two Kindles are tied to a single Amazon account – mine – (allowing us more easily to share books between us), what I thought of as my wishlist, was in fact our wishlist. He just hadn’t added anything before. So the initial horror scenario in fact turned out to be something quite prosaic. I won’t say exactly the same sense of deflation applied when I read Chiaki’s novel. There’s a lot to appreciate here, but it’s certainly true that the chilling promise of the premise rather outweighs its execution.

Death Sentences covers a lot of ground: from the early twentieth-century with Andre Breton – the French poet who was one of the founders and key players of the Surrealism movement – to military manoeuvres in a colony on Mars in the year 2131. Although the narrative is non-linear, the thread that joins these two sections with a middle set in a small publishing house in 1980s Japan, is the work of fictional Surrealist poet Hu Mei, or “Who May” as he styles himself. May, who approaches the more established Breton for feedback and support, has found a way to achieve new dimensions in his writing. He produces three prose poems, each with startling spell-like effects on the reader. “Another World” achieves just that, transporting the reader to an altogether alien place, while “Mirror” provides the experience of seeing themselves as if reflected back. But it is May’s final piece “The Gold of Time” that poses the greatest threat.

Chiaki’s novel begins in the guise of a hard-bitten crime thriller, with a Japanese secret policeman, Sakamoto, engaged on what seems to be a drugs raid. It is only with the dizzying chance of pace and setting that we find the prohibited substance in this case is not chemical but literary. Death Sentences then chronicles the effects of Who May’s work form its inception, providing as it does so an alternate history of some of the best known names of Surrealism, to its deadly effects in the far future. Ambitious in its pretension, this is, as its scholarly introduction states, “a kind of meta-science fiction, science fiction that holds within itself a critical commentary on its own generic framework.” As a literature lover, what I appreciated most about this book was its overall premise about the transforming power of language and of figurative ideas that retain their power across media and language barriers. The novel also takes up many of the aims of the Surrealist movement in in its exploration of how art can access and express the unconscious. In fact, there are so many interesting ideas evoked in this book that, rather like Who May’s poetry, it almost creates a sensory overload. It’s an effect that is, I’m sure, intentional but at times the speed and density of the ideas examined here made me feel like I was reading course material from an undergraduate liberal arts survey. Until the hard-nosed crime thriller bits kicked back in, of course.

But despite the density of its ideas, Death Sentences, manages to be a pacey read, primarily because of the tension implicit in its premise. Once the dangerous power of Who May’s manuscript is established there is a certain train-wreck appeal to just following its path. How will the work be transmitted? Who will read it next? Chiaki toys with his readers, especially in the section set in 1980s Japan: suspense grows as the main character repeatedly delays tackling the surrealist documents he is meant to be preparing for publication. Indeed, so thrilling are these sections of danger postponed that – rather like the perfectly logical explanation for my wishlist invasion – the denouement seemed rather anticlimactic. But then, in the landscape of dreams, and nightmares, isn’t that so often the case?

In conclusion, if you enjoy the work of Philip K. Dick (whom Chiaki consciously references and invokes), have a passing interest in Surrealism, or would just like to experience a Japanese take on that portentous year 1984 (the year this was first published) very different from Murakami’s recent efforts in IQ84, then you could certainly do worse than give this a go. And if you’ve any worries, rest assured I’ve survived the reading experience – so far at least!

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