Last year I took quite an interesting course titled, Japanese Fiction and the Nation which was particularly awesome given that the lecturer we had, a certain Byron Tensor Posadas (he's searchable!), decided to centre the readings around Japanese science fiction and I'm a huge sci-fi fan. What ended up being probably my favourite books from that course was titled Death Sentences by Kawamata Chiaki - a delightful play on words as the story revolves around a poem that "kills" people after they read it.
Here's a short review I wrote about it in an old post. . .
"I really liked this one. The concept is that a poem written by a mysterious writer who was closely tied to the surrealist movement in France (1920s to '40s) is killing people after they've read it. This has led to a future in which a special police force is dedicated to hunting down "poem traffickers" and executing them in order to stop the spread of the killer poem. The plot spans from the time when the poem was created in postwar France to the present, which shows how the poem was spread, and concludes in a future in which the poem is heavily monitored and controlled. The truth behind the poem is totally not what you'd expect; I won't ruin the ending here. Just know that it's pretty intense."
- excellent translation that doesn't miss a beat (very readable)
- immediately engaging
- character-driven plot that twists and turns in unexpected directions
- great use of magic realism
- pacing is somewhat inconsistent
- certain plot points get way more pages than other, potentially more interesting ones
- genre switching may cause some readers to detach themselves from the story
Seminar Review: Death Sentences
Within the first few pages of Kawamata Chiaki’s Death Sentences I knew that I was in for a treat, the translation was engaging in its straight-forward manner (though I imagine this was mirroring Chiaki’s writing style in Japanese) and the opening situation contained just enough absurdity that I was instantly enthralled. For me speculative futures are always interesting, especially if they contain such dystopian characteristics as an overly-aggressive police-state – call it morbid fascination. It did not take long for me to realize that this was not going to be an immediately cohesive narrative as I was transported from future Japan, to World War II era France, to contemporary Japan, back to the police-state, to colonial mars and then finally to an alternate time-line altogether.
The nature of the characters changed just as drastically as the settings – a police agent, the real-life surrealist poet and writer Andre Breton, a newspaper editor, a student, a detective, a white colonial soldier on mars with the soul of a Japanese man. Each chapter would appear to exist independently of the others. Sure enough the chapters are connected by the Gold of Time poem but aside from that they could easily stand alone as short stories independent from one another. This is especially evident in how the story not just changes locations, characters and even time periods but also genres, hopping from chapter to chapter.
This in itself mirrors the fate of those who read the poem, The Gold of Time by the character Who May, as once they read the poem over and over again, it is my understanding that their souls essentially leave their bodies and become free from the shackles of time and space being able to travel freely between locations, time periods and even individual consciousnesses. Could this not be allegorical of the way in which the nation-state is becoming less and less prevalent? In times past and even not so long ago the idea that the nations which we call home were inherent and permanent entities, immovable, unchanging and exclusive from one another was not often disputed. In other words nations were (and largely still are) considered to have always been around is some capacity, and bread a certain people, a certain culture and a certain language rather than the other way around. To this day the borders of nations are still clearly defined and it seems difficult to imagine this ever not being the case. Nations, like our individual identities are considered to be non-interchangeable – China is not the United States, I am not you etc. However, Kawamata imagines a time and space where this is obviously not the case.
In the story, those who read the poem transcend physicality, time and space itself. Suddenly “I” becomes everyone, “here” becomes everywhere and “when” becomes whenever. Here we see the “death” of boundaries or rather the end of one set of boundaries and perhaps the introduction of another. The characters in the book who read the poems for all intents and purposes die, and in doing so they transcend their current existence and take on another.
The world is currently in such a state in which it is becoming increasingly possible to imagine the end of the nation-state as we know it and perhaps its replacement by some other similar identifier. Countries now have much more to do with each other through the expansion of business and trade, online interactions and the sharing of digital and physical content – a sort of transnational capitalism if you will. However, even this form of capitalism has constraints of its own and even where nation-states may become less and less influential and more abstract, this mode of capitalism may be thought to be as permanent as the nation-state once was. Indeed currently there is a popular axiom – it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Capitalism maybe thought of as the new identity – the currently immovable, timeless force that is here to stay forever, however in imagining a world wherein identity and consciousness itself is killed off and transcended by another new consciousness Kawamata maybe attempting to show us that just about everything can change and nothing is beyond transcendence.
I wrote this a year ago already but I suppose my thoughts haven't changed too much. I have to say that the idea of a transnational world is something which is of great interest to me and so I tend to write quite a bit from that angle. While I certainly understand that the idea of the cessation of nation-states may certainly be a scary proposition to many I also feel that it could solve a lot of problems. I also figure that this won't happen in my lifetime or even my prospective children's for that matter -- assuming it happens at all. Still, it's neat to imagine.
It seems to me that a lot of people are worried that trans-nationalism will destroy or at least simplify the unique and beautiful cultures we humans have built over the last millenia or so. I disagree, while culture is often produced unique to space in which people live, that it is invariably tied to the nation seems to not be the case. One could argue that nations are historical entities, yet world history cannot help but be retro-active and much of what we consider traditional national culture is in fact the culture of some sort of forerunner that was co-opted and dissolved into our nation's larger narrative. Cultural is also ephemeral, and changes constantly, so there's that too. In any case it certainly seems to me that trans-nationalism is a plausible future for this world of ours, and I think that countries like mine (Canada) with "weak nationalism" are actually in a better situation to adapt to this possible phenomenon. That's what I believe anyway.
Till next time! Go read Death Sentences by Chiaki Kawamata.