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LA Review of Books: Words that Kill

By D. Harlan Wilson
Los Angeles Review of Books

kawamata_death coverIN 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."

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