The Man with the Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-Yi, translated from the Chinese by Darryl Sterk

June 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

From the Hardcover editionWu Ming-Yi, the Taiwanese author of The Man With The Compound Eyes, sets out to prove that these days the truth is stranger than fiction.  He pulls from his background as an environmental activist to describes a world facing environmental disaster. A disaster that resembles current events so closely that readers don’t need to expend their imagination to buy into the premise.  The events of Ming-Yi’s novel could become our reality within a decade and few would bat an eye.

Alice, the main protagonist, is a professor of literature in Taiwan.  She lives alone.  Her husband Tom and son Toto are presumed dead, having disappeared while on a climbing trip in the nearby forest.  Climate change and rising sea levels will soon make the  small house she and Tom built on the beach uninhabitable. Most of her neighbors have already moved to higher ground but Alice refuses to leave her memories. Engulfed by grief and surrounded by the encroaching ocean, she is preparing to commit suicide in the opening pages.

Atile’i lives on the island of Wayo-Wayo (the book’s jacket copy refers to it as a “mythical” place). Wayo-Wayo is isolated enough to have developed an exotic culture, but is not entirely cut off from the outside world.

Atile’i remembered another of the Earth Sage’s offhand remarks: ‘The white man may come and the white man may go, be we will live by the law of Wayo Wayo. We don’t need the white man. The gifts he left us are harmful , ill-gotten gains. There’s just this useless watch, a couple of books, and a few children like Rasula.’ The Earth Sage sighed and said, ‘But there may come a day when the other men who live upon the earth cause Wayo Wayo to vanish. You never know.’

Atile’i is a second son and, per Wayo Wayo custom, he (like all second sons) must leave the island in a talawaka, a canoe-like vessel, once he comes of age.  While it’s never explicitly stated – second sons die at sea.  The best they can hope for is to be reincarnated as killer whales.  The worst, jellyfishes, if they take their own lives. This is the fate Atile’i embraces, until he finds himself floating in his talawaka amidst the Great Pacific garbage patch.  Through ingenuity he manages to survive on the floating island of plastic until it collides with Taiwan.  Atile’i washes up onto the very section of coastline where Alice lives; the ecological catastrophe brings our two protagonists together.  As expected, each impacts the other’s life.  There is a lovely moment when Atile’i greets Alice as is custom on Wayo Wayo, “Is the weather fair at sea today?”  He repeat the question  so many times that after the sixth time Alice stopped answering him.  Hurt, he confronts her and explains that she must answer “Very fair” every time. ‘Even if it’s raining as hard as it is now, you still have to reply in this way?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Even if you don’t feel like replying?’ ‘Yes.’

We both gazed out at the sea, which seemed to be slowly bringing rain. Every so often a breaker would come rolling in. Following a silence of ten waves, Atile’i asked me another time, ‘Is the weather fair at sea today?’ ‘Very fair,’ I replied and for the first time I realised I could ask him back. ‘Is the weather fair on your sea today?’ ‘Yes it is, extremely fair,’ Atile’i replied. I don’t know why, but right at that moment we both began to cry.

If Wu Ming-Yi had confined himself to the story of Alice & Atile’i, adding one or two of the other plotlines instead of the several the novel contains, I believe The Man with the Compound Eyes would have been a better book.  My main criticism is the sheer number of ideas crammed into 300 pages.  The third person narrative moves through no less than 10 different character’s perspectives including, albeit briefly, the titular man.  As it goes on, the plot becomes crowded and unwieldy.  Characters, stories, ideas aren’t given the space to grow.  Take for example the opening paragraph:

The trickling of water through the fissures in the subterranean rock was suddenly drowned out when the mountain made an immense but also somehow distant sound. Everyone fell silent. Then Jung-hsiang Li shouted.  That wasn’t groundwater surging. Wasn’t loose rocks shifting or bedrock bursting, either. And it obviously wasn’t a vocal echo. It sounded more like when something bumps into a flawless glass vessel – from somewhere within the glass you hear a spider’s web begin to spread before the cracks appear. The sound vanished straight-away, and the only thing the people in the cave and control room could hear was the huff of each other’s breathing and the hiss of the radios.

Chapter I. The Cave goes unexplained, the characters unidentified, until we revisit the same event in a flashback roughly 197 pages later.  By that time most readers will have forgotten all about it (I did) or, worse, are unable to make the connection to the rest of the narrative. The shame is that just that storyline could have made a fascinating novel in its own right.  But, as it is written, it becomes easily lost among all the  other plot points which occur in the interceding pages:  the mystery of Tom’s & Toto’s disappearance; side stories about Alice’s friend Dahu and her indigenous Pangcah neighbor Hafay;  the fate of the Wayo Wayo girl Atile’i  loves.  There’s a lot to think about in terms of writing as well:  Ming-Yi dabbles in symbolism  (Toto collected bugs, the identifying feature of the man with compound eyes, the frequent appearance of moths throughout the book); nature is described – even by scientists – in shamanistic terms; there’s even a modernist plot twist inserted at the end.  Dizzy yet?  Ask five different readers and you could easily receive five different (and perfectly plausible) interpretations of what The Man with the Compound Eyes is about.

By the end we discover that it’s Alice‘s world that holds most of the surprises, but the journey to get to that moment of discovery is long and meandering. Darryl Sterk’s fluid translation throws a net over these disparate ideas and events, gathering them together into a surprisingly readable whole.  My criticism is entirely with the scope of the work – not the writing itself. And while a lot of things bothered me about this novel, more impressed me.  I hope  more of Wu Ming-Yi’s work will make its way into English.

Publisher: Pantheon Books, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 0 307 90796 7


Note: For anyone interested in learning more about the floating island of trash that is central to the plot of The Man with the Compound Eyes and (more to the point) what we can do about it – check out this video.


The Swimmers by Joaquín Pérez Azaústre, translated by Lucas Lyndes

November 12, 2013 § 2 Comments

The Swimmers is a short novel published this past September by Frisch & Co. – an e-book only publisher focusing on translated fiction. Ostensibly about the end of the world, it features no natural disasters, barren landscapes or bands of survivors fighting savagely over the few resources that remain. Azaústre’s vision is much more surreal, one could argue that it is meant to function as metaphor.  Jonás is a photographer who has grown too accustomed to interacting with the world through the lens of his camera. Which might be why his girlfriend left him and why his art career, once so promising, has stalled. He is an only child of divorced parents and carries that slightly clichéd aura of loneliness and isolation with him. The most important person left in his life is his best-friend, Sergio. The two have a relationship more like brothers than friends. They meet regularly at a pool in Jonas’ old neighborhood to swim laps.

Central to the novel are Jonás’ visits to the pool – with and without Sergio. These swimming sessions are integral to the structure and overall tone of the book.  In a wonderful article on the website Necessary Fiction (as a part of their Translation Notes series), Lucas Lyndes describes the challenges of translating a novel written under an Oulipian style constraint –

The novel’s protagonist, Jonás, goes to the pool almost every day, where he swims 2,500 meters. The book is broken up into 50 chapters, representing laps in the pool; as I learned during the translation process, an Olympic-size pool is 50 meters long, so essentially the book (50 laps x 50 m) is the equivalent of one swimming session. I read the prose, and especially the rhythm, as an imitation of the act of swimming. Most chapters start off a bit slow, with short(er), sharp(er) sentences, like diving in or kicking off from the wall, and then the sentences start flowing into one another, like strokes and kicks.

The carefully choreographed rhythm of the prose (apparent even without reading Lyndes) has a soothing effect and lessens the impact of the events driving the story.  People are vanishing into thin air.  Not to be confused with abductions and/or kidnappings – men, women and children in the city where Jonás’ lives are simply no longer there. Their disappearances are almost supernatural. First, other swimmers at the pool.  Then, Jonás’ mother. In quick succession: the daughter and grand-daughter of an older swimmer who Jonás meets regularly at a cafe; followed by a fellow artist and, then, the daughter of an underworld boss. As the pages pass the urban environment through which Jonás moves steadily empties.  Azaústre manages to create the feeling of a physical world expanding as, in almost direct correlation, Jonás sheds his personal relationships and connections. The disappearances come to represent an existential detachment.  At the same time they create discomfort in the reader – a primal response to the idea of non-existence.

Joaquín Pérez Azaústre is a novelist and a poet; with the ability to evoke the full range of sensory details.  He’s particularly strong when describing abandoned places. He breaks down the space into units of time – individual moments which the reader explores with the protagonist. Beautiful, haunting imagery appears all throughout The Swimmers. Azaústre’s writing is a combination of Camus, a young Stephen King and the great Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone).  He challenges our preconceptions of reality in new and interesting ways.  He plays with the concept of negative space, twins, reflections and parallel universes.  But he does it in a way that seems to exclude the fantastic.  There could be a logical explanation for all this.  In the meantime, people and events constantly move in and out of the periphery of the story.

It’s five in the afternoon. The clarity of the foothills is enveloped by the specter or rain. There is no countryside beyond the city, just a wasteland, a barren stretch of dry earth. On the right-hand shoulder, the bus leaves behind a hamlet of moveable homes and shacks erected with miscellaneous materials from demolition sites. He sees no one, not a single face. They take off so quickly that later, after driving out of sight of the wood and tin huts, some of them made from old emptied-out bodies of cars and trucks, scrap metal with plastic curtains and tarp roofs, Jonas starts to doubt their existence, as if the expulsion from the city had turned them into phantasms, as fleeting as the rest of the bare mounds of earth.

Joaquín Pérez Azaústre has unknowingly embraced Alan Weisman’s initial premise in The World Without Us – what if humanity were to inexplicably disappear? –  and stopped there.  Whereas Weisman explores the event’s aftermath, Azaústre is interested in the experience of disappearing.  Very little in The Swimmers gets explained or resolved, least of all where everyone has gone.  Instead we’re given tantalizing glimpses of another, untold story happening parallel to this one.  Even the characters feel it.  While explaining his mother’s disappearance to Sergio, we’re told that Jonás “felt as if he too was a witness to his tale, as if for a few minutes he had been able to contemplate his own narration…” Later, Sergio expresses “…that sometimes, when I think about it, I get the impression that out there, somewhere else, far away from this house, someone else is living my life for me.”

Everything about the novel – the prose style, the structure, the characters and settings – feels purposeful.  The author has a bigger idea in mind but it’s too much to absorb in just one reading.  I can’t say, definitely, what The Swimmers is about.  Upon finishing it I was left with an impression of thoughtful writing, a plethora of ideas, and the yearning to understand something that seemed important.  Or maybe I’m reading too much into it?   The Swimmers could just be one of those books that exists simply as the sum of its parts – regardless of our expectations (or desires) on how those parts should connect.

Publisher: Frisch & Co., Berlin (2013)
ISBN:  978 0 9891267 2 4

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

March 6, 2013 § 3 Comments

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

February 27, 2013 § Leave a comment

“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)

July 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

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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