How to describe the copy of Death Sentences, by Kawamata Chiaki (translated by Thomas Lamarre and Kazuko Y. Hehrens) I recently received? Take a heaping helping of Philip K. Dick, a dollop or two of Ray Bradbury, layer into a pan, then frost liberally with my undergrad survey course in artistic movements — particular the week or so on surrealism. Let sit for a few decades (it was originally published in Japan in 1984) — you can pass the time by watching the Japanese horror movie The Ring, which shares a similar plot device. When the timer dings, sit back and read. If you dare.
The “if you dare” is, of course, a reference to the Ring-like plot device. In this case, a text entitled “The Gold of Time” that eventually kills its readers. Written in the 1940s by a young surrealist poet named Hu Mei (or Who May), the text wended its way through the surrealist movement (we get a litany of actually-happened-this-way deaths of surrealist writers and artists), then was buried for some time before reappearing in 1980s Japan, where it began spreading even more quickly. Eventually, it makes its way to a future Mars, becoming of great concern to those with monetary interests on that planet’s successful settlement.
Death Sentences is divided into several sections and points-of-view, mostly wholly separated by time. In the early 20th Century, we follow Andre Breton, a French poet who was one of the main founders of the Surrealist movement. In 80s Japan our main character is Sakakibara, head of a tiny artistic press. A few years into the release of the poem to the public, a Japanese secret policeman named Sakamoto is trying to put the genie back in the bottle. And in the briefest of section, we travel to Mars of 2131 and watch Carl Schmitt command a group of soldiers whose mission is to eradicate the poetic “plague.”
The novel is non-linear, appropriate concerning its focus on surrealism. The “prologue” starts in 1980s Japan with Sakamoto, who seems to work in their version of the DEA, tracking a pair of citizens, waiting for them to reveal where they’re hiding “the stuff.” We get some strange references that make it clear that whatever he’s tracking, it isn’t your usual ganja or smack. Once it’s revealed to be a text of some sort, we get a little nod to Bradybury’s Fahrenheit 451 as Sakamoto pulls a Montag and becomes just a little too curious about this mysterious story he’s supposed to destroy.
We then drop back to the 1940s and Breton, where we watch him make the acquaintance of Hu Mei and deal with Hu Mei’s early efforts in his magical writing, then ahead to the 1980s as Breton’s trunk, with the poem inside, is discovered and becomes part of an exhibition being curated by Sakakibara, and then we move back and forth until we hit future mars and then drop back in time once more.
Throughout, we see readers of the poem, of which we are given some tantalizing snippets, drop into comas and then die soon afterward. We get some glimpses of what “The Gold of Time” does, but not until toward the end do we get a fuller, more precise idea of just what is going on. I’ll just say that its depiction in terms of its drug-like effect and its psychological impact, its connection to time, and the way society evolves into somewhat of a dystopia in its attempt to deal with it (not to mention the, um, Martian “slip”), all smacks quite a bit of Philip K. Dick, though not in any plagiaristic sense; I’d say Chiaki wears his influence/inspiration on his sleeve, openly and honestly.
As a simple narrative, Death Sentences works well enough. It’s mostly fast-paced, helped along that path by language that zips you through, though to be honest, I prefer my language a bit more rich. In this case, I’d call the language more plain as opposed to the “spare” sort of language employed by someone like Ursula K. LeGuin. Chiaki’s is clean and effective, but never striking (I should note one never knows if this is a matter of translation or not). Part of this also may be a purposeful contrast with the poems in question, for instance, “The Gold of Time,” which begins:
The shade of the shadow of light. The depths of the depth of light. At the equinox of light… The light is withholding. Going around behind the shadow of the withholding light.
Chiaki does a nice job of building suspense, especially in the 1980s scenes. The 1940s section might get a little bogged down in the surrealism, though I personally enjoyed the exploration of art and society; your mileage may vary.
Beyond the basic plot, though, there’s a lot going on here as the novel delves into language, its creation, its impact, its dangers, the way it affects or not our perception of the world (Can we think what we cannot express in language, can our expressions create our existence? Does the world exist beyond language?) as well as how governments and societies seek to control language — what can be said by it, to whom it can be said, and so on.
Finally, the University of Minnesota Press version I read has both a foreword and an afterword. The foreword offers up some biographical information on the author and places him in the context of both science fiction at the time and 1980s Japanese society. The afterword is much more academic in nature, and more dense, and is both a close reading of some thematic and craft aspects of Chiaki’s novel (focusing for instance on his punctuation) and a broader attempt to connect the novel to surrealism and Breton in particular. I read both after the novel, and I’d recommend readers do the same so that the themes and connections arise more naturally out of the reading first.
I enjoyed Death Sentences; it was fast-paced and kept my readerly attention, but I wasn’t wowed by it, either stylistically or otherwise. I wouldn’t have minded more rich language and a bit more depth of character, and its themes, while intriguing, aren’t anything I haven’t seen before (though let’s be fair; it was written almost 30 years ago — it’s not his fault it hasn’t come out in English until now). Despite not being wowed, I think it’s worth picking up as a fast, enjoyable, thought-provoking read in its own right and also to get a sense of international science-fiction and a broader sense of that Philip K. Dick spectrum (what does one call that anyway? “Dickensian” has been taken after all). And if you learn a bit about surrealism, what’s the harm?