From 1919. Akutagawa is second from left

A haunted imagining of the life of Ryunosuke Akutagawa

David Peace’s 10th novel provides a fragmented glimpse into the world of one of Japan's greatest writers
June 19, 2018

“How can any of us escape this world of ours, except for faith, madness or death?” wonders the protagonist of David Peace’s 10th novel, a fictional imagining of the life of Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927). Sometimes considered a Japanese cousin to Poe, Dostoevsky or Kafka, Akutagawa is probably best known in English for “In a Bamboo Grove,” a modernist story of a murder reported from several perspectives that was filmed by Akira Kurosawa as Rashomon. But it’s by no means the strangest of the stories and novels that he produced before killing himself at 35. Little wonder that Peace, a British writer living in Japan who is fascinated by prose experiment and psychological edge-states, should be so drawn to this dreamlike, violent and darkly funny body of work.

Patient X provides a fragmented glimpse into Akutagawa’s self and world, using the signature techniques of Peace’s fiction: second-person narration, incantatory repetition, a persistent blur between the real and the hallucinated. Readers of The Damned United, his flesh-creeping account of Brian Clough’s tenure at Leeds United, will be on familiar ground; so will admirers of his Tokyo trilogy, set in the occupied Japanese capital after the Second World War whose final instalment arrives next year.

This book, however, feels like Peace’s most deliberate and classical to date, a fact only partially explained by its Taisho-period (1912-26) setting. Akutagawa was a syncretist, both religious and literary; his writing yoked elements of Japanese folklore with satirical modern settings and European prose techniques, and he was fascinated by Asian interpretations of Christian doctrine. In this portrait, which swirls biography and fiction together and often uses the settings of the work as background to the life, he is a character of tragic poise and steely resolve, and the clangour of Peace’s usual prose style abates accordingly. This is a haunted, haunting book; rigorous and powerfully strange.

Patient X by David Peace (Faber, £14.99)