Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui, translated from the Japanese by Andrew Driver

PaprikaThe 2006 anime film Paprika, based on the Yasutaka Tsutsui Japanese novel and its subsequent manga adaptation, has a cult following.   Unfortunately, the original book contains the very elements in anime and manga which I find most distasteful:  the sexual objectification of women, homophobia and a hysterical prose style.  Add to this a plot built on a dubious pseudo-science – i.e. dream therapy based on a Jungian model – and there’s very little left in Paprika to recommend it.

The novel’s heroine and namesake Paprika (a.k.a. – Dr. Atsuko Chiba) is the stunningly beautiful psychiatrist.  She and her morbidly obese colleague, Dr. Kōsaku Tokita, are shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for their research and work in dream therapy.  Dr. Tokita is the inventor of the “PT” (short for psychotherapy) device which allows Dr. Chiba to access, enter, and sometimes even perform treatment in, a patient’s dreams.  During its early development PT devices were illegal, and so Dr. Chiba created a cover identity named Paprika.  After the ban was lifted Atsuko Chiba still uses Paprika to treat high-profile clients, those whose mental illnesses might hurt their careers.  While Atsuko Chiba is intellectually gifted, poised and professional; Paprika is often mistaken for a teenager.  She speaks in a juvenile slang in order to put her client’s at ease.  She wears jeans and a tight, red shirt to her meetings.  The clients, invariably men, are all sexually attracted to her and she to them.

The plot rolls into motion when internal politics endanger the institute where Chiba and Tokita perform their research.  Tokita has created a new PT device, known as a PT mini, which allows for a kind of dream “wi-fi”.  But it is stolen while still being tested.  Someone is using the PT mini to “infect” employees at the institute with schizophrenia.  Should it be made public there would be mass-hysteria and the institute, and subsequently all Chiba and Tokita ‘s research, would be shut down.  Not to mention the innocent people being driven insane.

And so Paprika goes to battle in the world of dreams.  There she fights the bad guys with the help of two former patients – both middle-aged, powerful men – in a surreal landscape that begins bleeding into the real world.  The dream landscapes that Yasutaka Tsutsui creates are by far the most engaging aspects of the novel.

On one level Paprika is a fairly typical science fiction novel, with good using futuristic scientific technology to fight bad.  Taken on that level, the writing is no better or worse than the fantasy writer R. A. Salvatore.  But Yasutka Tsutsui was awarded the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French government and the English translation of Paprika is being published by Knopf Doubleday under the Vintage Contemporaries imprint – which leads readers to have certain expectations.  My expectation was that the quality of the writing would be on par with other Vintage authors, such as Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner, Orphan Pamuk or Haruki Murakami.  Instead, what I actually got was:

“Are there any other functions we don’t know about?” asked Osanai.  “If there are, you’d better tell us quickly.  This device is dangerous.  We need to control it rigorously, under high-level isolation and in all secrecy.  Please return all DC Minis in your possession to us.”

“Who’s this ‘we’ you keep going on about?  Would it be you and your gay lover?” Atsuko countered with a smile.  “I wonder if he’s at work yet.  There’s something I want to ask him.”


By intentionally withholding the discovery of a murder, Atsuko knew she was sinking even deeper into guilt as a co-conspirator in evil.  Even winning a Nobel prize might have been part of that evil.  Fortunately, though, she felt no such guilt about winning the prize itself.  She could therefore put on a brave face, drawing on her feminine ability to become impervious to evil as necessity demanded.  Atsuko waltzed into the Meeting Room as if nothing had happened.  While expressing dissatisfaction at her absence, the reporters had reluctantly started questioning Tokita and Shima.  Now they started to remonstrate and call out loudly to Atsuko, without even waiting for her to settle in her usual seat.

I’m inclined to blame the translator for the awkwardness and hackneyed quality of the prose.  But the juvenile attitudes and prejudices are all the responsibility of the author.  For example, when two gay men use the DC minis for sexual encounters they are treated as perverts – “They’re not playthings for gay sex games.”  But when Atsuko uses them to have sex with her clients, sometimes multiple clients at once, it is viewed with an abashed acceptance.  Perhaps most offensive is the scene where one character attempts to rape Atsuko – and instead of fighting back she reacts by urging him to do it and to make sure he satisfies her in the process.  Later in the book she will admit to herself (in a dream, because apparently everything except homosexuality is allowed in a dream) that she loves and is attracted to him (Paprika/Atsuko is attracted to and engages in sex with almost all the male characters at some point).  And she has sex with him, her would-be rapist.

Therein lies the problem with Paprika.  Yasutaka Tsutsui has created a strong, capable and intelligent female character in Dr. Atsuko Chiba.  Then, he housed her sexuality in Paprika.   And, according to Tsutsui, it is permissible for the male characters to sexually objectify Paprika – she (literally) becomes the receptacle of their fantasies and desires.  Because, we’re not accountable for what we do in our dreams according to Yasutaka Tsutsui.

That may be good enough for some of his male readers, but it’s guaranteed to leave most female readers cold.

Publisher:  Vintage Books, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 0 307 38918 3

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Stories From After the Apocalypse

“Every day, a little boy or a little girl swallows a noodle called Auguste Diodon,” the woolly crab explained to me.  “It isn’t natural, and it makes me terribly ill at ease.”

“Me too,” I said.

“We have to save Auguste Diodon,” said the wooly crab.

“Let’s go,” I said.  “How do we do it?”

– from In the Time of the Blue Ball

Antoine Volodine is an enigmatic French author… at least for those of us who can’t read French.  I’m sure for those fortunate enough to understand la langue française he’s an open book, having written a prodigious amount of prose in that language under several pseudonyms (which include Lutz Bassmann, Elli Kroneauer and Manuela Draeger).  In addition to writing fiction, Volodine (which is another pseudonym – this author’s true identity remains a secret) also translates Russian texts into English (though some seem to believe the Russian authors he translates are pseudonyms, as well).  He is the creator of a literary movement that called “post-exoticism”, of which he seems to be the sole member.   As best I can tell, post-exoticism is a kind of world-building – immersing the reader in a future, dystopian world; whose inhabitants speak a language that is almost but not quite recognizable as French; and where the borders and nationalities with which we are familiar no longer exist.  Put succinctly – Antoine Volodine writes very complicated and very literary science fiction.

The keystone, Rosetta Stone if you will, of his body of work seems to be the novel Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven – sadly still waiting to be translated into English.  From it readers learn that Volodine’s cache of imaginary authors are also exist as characters in his books.  The conceit being that they are all prisoners in the post-apocolyptic future where their stories are set.  For example:  Manuela Draeger, who writes young adult novels and is the author of In the Time of the Blue Ball, is “a librarian in a post-apocalyptic prison camp who invents stories to tell children in the camp.  This background is not indicated on the French editions of Draeger’s books, which are enjoyed by young people and older people alike;”*.

The three stories by Manuela Draeger collected In the Time of the Blue Ball  (translated by Brian Evenson) and published by Dorothy, A Publishing Project are unlike anything I’ve ever read.  The hero of these gorgeously surreal fairy tales, the boy named Bobby Potemkine, is a kind of detective.  He has a dog named Djinn who plays the nanoctiluphe in a band of flies.  Their friend, a giant wooly crab, is named Big Katz.  When Big Katz comes to visit he brings the ocean with him.  Bobby is in love with a bat named Lili Niagara (quick aside: all females in these stories share the surname Lili).  The adventures of this group of friends are oddly whimsical.  At the same time the feel gritty.  Draeger somehow infuses a dark beauty – a post-exoticism version of magical realism – into the grey and miserable landscape that (I assume) runs throughout all of the post-exoticism novels.

This landscape is definitely a part of We Monks & Soldiers by Lutz Bassman (translated by Jordan Stump).  Bassman works to engage all his reader’s senses from page one.  The book opens with the words

{Constant drumming. Silence during the text.}

These two sentences act as a trigger, preparing the reader to step into an environment that is fundamentally different.  Divided into 7 parts, really 7 short stories, We Monks & Soldiers features a series of protagonists who are part of an underground movement called the Organization.  (By the way, I use  the term “underground” loosely – because in the world Bassman writes about society has disintegrated to such a degree that only the last, frayed vestiges of an establishment seem to remain).  There is a curious mixture of mysticism and the ashes of the 20th century present in these stories.  Humanity is on the verge of extinction.  What will replace it is still uncertain.  This future seems possible, in a hyper-realistic way.

And then he takes the reader into the realm of the fantastic by introducing a man into the story who is mutating/evolving into a birdlike creature.  Just as suddenly, Bassman pulls this put-upon and confused reader back to “reality” again, implying that the former was only a story and what you are now reading is fact.  So it goes.  A constant back and forth, leaving the reader to try determine what is happening.   Specifically, what has happened to us in this future that Volodine, Bassman & Draeger are predicting.

Exercises in Post-Exoticism are obscure and confusing and come together through trial and error… exactly as you’d expect history to be after an apocalypse.

I believe, though again I can’t be sure, that the stories in We Monks & Soldiers all explore different episodes in the history of the Organization. They don’t follow a linear timeline.  Instead, Bassman presents several alternate versions of the inherent possibilities – past and present – contained in the narrative microcosm he has written.  And so Crisis at the Tong Fong Hotel can be story no.2 and (in another, less fanciful form) story no. 6.  Story no. 3 The Dive is both the prequel and entirely different in its style from story no. 4 A Backup Proletarian Universe (set in the “past” and revealing, I believe, the early stages of the Organization’s moral decline)Story no. 5 Forgetting provides hints as to the significance of Mariya Schwan to the Organization in general and specifically to the protagonist of story no. 1 An Exorcism by the Sea.  Supernatural elements abound in some of these stories – and then they disappear in others.  It all feels very fragmented until, with time, the collection begins to develop its own messy logic.

Just as the stories in We Monks & Soldiers explore the history of the Organization, and In the Time of the Blue Ball collects the fables of the post-exoticism world, it makes sense that other post-exoticism books continue to flesh out and expand upon Volodine & Co. ‘s themes.   Below is a list of those books which I know have been translated into English.  If you know of any others, or have more information on upcoming titles, please share in the comments section!

  • We Monks & Soldiers by Lutz Bassman, translated by Jordan Stump (University of Nebraska Press)
  • In the Time of the Blue Ball by Manuela Draeger, translated by Brian Evenson (Dorothy, a publishing project)
  • Minor Angels by Antoine Volodine, translated by Jordan Stump (University of Nebraska Press)
  • Naming the Jungle by Antoine Volodine, translator unknown (New Press International Fiction Series)

*Taken from the Publisher’s Note in In the Time of the Blue Ball.  Even on the internet it’s difficult to find information about Volodine, so I have to credit J.T. Mahany’s review of We Monks & Soldiers over on Three Percent; as well as thank Chad Post – who first brought post-exoticism to my attention on the Three Percent podcast.

In the Time of the Blue Ball
Publisher:  Dorothy, a publishing project (2011)
ISBN:  978 0 9844693 3 8

We Monks & Soldiers
Publisher:  University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln (2012)
ISBN:  978 0 8032 3991 3

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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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