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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Tsutsui Yasutaka

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To purchase Hell

Title: Hell
Author: Tsutsui Yasutaka
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 190 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Hell - US
Hell - UK
Hell - Canada
Hell - India
Hell - France
  • Japanese title: ヘル
  • Translated by Evan Emswiler

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Our Assessment:

B : creative hell-fantasy

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 13/10/2007 Piero Bohoslawec
The Guardian . 11/10/2008 Nicholas Lezard
The Times . 19/9/2008 Christina Koning

  From the Reviews:
  • "The charactersí different stories overlap but, like the inert new world in which they find themselves, they donít ever really go anywhere in a vision of hell that paints a bleak picture of humanity." - Piero Bohoslawec, Financial Times

  • "Tsutsui has been called a "surrealist". This kind of label, however understandable it is to affix it to him, is perhaps a bit off-putting; it suggests that he's more interested in making wacky associations than investigating our inner lives. He prefers to call it "metafiction", which can mean, I suppose, anything he wants it to. But you won't have read anything quite like this. It's astonishing that no other publisher has seen fit to translate him into English. We've been missing out." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "Their cartoon-like indestructibility makes it hard to sympathise with Tsutsui's characters -- but one's sympathy, in any case, is not required. The slapstick humour adds to the sense of dislocation, as does the constant shifting between past and present. The result certainly gives an impression of what Hell might be like -- if only through the mixture of unease, revulsion and boredom that it creates in the reader." - Christina Koning, The Times

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:

       In Hell Tsutsui brings together the life and afterlife of a large crowd of characters. The past -- life -- haunts all of them to at least some extent, and much of the novel revisits and recounts the signal (and occasional forgotten) episodes from before their deaths. The story flashes back and forth between present (where they find themselves in this mysterious state) and past and between the many characters and their various connexions from their time alive.
       Tustsui's Hell isn't fire-and-brimstone hellish; if anything, it's more of a purgatory, where you're doomed to lounge around. In an explanation that's as good as any other, one local suggests:

     "You know what Hell is ? It's just a place without God. The Japanese don't believe in God to begin with, so what's the difference between this world and the world of the living ?"
       But there are some differences, including time which creeps along or zooms ahead. And then there's this ability to practically sense or read much of the life of others: "In Hell it was possible to view moments in another person's life simply by staring at them".
       Tsutsui's novel draws an intricate but almost effortless net of connexions among the large cast of characters, as those who were once friends or co-workers, or whose paths just happened to cross at some point find each other in Hell again. There are the occasional living characters, haunted by the dead, as it were, too -- and Tsutsui offers much of the life-stories of the hell-denizens as well, moving back and forth between past and present, memory and what now passes for reality (which can get pretty surreal in Hell). There are childhood friends who took very different paths, for example, and many of those featured here were also part of an airplane hijacking that went wrong. Not surprisingly, many of the characters led less than exemplary lives -- but some seem doomed here only by happenstance.
       Tsutsui does the transitions to hell-life particularly well. Rather than making much of abrupt and painful moments of death, Tsutsui presents eerily smooth transitions -- with the occasional devilish bit of humour, as when the hijacked plane goes down. Instead of some fiery crash the plane flies on, without anyone piloting it, and lands, and the doors open, all as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened:
Izumi walked down the steps to the runway and looked around. There was no sign of human life anywhere. Who could have lowered the steps ? The terminal was a plain, sterile building, marked only by a neon sign that read "HELL". It glowed crimson even in the middle of the day. Of course, thought Izumi. This wasn't the real world. Anything could happen.
        It's an intricate picture Tsutsui builds up, supported by this fine net of connexions, small details and life- (and death-) fragments that all, more or less, fit together. It's an appealing bigger picture that comes together, with many compelling episodes, but it still feels something short of being whole. Shrouded in the mystical, it never becomes clear what Hell is -- yet Tsutsui also never makes that sense of it being unknowable truly central. Instead, it seems almost arbitrary, a convenient setting for his web of tales.
       Still, the creative take and the many lives at play here make for an intriguing read. The mix of the surreal and the very real is effective, and Tsutsui does create real atmosphere here, even if ultimately almost all of it is too quick to be more then fleetingly mesmerising. Constantly one wants him to linger longer over the details, and flesh them out and reveal more of some of these lives; instead, he's always zipping along to the next bit.

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Hell: Reviews: Tsutsui Yasutaka: Other books by Tsutsui Yasutaka under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Popular Japanese author Tsutsui Yasutaka (筒井 康隆) was born in 1934.

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