Hell: Yasutaka Tsutsui

Tsutsui is one of those Japanese authors I haven’t read in Japanese. But I’ve somehow managed to pick up two books in translation by him. I tried to read him in Japanese, but I accidentally ordered a “juvenile selection”, which seems to mean the writing gets really dumbed down and they take out all the kanji. So I gave up on reading that pretty quickly. Kids’ book writing has so many commas! And such an irritating, condescending rhythm!

So I am stuck with Tsutsui in English, not necessarily a bad thing, given that he is fortunate enough to have good translators. Hell was translated by Evan Emswiler, and while there were a few bumps (including some dialogue that sounded particularly stilted), overall, it was smooth as hell, and given the constant switching of viewpoints that happens, I was impressed. (I was less than impressed with the editing, though. They somehow managed to misspell the name of one of the main characters on the back cover.)

The basic premise is that hell is a place where you wait things out, get over your regrets, your anger, your leftover worldly desires. You also have a tendency to bump into the people you are thinking about, which can be awkward when the person you are thinking about is the man who was having an affair with your wife, as happens with Izumi and Takeshi. Sure, you could try and pretend that didn’t happen to keep things from becoming so awkward, but then it turns out that peeps in hell can see what other peeps in hell did, how they died, everything. So in a weird shift of perspective, Takeshi opens Izumi’s bedroom door and watches himself having sex with Izumi’s wife through Izumi’s eyes.

And there are more than a few weird shifts in perspective, but things never become confusing. Except the names. A lot of characters are introduced with a lot of different names, and I occasionally found myself losing track of who was who. It merits going back and figuring that out, though, because it is quite the web of human relationships. People who didn’t know each other knew people who did, and the actions of those people affected the entire group, so the reason you were in hell was maybe because some jerk you didn’t know pushed for kickbacks on a housing contract.

The story coalesces around Nobuteru, the only living member of the cast of characters, and is told in brief sections, each from a different character’s point of view, recounting events in life and in hell. Tsutsui weaves their stories together in a way that made me a little dizzy, knowing as I do that if it were me, I would’ve lost track of who was who long before any meaningful story appeared from the collection of memories laid down on the page. And of course, there are the ruminations on the nature of life and death that are de rigueur for a novel called Hell.

I appreciated the conceit that we all go to wherever we believe we go, so when Izumi’s plane goes down, he notices dispassionately (because, you know, he’s dead and thus freed from passion) that only the Japanese people are left on the plane. I also had the thought that all non-Japanese people should pick up some Japanese beliefs since this hell doesn’t seem like such a bad place. A lot of wading through old memories, meeting past peeps, coming to an understanding with who you were, and eventually moving on. That sounds a lot better than a pit of burning sulfur.


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