Tuesday 28 January 2020

Fictional homage to the madness and genius of a Japanese master

Fiction: Patient X: The Case-Book of Ryunosuke Akutagawa David Peace, Faber €14.99

Patient X
Patient X

JP O'Malley

When David Peace relocated to Tokyo nearly 25 years ago he discovered a book of short stories by the city's most famous author, Ryunosuke Akutagawa.

One short story, In A Grove, recalling a rape and murder from six different perspectives subsequently became the inspiration for Akira Kurosawa's 1950 Japanese cult classic film Rashomon. Peace has since used this multifaceted narrative technique in his own work. And applies it to Patient X too. Peace's tenth novel is a fictional homage to Akutagawa: using stories, essays and letters from the Japanese author's life as a rough narrative guide.

Biographical and historical fiction is usually sentimental and unimaginative. But Peace's resurrection of Akutagawa's troubled life, yet brilliant mind, somehow works. Patient X is about as dark as literature gets. But then again, so too was the mind of the man this book seeks to forensically examine.

At just 35, Akutagawa took his own life in 1927. The novelist and short story writer became obsessed in his latter years that he would inherit his mother's madness. Eventually he did. Indeed, the fear of madness - and the resulting paranoia that follows that fear- is a central motif connecting the narrative together. The novel is, loosely, a fictional biography. But stories arise from a plethora of places: mythical parables, religious imagery, letters to publishers, dreams, ideas for novels, suicide notes, and delusional psychotic episodes.

In his final days, Akutagawa lived in morphine-induced paranoia, and suffered regular bouts of hallucinations. Peace's repetitional prose is well suited to bringing out Akutagawa's claustrophobic mindset on the page.

Peace has always been attracted to writing about real life historical periods. But I've found some of his other work one dimensional and rather cultish. The sheer range in his writing here, however, is extraordinary; as he constantly switches characters, points of view, and narrative forms with each chapter. This mismatch of styles keeps in line with Akutagawa's own view of literature: which believed that the poetry of the heart, and the rhythm of prose itself, was more important to the novel than, say, planning, plot, or structure.

Akutagawa's own writing style can be described as postmodernist: his fiction tended to retell mythical stories from history and philosophy in a myriad of ways. He was also obsessed with the influence the West had on Japanese and Chinese culture, when it brought Christianity to the East. Peace documents these images with meticulous skill and aplomb.

Akutagawa's best known novel, Kappa, tells the story of a psychiatric patient who has lost his way in a lunatic asylum. Peace recreates a famous scene, where a monstrous voice asks a foetus if it wants to be brought into this world? It replies: "No, no! I do not want to be born."

This obsession with the unborn, death, and nihilism more generally, has parallels with the work of Kafka, Beckett and Sartre. Although Akutagawa's obsession with madness makes the writing just a shade darker. If Peace has set out to make the reader feel uncomfortable, anxious, and unsure here, he has certainly succeeded. But isn't that the central purpose of all brilliant artistic endeavours?

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