Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther has been accused of encouraging suicides, so forceful a piece of literature it was. But that is nothing compared to Kawamata Chiaki’s fictional poet who writes “The Gold of Time,” poetry so powerful that whoever reads them dies. Or, do they?
Death Sentences is a fascinating experiment. And I write this with the caveat that I am not academically or historically up to the challenge. I can only comment on the challenge. The ideal reader should probably be familiar with not only the history of noir and of science fiction, but also have more than a passing knowledge of surrealism. I am a lightweight in all three departments. However, I am curious. And that characteristic is what kept me going, even when I should have noticed, I’m told, the subtle references to Philip K. Dick, William Gibson and others.
We begin the story in relatively contemporary Japan with sleazy, corrupt cops and ugly sex in a cheap hotel. Noir most tawdry. Next, we find ourselves in Paris with the art and philosophy of the surrealists dominating the narrative in a much earlier time. Eventually, after some time behind the scenes in the world of Japanese publishing, the reader arrives on a primitively populated Mars in 2031. Earth people, apparently, were in a hurry to get off their planet. Inhabiting an inhospitable Mars in 19 years will be preferable to staying here. And it is on Mars that the truth unfolds. Or does it?
When I read a book like this, one that doesn’t fully engage my attention, but won’t quite let me go either, I suspect it is my deficiency that keeps it from being compelling. I remained, it seemed, always on the verge of enlightenment. Maybe that was the point. However, when I read the comments of others on the Internet and on the book jacket, all more learned than I am in such matters, I tend to think that reading it, I repeat, might be very worthwhile for those who have serious academic interests in noir, surrealism and science fiction. I would love to hear other comments on the book, perhaps from those more grounded in the various disciplines.
Chiaki is also highly respected in Japan and is often compared to or contrasted with Haruki Murakami, an author whose work I almost always enjoy.
Death Sentences was published in Japan earlier, but is making its English translation debut in the U.S. now. Next book up for me is Red Harvest. I need to get back to the basics.