Death Sentences by Kawamata Chiaki (translated by Thomas Lamarre & Kazuko Y. Behrans)

The description on the back cover of Kawamata Chiaki’s Death Sentences compares the sci-fi/fantasy novel to the 2002 horror film The Ring (or Ringu, if you’re a purist who only acknowledges the original 1998 Japanese version). The film plot centers on  **SPOILER ALERT**  a video tape that’s haunted by a murdered girl.  Anyone who watches the tape dies in seven days. Of course there’s a loophole. (There’s always a loophole).

Outside of the initial premise that something you see/watch/read/focus-on-for-an-extended-period-of-time can kill you the plots are very different.  A better comparison is, in my opinion, “The Albertine Notes” by Rick Moody.   (This novella can be read in McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales).  The two share several common themes – time travel, addiction, a mysterious and deadly drug (The Albertine Notes) or poem (Death Sentences), and an opportunity to set things right that comes at the end.  In addition, both stories feature an Asian protagonist and a haunting, fragmented narrative that only gradually resolves itself.

Chiaki’s novel opens in  the1980’s where we meet Sakamoto, a member of a Japanese special police unit tasked with stopping the spread of an unidentified narcotic among the population.  Its victims commit suicide.  We’re quickly told that what we assumed to be a  drug is actually a poem, copied by hand (copier use is now closely monitored by the authorities) and spread from person to person through an  underground network of addicts.

Death Sentences jumps back in time to 1930’s New York, and then forward to Paris in the late 40’s.  Here we witness, through the eyes of the Surrealist André Breton, the discovery of the poem and the emergence of the mysterious poet Who May.  (And it is here that Chiaki accomplishes the truly unimaginable – somehow making the Surrealists interesting!)    Who May will write only three powerful and disturbing poems: “Other World”, “Mirror” and “The Gold of Time”.  These are enough to establish his reputation and his shadowy place in history.  Breton is a witness, forced to watch helplessly as many of his contemporaries succumb to Who May’s art.  After reading only a few lines he will, we learn, spend much of his life seeking “The Gold of Time”.

Duchamp picked at the corner of the manuscript on the table with a fingernail.

“This man… Who May… isn’t he Chinese?  No matter, but what exactly did he think he was writing?  Poetry? Well, this is nothing like poetry.  It may be written with words, but this is painting.  And,one might say, quite garish at that.  Its fantasy is visually too primitive.  Don’t you think?  That paranoid Catalonian would be delighted to crank out his sort of thing in reams.”

That was a bit of sarcasm directed at Salvidor Dalí.

These two stories – the poem’s origin and its deadly consequences – converge in yet a third plotline that brings us back to 1980’s Japan.  In it a small, independent poetry press organizes an exhibit built around a collection of newly discovered materials belonging to the early Surrealists.  Among the items is André Breton’s trunk.

Kawamata Chiaki writes in abrupt, rapid fire prose. Each paragraph contains between 1-3 sentences and he incorporates a lot of dialogue.  Personally, I like his style (though, I’ve seen reviews on GoodReads by readers who did not).  It keeps the action moving and increases the tension.  It also imbues the whole experience with an alien atmosphere.  Chiaki – and his translators – use this stylistic tick to their advantage.  Creating a nice contrast between the main narrative and the stream of conscious flow of the excerpts of Who May’s poetry which appear within the story.

It was all too obvious what he’d been doing.

That night he returned home well past two in the morning, and while having a nightcap he’d started reading the manuscripts signed my Who May.

The bottle of whiskey had been left uncapped.  It was now empty.  The glass was empty, too.  Later they discovered that he hadn’t drunk the whiskey.  It had evaporated in the heat.  That explained why the place reeked.

At first Sakakibara thought he had drunk too much and fallen asleep like that.  But that wasn’t it.  Kasadera wasn’t asleep at all.  He was lying there with both eyes wide open, staring into space.

His one hand was still clutching one of the three manuscript copies.

Death Sentences blends genres – incorporating sci-fi, literary thriller and noir.  The plot, while not totally unexpected, is fairly complex in its construction.  It’s the elements of complexity – the converging plotlines, the large cast of characters, the flashbacks and forwards, the defiance of genre – that make this novel so unusual.  Not to mention ridiculously hard to stop reading.

The University of Minnesota Press has put out a beautiful edition, taking the time to include a good amount of scholarly material.  The implication being that they consider Death Sentences a significant example of contemporary Japanese writing. I only wish more publishers would follow their example. There is a Foreword by Takayuki Tatsumi and an Afterword by Thomas Lamarre.  Both with notes. Both closely examine the novel itself, its author and his influences.  The care and attention that has gone into packaging this book (which, to their credit, seems to be typical of Minnesota) has me eagerly anticipating the next Chiaki novel to be published in English. I’ve been told that it deals with hikikomori culture – the Japanese phenomenon where young adults retreat from the world, never leaving their bedrooms.  Just imagine what a skilled storyteller like Kawamati Chiaki will do with a subject like that!

[Correction:  The hikikomori book is actually by another Japanese author, Saito Tamaki.  The title is Hikikomori: Adolescence Without End and is scheduled to be released Spring, 2013.  I suppose that’s what happens when you repeat things you thought you heard over loud music & drinks!]

Publisher: University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis (2012)
ISBN: 978 0 8166 5455 0

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SAVE THE DATE: The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books to Be Published in the U.S.

Finally.  FINALLLY!!!!  November 8, 2012 the English translation of The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books will be released in the U.S.!  (For some reason the Brits are getting it seven days before us. I’m not bitter.)  I don’t know why this book appeals so much to my inner geek… but it does.  Here’s the description from The Overlook Press website

It has been more than two hundred years since Bookholm was destroyed by a devastating fire, as told in Moers’s The City of Dreaming Books. Hildegunst von Mythenmetz, hailed as Zamonia’s greatest writer, is on vacation in Lindworm Castle when a disturbing message reaches him, and he must return to Bookholm to investigate a mystery. The magnificently rebuilt city has once again become a metropolis of storytelling and the book trade. Mythenmetz encounters old friends and new denizens of the city—and the shadowy “InvisibleTheater.” Astonishingly inventive, amusing, and engrossing, this is acaptivating story from the wild imagination of Walter Moers.

Now, for those readers who may have noticed my going on and on about this book in this post, or this one, or perhaps this one here…and wondered what the hell I was getting so excited about… I should explain that The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books is the sequel to The City of Dreaming Books.  Which is one of my all time favorite fantasy novels.  It is also a part of an ongoing series of books by the author Walter Moers – all set in the land of Zamonia.

Zamonia is a place unlike any I’ve encountered in literature – populated by unusual creatures having strange adventures in a twisted world.  I’d describe Moers’ style as Lewis Carroll-meets-Terry Brooks-meets-Kenneth Graham on acid who is attempting to plagiarise Douglas Adams.  Of course I recommend reading  all four of the novels so you’re up to speed when November arrives.  And just in case my enthusiasm isn’t enough to get you to the bookshop, over the Summer I will be posting a review for each novel.

  • The 13-1/2 Lives of Captain Blue Bear
  • Rumo & His Miraculous Adventures
  • The City of Dreaming Books
  • The Alchemaster’s Apprentice – actually I already have a review up for this one.

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5 Reasons to Read ONE SALT SEA

  1. October Daye’s magic just keeps getting stronger with each book.  Remember waaaayyy back in Rosemary & Rue?  When she got her ass handed to her in every other chapter?  Well… that still happens.  But before, her changeling ex-boyfriend could beat her up.  Now it takes First Borns & an army of goblins with bazookas*.
  2. Two words: Under-water Fae.  Asrai, Hippocampus & Cetace, oh my!
  3. Here’s a pleasant surprise!  We are finally given some back story on The Luidaeg (pronounced ‘the lou-sha-k’), Toby’s super scary First auntie and my favorite character of the whole series!  Cranky, rude, pretty in a creepy-I-eat-roaches-kinda-way – whenever Toby calls (more of a project than you think)The Luidaeg picks up the phone and somehow bails her out.  Except now she’s calling in favors.  And when the Luidaeg asks for help, nothing good can follow.
  4. Let’s talk plot:  The young princes of the Undersea Duchy of Saltmist have been kidnapped.  Unless they’re found there will be war between land and water.  So once again Toby & friends are on a deadline to save the day.  McGuire brings back all the characters and overarching storylines that her fans love.  We learn a little more about Faerie; about fetches & the night-haunts;  Toby’s past shows up in an unexpected way & her love life continues to be complicated.  And did I mention Rayseline is back?  (That can’t be much of a spoiler if you read the other books).  McGuire hints at a resolution to her & Toby’s relationship which on its own is enough to have me impatient for a glimpse at Ashes of Honor (the next book of the series, due out next year).

And the #5 REASON to Read ONE SALT SEA is:

Because you trust me.  If you’re reading this post and have no idea what the hell I’m talking about: buy a copy of Rosemary and Rue.  If you like Urban fantasy, are sick of the paranormal or are looking for escapist fiction that doesn’t follow a formula… One Salt Sea is the book for you.  You just need to read four others first.

Publisher:  DAW Books, New York (2011)
ISBN:  978 0 7564 0683 7

*O.K., I made that up.  The bazookas, not the goblins. 

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Walter Moers Returns to Zamonia

The newest Zamonia novel Das Labyrinth der Träumenden Bücher (The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books) will be released in October in Germany!!!!!!!  It’s the sequel to The City of Dreaming Books!!!! I am very excited!!!!! (Exhibit A: excessive use of the exclamation mark).

Tragically, I do not speak Deutsch.

So, next month at the Brooklyn Book Festival I’m going to be pressing the lovely people at the Overlook Press table for information and, perhaps, the translator’s phone number.  Who knows, he might need a proofreader.

Just for fun, below is the Synopsis, courtesy of Random House Germany and Google Translate.

Hilde favor of myths Metz returns to the “City of Dreaming Books”

About two hundred years ago, has been destroyed since the book Haim, the City of Dreaming Books, by a devastating fire storm. The eyewitness of the disaster, Hilde favor of myths Metz, is now considered the leading writer Zamonien and recovers to the dragon festivals of its monumental success. He delights in daily Belobhudeltwerden when it reaches a disturbing message that its existence is finally made sense.

Lured by a mysterious letter returns favor of myths Hilde Metz to book Haim. The beautifully rebuilt city is again to the pulsating metropolis of literature and the book trade has become the Mecca and is traversed by all kinds of crazy book to the puzzle on the track gets myths Metz, hardly has he entered the city, adventurous in their wake. He met old friends such as the Schreckse Inazea Anazazi, the book Lingen Ojahnn Golgo van Fontheweg, Dölerich Hirnfidler and Gofid Letter guy who Eydeeten Hachmed Ben Kibitzer, but also new residents, phenomena and wonders of the city, like the mysterious Biblionauten, the obscure Puppetisten and Haim’s latest attraction book, the “invisible theater”. It strayed myths Metz deeper “in the” labyrinth of dreaming books, which seems mysterious and invisible to determine the fate of Haim’s book. Until he finally gets an unstoppable whirlwind of events that surpasses all the adventures that he had to endure ever, in every respect.


Hurry John Brown!  For the love of all that’s good in the world… please hurry!

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