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David Peace sees the trajectory of his own life in the forward motion of the literature of this country.

Patient X: The Case-Book of Ryunosuke Akutagawa, by David Peace.
320 pages
FABER & FABER, Fiction.

“I’m in love with Japanese literature, particularly that from the late 19th century to the first half of the Showa Era (1926-1989),” says Peace. “My way to try to understand the country I’ve chosen to live my life in is through literature. Reading that literature is like poring over the history of Japan, rich and varied as it is, through so many different voices.”

In his latest novel, “Patient X: The Case-Book of Ryunosuke Akutagawa,” Peace has given us a deeply cutting look into the psyche of Japan. The novel is based on the life of author Ryunosuke Akutagawa and is a kind of fictional biography that takes us through episodes in Akutagawa’s life, treating his fiction on an equal plane with the facts of his life and exposing him to the light.

There is an astounding authenticity permeating Peace’s writing on Japan, as if he is painstakingly recreating the biography of an entire nation and age. This authenticity does not come in a facile manner. “I’ve spent more time in the National Diet Library than anywhere else in Japan,” says Peace.

He calls “Patient X” a case-book and, as such, investigates a multitude of incidents in Akutagawa’s life, dissecting his relationships, the personalities of the characters in his tales and the sources of his creativity. It freely draws on the narratives and components in his fiction to accomplish this.

“I first started retelling Akutagawa’s stories around 2005. I was unaware of their existence before arriving in Japan in 1994. Initially, I was drawn to the unique way he portrays crime. My earlier books such as ‘Tokyo Year Zero’ and particularly ‘Occupied City’ were inspired by Akutagawa’s short story ‘In a Grove,’ which was the basis for ‘Rashomon,’ Akira Kurosawa’s iconic film.

“‘Patient X’ began with stories written for magazines. I thought that one day I’d like to write a romanzo di racconti, or series of tales forming a novel. This is how Patient X evolved into a book.”

Peace is fascinated by how people react to a world in disarray and believes much of Akutagawa’s life and death to be a tragedy. “Akutagawa struggled to make sense of the world through his writing,” Peace says. “He created for himself a world of literature and viewed the entire world through it. But after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the rate of his work slowed down. He turned inward; became confessional. He was convinced that he has inherited his mother’s insanity. He couldn’t sleep, couldn’t write. Yet in the last year of his life there was an incredible outpouring, with some of his best work produced, like his satirical novella ‘Kappa.'”

Peace continues: “He came to believe that he was a burden to those who loved him and that it would be better for all if he were dead. And he was also appalled by his own self-pity. This led to self-hatred … and he couldn’t go on.”

In his novel, Peace refers to the trinity of “faith, madness and death.” But to my mind his trinity here ends not with death but with life, or at least the ardent will to live.

“I used this trinity to underpin my own portrayal of Akutagawa’s obsessions, his attempts to find faith in Christ and then his desire for death as an end to suffering and to the suffering he felt he was causing others. There are always different paths we can choose. But the choice, or the doubt and procrastination of the choice, can tear us in two.”

Peace describes the agony of being Akutagawa in astonishing detail. The book comprises a fictional dialogue with Akutagawa, allowing Peace to explore the writer’s innermost and most alarming dread: “At the sinking of the moon, at the rising of the sun, you first see the light of the world, and you weep and you scream, alone, alone, you scream and you scream.”

Akutagawa died by his own hand on July 24, 1927. After his death, he became what Peace calls “the quintessential writer of his era.” His influence on later generations of creative people has been immense.

“The times today,” says Peace, “are as bleak as in the Taisho Era (1912-1926). The dark clouds are over us again. One can read the death of Akutagawa as the defeat of literature, and as a warning.

“Nowadays, our culture seems to be judged mostly on its entertainment value. But literature is the imagination of a society; it can and should inspire and teach us, too.”

In “Patient X,” David Peace not only lays bare the psyche of an era in which Japan came of age as a modern nation, he gives us a stunning, intense, profound and moving portrait of the life and death of a great writer.

The novel is a lyrical masterpiece that takes up Japan and the circumstances of life in the past, present and beyond.

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