Words That Kill: Kawamata Chiaki’s “Death Sentences”

By D. Harlan WilsonMay 14, 2012

Death Sentences by Chiaki Kawamata

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 is, bad for the modern tendency toward an apocalyptic, 'free and open' commerce of endless expansion and empty time."

The problem of time — i.e., of a Phildickian time-slip — is of central importance and stems from the epitaph inscribed on Andre Breton's tomb, "I seek the gold of time," the implications of which Kawamata transforms into a murderous Burroughsian word-virus. As Philip K. Dick once wrote: "The ultimate in paranoia is not when everyone is against you but when everything is against you. Instead of 'My boss is plotting against me,' it would be 'My boss's phone is plotting against me.' Objects seem to possess a will of their own anyhow." In the case of Death Sentences, the objects in question are words, signifiers in the form of a prose poem called "The Gold of Time" that slowly infects and kills its readers.

For Breton, the "gold of time" was a conceptual dilemma; initially cited in The Surrealist Manifesto (1924), the phrase references the Romantic quest for unlocking the powers of the imagination, a magical task akin to the alchemist's conversion of base metals into gold. In Death Sentences, "The Gold of Time" is one of several prose poems written by the literally and figuratively wide-eyed Who May (derived from Hu Mei, likely a pun on fumei, the Japanese term for "anonymous"), a young French-Chinese man with aspirations of becoming a poet who approaches André Breton in 1940s Paris bearing a series of works that he desperately needs the veteran surrealist to "diagnose." Breton reluctantly obliges. While initially ambivalent and even disgusted by Who May's poems, repeatedly using the abject ("Shit!") as a crutch to negotiate their emotional impact, he develops an obsession with the poems, passing them off to friends, colleagues, and acquaintances and seeking their interpretations.

Prominent surrealists and artists (e.g., Arshile Gorky, Sylvia Carney, Benjamin Péret, Jean-Pierre Duprey, Wolfgang Paalen, and eventually Breton himself) begin to die, often by suicide, and often in Paris. These deaths did in fact happen on the dates and in the places Kawamata cites (e.g., Gorky hanged himself in Sherman, Connecticut, in 1948), but he hinges their deaths on Who May's fateful poem, which, in the fictional context of the novel, had been read by all of the them.

"The Gold of Time" sets in motion a butterfly effect that flutters across the globe and extends into a dystopian alternate future  (circa late-twentieth century) distinguished by totalitarian police-states bent on wiping out the word-plague at any cost. The poem functions like a drug, causing a slow, mortal deterioration in the minds and bodies of users — "Scholars initially called it a 'fatal autism' — whose addiction compels them to transcribe and disseminate more and more copies. Eventually "The Gold of Time" makes its way to Mars. In this dystopian future, Shutzstaffel military regimes maintain order among colonies of proles who have emigrated to Mars as a result of "the global population explosion, the depletion of resources, and economic collapse ... [Mars] afford[ed] a New World for the destitute and rejected." The "Martian Guard," a "corporate enterprise ... all about profit," destroys anyone that gets out of line in order to preserve "the felicitous relation between supply and demand," but when the poem shows up, the flows of production (and ontology) derail.

The arrangement of events in Death Sentences is not chronological. Just as time is schized in the story, so is it schized in the framework of the narrative, beginning in late-twentieth-century Japan, backtracking to 1940s Paris, then returning to the late-twentieth century (prior to the release of the poem-virus and thus the alternate dystopian reality), and finally leaping to twenty-second century Mars (2131 A.D.), with some back and forth in between.

Death Sentences has four main characters, one in each time period. In addition to Who May, who rarely appears in the novel and who appropriately appears in multiple timescapes, they include the following: Sakamoto, a lead Japanese detective charged with finding copies of "The Gold of Time" in the alternate late-twentieth century; Breton, as "himself," mid-twentieth century; Sakakibara, the editor of a small press in 1980s Japan responsible for unknowingly releasing the death sentences of Who May into the social matrix; and Carl Schmitt, commander of a futuristic Martian death squad.

We don't know what happens to victims of the poem when they die. We know they experience a sense of euphoria — "pure rapture" — and a desire to transcend their bodies and exist within the fold of the hallucinations caused by the poem, although in reality they fall into a coma. Here the novel summons another Phildickian intertext: the drug CAN-D in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, which instills a desire in users to embrace the shared existence of the hallucinatory Perky Pat layouts. But in Death Sentences the effects are closer to the evil Eldritch's CHEW-Z, a "new-and-improved" form of CAN-D that negates time and promises eternal life, but with much darker consequences. After all, taking the ostensible drug/religion "The Gold of Time" concludes in "Oblivion," the title of the final chapter.

It is not Who May's intent to write a homicidal prose poem, let alone instigate an apocalypse. As we learn at the end, he had merely been conducting innocent "word experiments" and stumbled upon "the secret affinity obtaining between words and things," a discovery that wreaked havoc on the spacetime continuum. Banished to a mysterious two-dimensional world, however, he can't return to the real, three-dimensional world and set things in order. He commissions Sakamoto as a medium, a convoluted matter accomplished through the medium of Schmitt (i.e., Who May contacts a disembodied Sakamoto inside of Schmidt's mind/body apparatus). Then he returns to 1948 Paris before "The Gold of Time" was written, saving humanity from himself.

The Japanese title of the novel, Genshi-gari, means "hunting the magic poems" and gains much from its (mis)translation into "death sentences," underscoring the mortal effects of Who May's words and the capital punishment to which it condemns readers/users/addicts. Additionally, as Tatsumi glosses, "the original term in Japanese for the 'magic poem' (genshi) has the same pronunciation as the term 'atom' (genshi) and thereby revives the image of the atomic bomb (genshi bakudan)." Kawamata thus extrapolates the horrors of Hiroshima and nuclear fallout to the written word of Who May. In the abstract, the novel is about trauma and containment. Who May functions as both artist and scientist, experimenting with language in an attempt to create the impossible, but like Victor Frankenstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer, his passion for creation ignores the deadly consequences.

The prose poem as certifiable Frankenstein's monster is one among many allusions to SF tropes and texts. I mentioned the Orwellian platform, and I have only scratched the surface of the degree to which the ghost of Philip K. Dick playfully haunts the novel. (Dick is even mentioned at the end of a long litany of surrealist deaths, suggesting that he, too, had succumbed to "The Gold of Time.") Sakamoto and his team are equated with the firemen of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, hunting down and destroying books, and Sakamoto falls prey to the same curiosity that brought down Guy Montag when he steals and reads a copy of "The Gold of Time." Moreover, Death Sentences employs techniques of detective fiction and postmodernity as seen in many works of cyberpunk, and while Gibson's Neuromancer is a very different novel, it is appropriate that they share the same year of publication.

The good news about Death Sentences is that it doesn't simply regurgitate the Old but rather reinvents the Old in unique and interesting ways. There isn't much bad news. I must admit, though, that for all of the hype generated by the foreword and afterword (the latter of which I read before the novel), it fell somewhat short of my expectations. But this is mainly because I anticipated an altogether different linguistic venture, not such plain and pragmatic prose, and not such soft, lo-tech SF. Regardless, Death Sentences — and Kawamata's work in general — has been a well-kept secret in the English-speaking world, and it will undoubtedly generate interest among the community of SF readers and critics. Scholars and educators in particular will find it useful for thinking not only about global SF but about media culture, the surrealist movement, Japanese postmodernism, and the philosophy of aesthetics.


LARB Contributor

D. Harlan Wilson is a professor of English at Wright State University–Lake Campus, the reviews editor of Extrapolation, and the editor-in-chief of Anti-Oedipus Press. He is the author of over 30 books of fiction and nonfiction, including scholarly monographs on the life and work of J. G. Ballard (University of Illinois Press), Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (Auteur Publishing), and Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (Palgrave Macmillan). Visit Wilson online at dharlanwilson.com.


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