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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Death Sentences

Kawamata Chiaki

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To purchase Death Sentences

Title: Death Sentences
Author: Kawamata Chiaki
Genre: Novel
Written: 1984 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 277 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Death Sentences - US
Death Sentences - UK
Death Sentences - Canada
Death Sentences - India
  • Japanese title: 幻詩狩り
  • Translated by Thomas Lamarre and Kazuko Y. Behrens
  • With a Foreword, 'From Surrealism to Postmodernism', by Takayuki Tatsumi
  • With an Afterword by Thomas Lamarre

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Our Assessment:

B+ : very enjoyable literary-themed science fiction

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 12/3/2012 .
World Literature Today . 11-12/2012 Michael A. Morrison

  From the Reviews:
  • "Light on -- though not devoid of -- incident, but deeply rich in atmosphere and idea (.....) If an unexpected revelation late in the game somewhat deflates the tension of the mysteries built throughout the novel, it is to Kawamata's credit that so much suspense exists in the first place, and that the ride thus far is so gripping." - Publishers Weekly

  • "My quibbles aside, Death Sentences offers an enthralling read that leaves lingering reflections about the power of words to affect the reality of readers, which, after all, is the essential enterprise of the literary arts." - Michael A. Morrison, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Death Sentences is presented on multiple planes, ranging from 1940s Paris to, well, Mars, anno 2131. A Prologue, set in the present day, has the police involved in an elaborate action to take down someone involved in: "Reproducing the stuff" -- as well as eradicating it at the source. Not drugs -- at least not of the chemical sort -- but something far more dangerous. Yes, just: "some weird thing written by an insane Frenchman forty years ago" -- which turns out to be so dangerous that the most extreme action has to be taken:

     That's how it had to be.
     There was no other way to prevent the destruction of the world.
       After the Prologue, the novel jumps back to the 1940s to explain the origin of this "weird thing" and the person behind it. His name is 'Who May' (Hu Mei), and at the time he turned to André Breton for help in diagnosing what's going through his head -- and coming out on paper. Like some sort of automatic writing, Who May is producing a sort of poetry -- and even Breton has to admit there's some strange power to it. Breton is even led to speculations such as:
     (He must have made a deal. That's how it was decided. At midnight he had carved summoning spells on the floor and summoned the devil. And in exchange for the secret of words, he had sold his soul to the devil.)
       There is a progression of works by Who May, one more mystifying and powerful than the next, including one that is a veritable mirror -- leading Marcel Duchamp to complain:
     "Mirror ! Mirror ! Mirror ! But why ? How can you make a mirror with words ?"
       But Who May can -- or is compelled to -- and he has even greater ambitions. As he explains to Breton:
     "What I am trying to write is not an illusion of time. It is time itself. I can put into words time itself, duplicating the time that binds this world. I have discovered the key for it !"
       His final work is 'The Gold of Time', but he dies while completing it. His Italian roommate thinks it might be important, and although he does not understand the French it is written in copies it out several times and sends it to people who seemed to have been Who May's friends.
       Needless to say, it's a killer poem, and those who encounter it are overwhelmed: it takes out quite a few noted figures, form Arshile Gorky to Philip K. Dick.
       The novel then moves to 1980s Japan, where a small publishing house is asked to help with a large-scale department store exhibition, introducing a haul of material which might make it: "possible to write the history of the twentieth-century avant garde from a thoroughly new perspective". Among the papers: a copy of 'The Gold of Time', and as it resurfaces it begins to wreak its havoc again.
       Kawamata nicely presents the reactions various people have to the poem -- often only second-hand (i.e. describing how others find the victims have reacted, when the victims themselves are no longer in a position to explain), to leave an air of mystery to it. His style, of short paragraphs -- often only a single sentence -- and parenthetical exclamations and asides -- nicely heightens the tension and mystery, too. So, for example, one character's initial reaction to exposure to the poem has him wonder:
     Critics sometimes referred to works as "intoxicating," but that was rhetoric. But a prose poem that actually exerted a narcotic effect on its readers ... (Ridiculous !) ... there was no such thing as spells or enchantments ... it defied reason
     (It's an illusion.) (I must be tired ...) (That had to be it.) (... and yet ...) (But ...)
       It's hard to sustain a concept such as this one over an entire novel, but Kawamata does it remarkably well. One of Who May's explanations gives a good sense of how the book as a whole can be considered:
Imagine people from the flat two-dimensional world who have taken on three-dimensional form. From the heights of the three-dimensional, they can see all of the two-dimensional world. But ... although they can see all of it ... they can never go back to it. Which means we cannot change a single thing in it !
       Kawamata ably suggests an extra dimension at play here (and it's no surprise that Who May is called the "Poet of the Fourth Dimension"): Kawamata acknowledges its unreachability -- at least in these pages -- and, at the same time, suggests what it involves.
       A thriller with a strong literary bent, with dashes of literary and actual romance and wonderfully suggesting and demonstrating the power of the written word, Death Sentences is thoroughly enjoyable and a clever piece of work. It's amazing (and disappointing) that it took nearly three decades before an English translation was published.

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 April 2012

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Death Sentences: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Kawamata Chiaki (川又千秋) was born in 1948.

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