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Hell: A very personal and eternal nightmare

Japanese novelist Yasutaka Tsutsui bends and blurs genres to portray dark tales from a different kind of underworld

by Steve Finbow

Characters who re-live their mistakes, their cruelties, and their sexual indiscretions populate Yasutaka Tsutsui’s hell, a netherworld built in ever-decreasing circles of guilt, memory, and desire. If, as Jean-Paul Sartre claims, “Hell is other people,” then it is the reflection of one’s self in the eyes of other people.

HELL by Yasutaka Tsutsui, Alma Books, 2008, 199 pp., £7.99 (paper)

The novel opens during World War II, a memory replayed, in which three ragged and smelly boys — Nobutero, Yuzo and Takeshi — play on a schoolyard platform. As they roughhouse, Takeshi falls and injures himself; the two other boys jump down and pull him along the floor, not noticing his broken leg. From this moment on, Takeshi is disabled, and the friends slowly lose contact with one another. “Hell” begins this way. Or does it? Details of the accident are obscured; memory plays tricks on the mind. All three boys are now in hell — whether it be one of their own making, of the novel, or the hell of senility.

Author of the short-story collection “Salmonella Man on Planet Porno” and the psychological thriller “Paprika,” Yasutaka Tsutsui’s strange worlds resemble the inner space of the late J.G. Ballard and the satirical science fiction of Kurt Vonnegut. In Tsutsui’s hell, people can read each other’s minds; see their memories and thoughts stretched out behind them. Like the Tralfamadorians in Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five,” they are able to see the past, present, and future as a concrete entity. In hell, a woman’s sexual indiscretions with her husband’s boss force her to endlessly relive the moment her husband catches her in flagrante delicto. Dead Yakuza members use restaurants as torture chambers, enlisting the help of the female owner who takes out her revenge on men in a most gruesome way. As Christopher Marlowe wrote, “Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed in one self place, for where we are is hell, and where hell is there must we ever be.”

Tsutsui’s particular Hades is not wholly dissimilar to the world in which we live. Konzo Ichikawa, a young kabuki actor, lost under the stage of the Kabukiza, is able to hear the voices of other actors as he traverses the labyrinthine corridors. He is dead. In hell, reality is just beyond the senses. Hell, so similar to the living world, is reality’s dark mirror. The kabuki actor finally locates a door leading him out from the maze, only to find himself in the Night Walker – a bar that acts as hell’s anteroom. An actress and writer, chased by paparazzi, ride an elevator that speeds them down to floor 666 — a 21st century Virgil and Dante pursued by media Furies.

Tsutsui’s style is clear and light, his satire gentle and funny, and his take on reality skewed and refreshing. The narrative jumps between characters and time to build a fully realized underworld uncannily familiar to the reader. Hell is the cinema of one’s own personal pornography; a fusing of Oscar Wilde’s assertion that, “We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell,” and Andre Gide’s contention that, “In hell there is no other punishment than to begin over and over again the tasks left unfinished in your lifetime.”

Tsutsui’s writing defies classification, it is genre-bending — a mix of satire, science fiction, crime and myth following in the literary footsteps of Franois Rabelais, Jonathan Swift, and Mark Twain; Tsutsui’s English-language contemporaries could include Ray Bradbury, Bret Easton Ellis, and a more somber Terry Pratchett. Alma Books, the independent publisher of “Hell,” “Paprika,” and “Salmonella Men on Planet Porno,” should be applauded for introducing the Anglophone world to the works of Yasutaka Tsutsui.