The Sacred Era by Yoshio Aramaki, translated by Baryon Tensor Posadas

 

Born April 12, 1933, Yoshio Aramaki’s writing comes to us from a different time. His novel The Sacred Era, originally published in Japanese in 1978, has more in common with classic American sci-fi short story writers like Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury—sharing their preoccupation with wonky metaphysics, biblical allegories, and performative misogyny—than with speculative fiction writers working in the present day. He leads readers down the same well-trodden genre path where impoverished young men discover they are, despite an often remarkable lack of initiative, destined for great things. But Aramaki’s brilliant leaps of imagination and use of experimental, non-linear plot structures are too ambitious for the resulting work to be dismissed as outdated or derivative.

Read my full review of Yosio Aramaki’s novel, The Sacred Era, over at the Quarterly Conversation.

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

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (with comments on the movie trailer)

The film adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go came out last week.   I’ll be waiting for the DVD – but even without seeing it I know that whoever cast Keira Knightley as Ruth was inspired.  I wonder if Knightley realized that Ruth was the better role, despite Kathy being the book’s heroine and narrator?  Kathy is passive and accepting – a character that allows life to happen to her.  Ruth is angry, hungry, constantly needing something to believe in – she burns hot and fast like a comet.   Maybe Knightley just got lucky.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels are usually set inside the mind of the narrator.  They are memories – comprised almost entirely of flashbacks.  The facts have all been filtered through individual perception, interpretation and personal bias.  What emerges is complicated, fascinating and always skillfully written… but generally doesn’t contain a lot of action.  The narrators remain passive observers, even when they are in the thick of the action.  They are like Dickens’ Scrooge, revisiting scenes from their pasts with us as their spirit escorts.  Reading an Ishiguro novel is to be inside someone else’s head, peering out at the world through their eyes.  How will that translate onto a screen? I believe quite well. Despite the challenges the writers must have faced adapting this book for film, the trailer looks absolutely beautiful and the performances emotionally raw.

Never Let Me Go is the story of Kathy and her two friends, Ruth & Tommy.  It opens, again like most of the author’s novels, with the narrator nearing the end of her life and looking back on the path it has taken.  But Kathy is only 31 years old.   Most of her memories are of the  mysterious, private boarding school called Hailsham where she was a student.  It was an idyllic place somewhere in the English countryside – a non-magical version of Hogwarts.   In many ways she and her friends have had the perfect childhood.  Yet something seems… off.

Parents are never mentioned, instead the children are cared for by “guardians”.  They seem to have no memories of, or contact with, the world outside Hailsham.  We learn that they cannot have children of their own.  That it is much worse for a student of Hailsham to smoke cigarettes than it would be for anyone else.  Hailsham students are special and it is very important that they keep themselves healthy.  And then there is the unexplained requirement that all the children be artistic – their best pictures are taken away by “Madame” for her Gallery.  No one knows why.  Much is left unexplained, so the students create their own explanations.  Until one rainy day on the veranda one of their guardians, overhearing them, explains it all.  She does it quickly, brutally, like ripping off a band-aid.  Only, we are the ones who flinch.

If no one else will talk to you… then I will.  You’ve been told, but none of you really understand, and I dare say, some people are quite happy to leave it that way.  But I’m not.  If you’re going to have decent lives, then you’ve got to know and know properly.  None of you will go to America, none of you will be film stars.  And none of you will be working in supermarkets as I heard some of you planning the other day.  Your lives are set out for you.  You’ll become adults, then before you’re old, before you’re even middle-aged, you’ll…

What they’ll do, why they are special, is the pivot point of the novel – which I’ve decided not to spoil.  (Though, if you really want to know, Google is there for you).  One of the most beautiful aspects of the story is the way in which the layers of the plot are slowly and carefully peeled back.  Knowing the secret won’t ruin the novel – what their guardian reveals is shocking, but there are still 207 pages left to read.  I just believe that knowing it too soon compromises the book as a whole.   Never Let Me Go is Kazuo Ishiguro’s meditation on mortality and what it means to be human.  It is incredibly haunting.  Not just beautifully written, like all his novels are, it is also filled with beautiful ideas. ( Which is even rarer).  His characters face a horrible future.  Yet Ishiguro doesn’t seem to feel that future limits or defines them.  He doesn’t seek to shield them (or us)  from it.

“If you’re to have decent lives, you have to know who you are and what lies ahead of you, every one of you”.

T.S. Eliot famously wrote that “The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree Are of equal duration”.  This novel attempts to prove Eliot’s hypothesis.  Kathy’s, Ruth’s & Tommy’s lives contain the complete human experience – innocence, love, loss, friendship, betrayal, forgiveness and the opposite of forgiveness.  Abbreviated.  Ishiguro uses his three characters and their very different personalities to explore the choices we make when faced with death.   And while the science fiction element of the story (the secret) and its ethical implications can’t be ignored, these are not his central motifs.  The author is much more ambitious than that.  Considering the subject matter he is taking on, perhaps because of it, Never Let Me Go the novel is amazingly successful and powerful.  The film has the potential to be absolutely devastating.

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, New York (2005)
ISBN: 1 4000 4339 5

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine