Challenging account of a writer’s sad decline

Jessie Neilson reviews Patient X: The Case-Book Of Ryunosuke Akutagawa, by David Peace. Published by Allen & Unwin.

How can any of us escape, except through faith, madness or death? This, pleads Ryunosuke Akutagawa, as he nears death, withered and wasted, after visiting, in this case-book, Aoyama Mental Hospital. Once an eminent and outstanding citizen, dapper in his often-Western robes and mentored by Japanese novelist Natsumi Soseki, Akutagawa has followed his mother into mental illness and soon-to-be suicidal oblivion. No more will he pour out his tales of elegant Western madmen in art studios in a peat-fog laden London; of Tokyo’s Rashomon Gate filled with the bloated corpses of paupers; of wanderings in China, in the City of Evil, Demon City Shanghai; or picture himself vainly trying to drag his miserly body out of the River of Sins, where he is sunk below the surface of the Lotus Pond. As he writes in his suicide note to a friend, "I am living now in the most unimaginable unhappy happiness".

Akutagawa is considered the father of the Japanese short story. A prestigious Japanese literary prize has been named in his honour. Living in a time bridging the Meiji and Taisho dynasties his vision was modernist, forward-looking, while also pulling in chunks of Asian history. He has influenced generations of Japanese writers including Haruki Murakami, and his short story In a Grove inspired Akira Kurosawa’s classic 1950 film, Rashomon. Stylistically he experimented with perspective, voice, and the slipperiness of identity. His works dealt in psychological motivations and awareness, even as he marked his own disintegration. Common themes were doppelgangers — he used Edgar Allen Poe’s work as source material — and sordid landscapes and characters from hell; in short, broken people.

David Peace is an award-winning British writer with a long interest and considerable output in things Japanese. Based in Tokyo, he is the author of a significant number of novels.

Patient X is not an easy text: it plays with fiction and non-fiction, autobiography and ancient sagas, and it twists them together to create 12 essentially short stories based on Akutagawa’s life and work. While they link together and take us through his exploits chronologically, they digress frequently with stories within stories. A modern outlook on psychology  runs through, as well as the role of art in life, and the act of reading.

As is announced in the preface, "These are the stories of Patient X in one of our iron castles. He will tell his tales to anyone with the ears and the time to listen". The stories are far from pleasant, chronicling an ambitious and highly regarded scholar’s pitiful downfall. Dense narratives override  themselves constantly to challenge the reader. However, despite the subject matter and Peace’s success at stymying straightforward engagement, the tales prompt much curiosity into the darkness of humans, the genius of individuals, and the fascinating stories, histories, and humanity  that emerges from this time and the overflow between Eastern and Western cultures.

- Jessie Neilson is a University of Otago library assistant.

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