Death Sentences by Kawamata Chiaki

Reviewed by Nina Allan

Death Sentences cover

In the prologue of Death Sentences we observe a woman, Miura Sachiko, being tailed by a police detective. We see her take a bus ride, go into a coffee shop, make a phone call. The detective, Sakamoto, has nothing to go on, and at this point neither do we. Is the woman a spy perhaps, a drug runner? It feels like we've landed in the middle of some kind of noir thriller—but then it's revealed that the woman is trading not in drugs but in photocopies of some kind of forbidden text. A political thriller then? Not exactly. As we follow Sakamoto around Tokyo, we learn that whatever Miura Sachiko has been reading, it not only warps the mind, it afflicts the body, too. Sachiko's contraband consists, literally, of death sentences:

In the middle stages, some afflicted would grow physically younger in the blink of an eye, while others would advance horrendously in age.

In any event, the effects varied a great deal from individual to individual. Everything depended on individual characteristics. But all the afflicted eventually met with the same end. Researchers referred to the last stage as 'salvation.'

But whatever you called it, in the end it amounted to a person turning into a complete vegetable. Death was quick to follow. (p. 7)

Sachiko and her lover Sagara are trailed to a hotel, where they are summarily executed by the detective, Sakamoto. "That's how it had to be," Sakamoto assures us. "There was no other way to prevent the destruction of the world" (p. 25).

In the wake of this perplexing prologue, the action shifts from a near-future Toyko to Paris in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. The poet André Breton, grandmaster of surrealism, sits waiting in the Café Blanche for the arrival of a young man, an aspiring poet of Asian descent, whose work he has grudgingly agreed to pass an eye over. In the alternate world of Kawamata Chiaki's novel Death Sentences, their meeting is to prove a defining moment. The manuscripts presented to André Breton by Hu Mei—or Who May, as his name is interpreted—have a profoundly disturbing effect, not just on Breton but on everyone and anyone who chances to read them. On Breton's death Who May's poems are inadvertently released into the wider world—where they proceed to wreak havoc, eventually resulting in the breakdown of society and the establishment of the police state we glimpsed in the novel's prologue. Further sections of the novel take us forward in time, firstly to contemporary Tokyo, where an independent publishing firm is busy preparing a catalogue of newly discovered surrealist works for an upcoming exhibition, and then into the more distant future to a colony on Mars, where an insurrection among the colonists is about to be brutally suppressed.

The novel ends, in a sense, at a point before it got started. Whether it is truly an ending remains unclear.

In his native Japan, Kawamata Chiaki is a well-known writer, not just of SF novels but of manga and anime series, together with a significant body of non fiction. His novel Death Sentences—the Japanese title can be translated more literally as Hunting the Magic Poems—was first published in the auspicious year of 1984, and quickly became a bestseller. This is the first of Kawamata's works to be translated into English. That it has taken this superb little novel almost twenty years to reach us is something of a mystery. We can at least be grateful that it's finally here.

What delighted me most of all about Death Sentences was the simplicity of its execution. It is a novel of complex, almost inexpressible ideas, and yet the language it uses to expound them is never anything less than crystal clear. In his afterword to the novel, translator Thomas Lamarre has some interesting things to say about Kawamata's sentence structure, about his concise use of language, his brevity. I have no knowledge of the Japanese language, but I can testify that the attributes Lamarre names have been communicated admirably in the English language text that we now have before us. Kawamata has a wry, deadpan way of putting things, a gift for satire and sharpness of wit that is not a million miles from the black comedy of the popular manga series and later anime and live action film trilogy Death Note.

Kawamata demonstrates a fluency with genre conventions—time slip, dystopia, robocops, Martian colonies—that enables him to use the tropes convincingly whilst blowing them sky high. That the novel manages to be both a page-turning adventure story—as a reader I became very much involved in how it would turn out—and a technical tour de force in novelistic structure is just one of its accomplishments. The fluid execution of its central metaphor—that the parameters of our existence are defined by our ability to express in language the world as we perceive it—is something of a miracle.

Not all of Who May's work is fatal, but everything he writes—he himself describes his writing process more as "taking down notes" than conscious composition—interacts with the physical world in an unexpected and ultimately disruptive way. When Breton reads the first of Who May's long poems, "Another World," he finds himself simultaneously bewitched and confounded. The work, which achieves its effect through a subjective, subconscious response to something that is objectively nonsensical, contains within it the essence of surrealism:

A fish. Dobaded. Its eyeball sliced down the middle. Sections quivering. Images reflected on the split lens are stained with blood. Dobaded. The city of people mirrored there is dyed madder red. Reversal of pressure, dobaded, and there you go! It's taking you there . . . (p. 47)

Breton, both entranced and repelled, is unable to square the evidence of the young poet's genius with the fact that he seems to have no conscious awareness or higher control over what he is doing. He declares Who May's work to be a fake, "a world produced by relying merely on a sense of language or, if you will, on the magic of words" (p. 56). When Marcel Duchamp arrives to discuss the matter, the two old masters read Who May's second poem together and find themselves equally thrown. This new work, titled "Mirror," produces its effect of sensory dislocation through a means of endless involuntary repetition. Duchamp declares that there is no one else who uses the French language as Who May does:

Why is it? How is it? How can a mirror be made using the French language? I cannot even make a guess. Yet it is nonetheless possible. And the proof lies right here before us. It would seem that with words, with the French language, something that reflects light was somehow possible. But! But still . . . (p. 72)

Not long after this exchange, people start dying. First Breton himself, then Duchamp, then their friend the surrealist painter Arshile Gorky. It would seem that Breton, being the first to read Who May's third poem in its entirety, is also its first victim. History tells us that Breton had as his epitaph the enigmatic pronouncement "I seek the gold of time." Is it any coincidence then that "The Gold of Time" is also the title of Who May's third poem?

Writers are perennially attracted to the theme of "the lost letter," a search for a text that is inexplicably missing, of unsurpassable brilliance, or indescribably evil. Perhaps what makes it so irresistible to writers—this one included—is the fact that the writing itself, indeed the very act of writing, becomes the main character of the book, the star of the show. Having selected such a topic to work with, its problems all too soon become apparent, namely, the difficulty of representing the "impossible" text such that the reader will believe in its wondrous all-powerfulness. The get-out is not to try, to keep the lost letter safely lost—but this strategy risks opening up a void at the heart of the work and thus irreparably diminishing its impact. Not to mention that it also has a distinct smell of writerly cowardice about it.

Perhaps the crowning achievement of Death Sentences is that Kawamata has joined battle with this dilemma—and won. Choosing the "less is more" route, he gainfully employs the contrast between the economically precise language of the main body of the text with the pleasingly indefinite, vaguely hypnotic lines and textures of Who May's poems to create an illusion of the ineffable that, for this reader at least, proves wholly enthralling.

The shade of the shadow of light. The depths of the depth of light. Equinoctial tipping of light. Around behind light, at the time it arrives here. Time is gold. Gold itself has the same aspect as time. (p. 87)

We are never shown more than a few lines of each poem at any one time—but there is enough there to convince us that what we are reading really does contain some element of the extraordinary, that indeed it might not pay us to examine these words—the sense behind the words—too closely, that doing so might be dangerous.

It is a writerly trick—and please forgive me here—to die for.

The theme of Death Sentences is not a new one. In his 1953 classic Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury showed us a world in which books were forbidden contraband, and it's easy to see the police detective Sakamoto as the literary great-great grandson of Fireman Montag. In his recent novel The Flame Alphabet, another American writer, Ben Marcus, has created a dystopia where hearing language spoken can kill you. China Mieville's Embassytown worked upon themes of literal versus metaphorical truth and how a lack of discrimination between them might prove harmful. Further examples abound. This is not to say that Kawamata is retreading old ground, rather that Death Sentences should be a worthy and central addition to a major canon. It is hardly surprising that for writers especially there is an anxiety around language, an internal unrest, either that we might lose it or that its power might in some way be turned against us.

Language is central not just to how we lead our lives but to what we are. It is also a weapon. Death Sentences is one hell of an enjoyable read: beautiful, virtuosic, playful and extremely funny. I don't think it would be going too far to argue that it is also a work of philosophy, a profound meditation on how language may be used to unravel reality as well as to create it.

As well as the text itself, this attractive University of Minnesota edition also contains an articulate and conversational foreword by Takayuki Tatsumi, Professor of English at Keio University, containing invaluable biographical information about Kawamata Chiaki and his relationship to the work of Philip K. Dick and the SF New Wave, the Western movement to which he is most often co-opted. Whilst greatly appreciating Thomas Lamarre's expert insights into the translation of Death Sentences, I found the rest of his afterword, an attempt to place Kawamata's work within the wider context of surrealism and WWII politics, unduly wordy and decidedly leaden, the kind of academic approach that is all too often sadly out of keeping with the work it seeks to illuminate. There is some valuable material here—but it is best assimilated later, and at a distance. Nothing should be allowed to interfere with or obscure the lightness and natural skill on display in Kawamata's original and energetic novel. Death Sentences is a delight, not to mention a delightful reminder of how the best SF can and should be encouraged to break its own sound barrier.


Nina Allan’s stories have appeared regularly in the magazines Black Static and Interzone, and have been featured in the anthologies Catastrophia, House of Fear, Best Horror of the Year #2, and Year's Best SF #28. A first collection of her short fiction, A Thread of Truth, was published by Eibonvale Press in 2007, followed by the story cycle The Silver Wind in 2011. Her stories have twice been shortlisted for the BFS and BSFA Award. Nina's next book, Stardust, will be available from PS Publishing in autumn 2012. Her website is at www.ninaallan.co.uk. She lives and works in Hastings, East Sussex.