The Sacred Era by Yoshio Aramaki (tr. Baryon Tensor Posadas). University of Minnesota Press. 240pp, $22.95.
Born April 12, 1933, Yoshio Aramaki’s writing comes to us from a different time. His novel The Sacred Era, originally published in Japanese in 1978, has more in common with classic American sci-fi short story writers like Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury—sharing their preoccupation with wonky metaphysics, biblical allegories, and performative misogyny—than with speculative fiction writers working in the present day. He leads readers down the same well-trodden genre path where impoverished young men discover they are, despite an often remarkable lack of initiative, destined for great things. But Aramaki’s brilliant leaps of imagination and use of experimental, non-linear plot structures are too ambitious for the resulting work to be dismissed as outdated or derivative.
On a dying planet Earth ruled by a future iteration of the Roman Catholic Church, a young man named K is sent to the capital city to take what amounts to a Civil Services exam. On passing (an outcome of which there is never any doubt) he will join the elite ranks of the Papal Court of the Holy Empire of Igitur. He will be sent to study Planet Bosch, a distant planet named for and said to resemble a banned painting by the Twilight Era artist Hieronymus Bosch. Planet Bosch is a green, verdant paradise in stark contrast to the dystopian and dying desert landscape that Earth has become.
Hieronymus Bosch’s painting,The Garden of Earthly Delights, is a triptych. The central panel is flanked by two narrow side panels which open and close like doors, revealing and hiding the paintings within. When closed, the exterior of the doors come together to depict the third day of creation—after light has been separated from dark, water from air, and “the earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed after their kind, and trees bearing fruit with seed in them, after their kind.” Animals and men won’t arrive until days five and six. The planet is an uninhabited sphere, painted in shades of gray and surrounded by a void. The bottom hemisphere is solid, while the top is a transparent dome through which a strange, sparse alien forest is visible. The overall effect is very like a terrarium. From a corner above, a miniature God looks down on his creation. Psalm 33, “For he spake and it was done; he commanded, and it stood fast,” is printed across the top.
Bosch’s altarpiece is the driving motif of Aramaki’s book. The epic world-building The Sacred Era engages in relies heavily on the evocative and familiar religious symbolism and imagery, often taken whole cloth from Bosch’s paintings. The side panels open to reveal a vibrant, colorful landscape depicting a crowded Eden where strange animals and humans joyfully dedicate themselves to terrestial pleasures within. The panel to the left shows God presiding over the “marriage” of Adam and Eve, and to the right are souls suffering in Hell. Each of these painted scenes is a station in the novel’s plot. K is a futuristic Candide, steeped in dogma, being manipulated through a world which he neither understands nor entirely approves of. He is pulled in and out of time (often to jarring effect on the reader) and is haunted by the specter of a long dead heretic, Darko Dachilko, whose story is tied to his own in ways he doesn’t understand.
This plot, while interesting and elaborately structured, isn’t intuitive. Aramaki seems to have realized this, inserting helpful secondary characters to explain things to K (and us) at regular intervals. This work-around comes across as contrived as it sounds.
Things are further thrown into confusion by the fact that time, as experienced by our hero, is much more fluid than we normally experience it. Decades seem to elapse between chapters. K falls asleep in one time only to wake in another. The Sacred Era (the title refers to the name given to the time the novel is initially set in) convincingly conveys the disorientation of a permeable timeline in which dimensions overlap and bleed into each other. Despite adding to the overall confusion of the story, these moments of purely speculative fiction are often the most satisfying in the book.
The snake starts to uncoil itself before his eyes.
That is when it happens. Without warning—without any warning at all—a deformed black hand materializes out of thin air, grabbing the snake by its neck. The snake’s mouth snaps open in a high-pitched shriek. Its scales glint as it squirms violently in the air. It tries to coil itself around the misshapen hand. But its efforts are futile. The six-fingered hand is already cut off, dripping blood from the wrist. Nothing for the snake to grab hold of.
The hand and snake struggle with each other. Suddenly, they shoot upwards into the air. All K can do is watch the scene before him in a daze.
They dart up so high in the air that K loses sight of them for an instant. But not long after, the snake plummets back to earth as its scales glint in the setting sun. Its head strikes against the face on landing. It dies instantly.
As he makes his way to Planet Bosch, a journey which happens in clearly defined stages involving space in addition to time travel, K will experience many adventures and continuously find himself slipping through “rift(s) between dimensions.” His hazy understanding of and relationship to our era, referred to throughout the book as The Twilight Era, is equivalent to our understanding of and relationship to our prehistoric ancestors: incomplete, based equally on inference and fossil evidence. Computers, cars, and modern technology as we know them are never referenced. When K needs to learn more about Darko Dachilko, he references ancient texts instead of using the magical incantation “OK Google.”
Fortunately, we don’t have that handicap. A quick search of Wikipedia revealed that the Commodore 64 wasn’t available until 1982 in the United States. Cell phones became prevalent only in the mid- to late ’90s. As I wrote at the start of this review: Aramaki isn’t just writing about a different world, he was writing from one. This is most evident in his depiction of female characters. Disturbingly, though not necessarily surprising in a society ruled by the Catholic Church, women are entirely subservient to men. They exist on the periphery, wholly subject to the male gaze and relegated to the archetypal roles of virgin, mother, and whore. Yet, even taking this built-in justification into consideration, the blatant hyper-sexualization of every female K encounters is still stunning. Courtesan clones, a caretaker’s daughter offered in order to curry favor, a mechanical sex doll designed to his specifications—all function solely as objects made for K’s sexual gratification. On the two occasions he interacts with his mother, a woman he admittedly has no memory of, she breast feeds him. The first time occurs in the opening chapters and is described as a sacrificial offering. He is starving and so she nourishes him, building his strength so he can pass his exams. The second is something altogether different in its subtext.
A black bed awaits them.
Time swirls into a vortex at once instant and eternal. K drowns in this dark ocean of sheer sensual pleasure.
“Where will I go?” K asks.
“To a place far, far away.” She pants as K suckles the milk from her breasts. “Oh my sweet child, you will travel to a place far beyond all space and time.”
All the interchangeable women in K’s life inevitably morph into one, ideal, woman. K’s arc can be interpreted as a reenactment of the Adam and Eve story. His is the ultimate quest to regain Eden (albeit an Eden based on a male-centric version of Paradise). Unfortunately, once you understand that, The Sacred Era becomes slightly less interesting.
At the same time it’s worth noting that this almost 40-year-old novel is only now, in 2017, being translated into English. It comes to us at a strange cultural moment, entering the landscape alongside Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, and Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival and Blade Runner 2049. I would also include Spike Jonze’s 2013 Her in that group. All are serious films exploring allegory and symbolism, the nonlinear nature of time and space, the nature of reality and (as a matter of course) the impact of climate change. Add to this the revelations about the behavior of Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein and our current American President—news which has made the sexual objectification of women by powerful men the cause célèbre. Yoshio Aramaki’s unique vision of a complicated, dystopian future is masterfully crafted and intellectually engaging. Adversely, his relaxed misogyny displays the familiar obtuseness of a generation of men aged 65 and over (making that whole connection infinitely more depressing). So, while I doubt there are any lessons or comfort to be drawn from The Sacred Era, there is a certain irony to be found in the knowledge that the University of Minnesota Press is publishing it as part of their Parallel Future Series.
Tara Cheesman-Olmsted is a freelance book critic, National Book Critics Circle member & 2018 Best Translated Book Award fiction judge. Her reviews can be found at The Rumpus, Book Riot, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Quarterly Conversation. Since 2009 she’s written the blog Reader At Large (formerly BookSexy Review).
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