IN JAPAN, Kawamata Chiaki is a prolific, award-winning novelist, short story writer, and critic with over thirty works of fiction and nonfiction to his name. He is relatively unknown in the English-speaking world, however, and Death Sentences, originally published in 1984, marks his first major translation into English.
Kawamata began writing in the early 1970s. Death Sentences is his sixteenth novel. Given the author's popularity, critical acclaim, and longstanding career, it seems strange that it has taken this long for one of his books to reach us. Its belated arrival may have something to do with the ever-increasing success in the West of his "competitor" and Japanese contemporary, Haruki Murakami, and perhaps the recent publication of Murakami's IQ84 (2009) — which, like Death Sentences and so many other works of speculative fiction, fancifully riffs on Orwell's 1984. More likely, it has to do with the aesthetics of the novel: Death Sentences is a work of meta-SF that bridges the literary and the biographical, as well as multiple genres and timescapes. Whatever the reason for Kawamata's late arrival to Anglophone culture, the University of Minnesota Press has made a concerted effort to situate him within a recognizable (and of course marketable) SF tradition. Noteworthy is the sole back-cover blurb from one of the most famous living English-speaking SF authors, William Gibson, who calls Death Sentences a "hardboiled, sharply surreal fable about the power of the written word."
Unlike many blurbs, Gibson's is misleading not because of any metaphorical liberties it takes but because of its literalness: the plot of the novel is about written words that have the power to kill, and the style of the novel hearkens back to the original Bretonian concept of surrealism as an effort "to afford an exact, objective, practically clinical approach to the workings of the unconscious mind." The blurb may also misled readers by suggesting that Death Sentences, like Gibson's 1980s and '90s output, is a cyberpunk or post-cyberpunk novel, which it isn't, sharing more of an affinity with SF's New Wave and authors such as J.G. Ballard, Stanislaw Lem, Samuel R. Delany, and above all Philip K. Dick, whose "highly surrealistic novel" from 1964, Martian Time-Slip, Kawamata has admitted, functioned as a prototype for Death Sentences.
This sort of critical terrain is mapped at length in a foreword, "From Surrealism to Postmodernism" by Takayuki Tatsumi, an English professor at Keio University, and an afterword, "Vortex Time" by Thomas LaMarre, a professor of East Asian and communication studies at McGill University and one of the novel's translators. Both essays are valuable contextual tools that cover a lot of ground, ranging from the structure and impact of Kawamata's prose to his biography, the history of surrealism in general, and the way in which Death Sentences extrapolates and historicizes trends in French art, establishes a mode of resistance against the psychic forces of capitalism, and ultimately engages the machinery of SF and postmodernism. LaMarre explains the fundamental accomplishment of the novel: "Like Benjamin's Arcades Project, Kawamata's Death Sentences strives to grasp spells, dreams, and magic from their revolutionary side, to find a spell that would be truly bad for society, that ...read more