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A homage to Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Taxing but rewarding: David Peace. Photo/Alamy

David Peace's novel about one of Japan's best-known short story writers is a haunting but demanding read.

Ryunosuke Akutagawa was arguably Japan’s best-known modern writer of short stories. Westerners remember him chiefly for In a Grove and Rashomon, because those two stories were combined by Akira Kurosawa when he made Rashomon, still regarded by many as the classic Japanese film. In his twenties, Akutagawa wrote hundreds of stories, influenced as much by European literature (he spoke both French and English fluently) as by traditional Japanese tales.

A literary genius but a deeply melancholy man, Akutagawa committed suicide in 1927, aged only 35.

You have to know all this, and quite a bit more, if you are going to find your way through Patient X.

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Tokyo-based Englishman David Peace is famous for a sequence of novels set in his native Yorkshire, but he’s now part-way through publishing a trilogy set in Tokyo. He’s taken time off from this to produce Patient X, subtitled The Case-Book of Ryunosuke Akutagawa. This is not a novel in any conventional sense; it is more a mosaic, made up of fragments from Akutagawa’s life. In effect, it’s a sequence of short stories in homage to the master.

Akutagawa’s haunted side is well on display. In one tale, a friend visits London and may (or may not) encounter Jack the Ripper. In another, Akutagawa becomes obsessed with the doppelgänger story from silent movie The Student of Prague, as told to him by a German instructor called K. Connecting K with Prague is one of many literary allusions peppered through the text.

Ryunosuke Akutagawa.

Then there’s Akutagawa the modern Japanese, getting used to the Westernisation of Asia but sometimes being wary of it. He half-admires the traditional Japanese code of honour, which leads a general and his wife to commit ritual suicide when the old emperor dies. When he holidays in Shanghai, the manners of Europeans in the Bund appal him. On the other hand, reactionary Japanese nationalism is clearly a growing problem. After a catastrophic earthquake hits Tokyo in 1923, Akutagawa volunteers to be an auxiliary policeman, but finds some auxiliaries are more interested in beating up migrant Koreans. Dominant, though, is Akutagawa the self-accusing mystic, on the fringes of religion but not sure what to think of it. Not a Christian, he is still fascinated by stories of Jesuit missionaries and Japanese Christian martyrs. He approaches the ruins of Catholic churches with reverence, writes stories about miracles, and on the night of his suicide, is composing his own Japanese version of the life of Christ.

This comes close to being the portrait of a creative neurotic – guilt-ridden, suffering from headaches and stomach pains, taking far too much medication, seeing visions and yet still writing with clarity and precision.

A fascinating read, but a very taxing one.

PATIENT X, by David Peace (Faber and Faber, $32.99)

This article was first published in the September 15, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.