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Faith, Madness, or Death

Rashomon is one of Japanese film director A. Kurosawa’s most well-known films. It is based on the short story “In a Grove” by the Japanese short story writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. Akutagawa lived and wrote his fiction in the years before World War Two. He committed suicide at age thirty-five, leaving behind at least one hundred fifty short stories and numerous haiku. His mother was institutionalized for a mental illness when he was quite young and Akutagawa was raised by his uncle and aunt. He struggled with mental illness in his final years. His short stories draw their content and inspiration from history and legend. It was a time of change and resistance to change the world round. Despite his brief life, Akutagawa is considered Japan’s premier write of short fiction.

David Peace is a British writer perhaps best known for his crime fiction, although he has also written a couple of excellent novels nominally about sport and one incredible fiction about the British miner’s strike in the 1980s. Peace’s works are riveting in content and uniquely complex in style. He often slips between points of view, becoming each character as they narrate the events of the moment or their memory of events in the past. Each narrative voice is unique and it is that uniqueness that becomes the means by which the reader realizes who is speaking. The personalities of the characters are thus enhanced to a magnitude where the developed character often becomes more powerful than the already powerful narrative they are a part of. One might say that what Peace does with words is impossible to adequately describe with words.

Peace’s latest work is titled Patient X: The Case Book of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. Its premise is that it is a journal kept by Akutagawa or a pscychologist while Akutagawa is a patient of a psychologist, perhaps even while being institutionalized.  The entries in the faux journal are stories of varying length. Some of these stories describe friendships of the writer; others describe events in the writer’s life. Still others are complete fantasies birthed in the narrator’s mind. Unlike some of Peace’s previous works, there are no shifting points of view in this novel. Instead, Peace has assumed the personage of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa himself. His observations are those of the man about whom he is writing and his thoughts are from Akutagawa, not from David Peace. Or are they? The writing often mimics Akutagawa’s. Like so much of Peace’s fiction, the idea of truth is up for debate. Indeed, it is challenged not just in individual stories that may or may not be the reflections of a madman, it is challenged in the concept of the text itself.

In paying homage to Akutagawa, Peace also pays homage to those writers Akutgawa paid homage to in his fiction. As far as non-Japanese writers are concerned, Edgar Allan Poe and Fyodor Dostoevsky are foremost among them. Like those two, the stories Peace has written are fatalistic tales, tinged with a darkness present in even the happiest of souls. The fiction created here is not a fiction of fear and evil, but a fiction where those phenomena exist yet do not become the dominant force. Even when a general commits suicide as a gesture of honor to his dead Emperor; even when a devastating earthquake convinces Japanese locals that it is the presence of downtrodden Koreans in their city that caused the event and a pogrom against the Koreans begins. There is always a flicker of genuine hope in these stories, in this novel. One assumes this was the case in Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s original works, as well.

If there is a theme that makes this text a singular whole it would be the idea (as voiced by a character in these fictions) that humans have three choices in this life. One can choose faith, madness or death. That is what it all comes down to. More than all else, Patient X: The Case Book of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa is a study of religion, culture and insanity in an increasingly insane world that calls itself civilized.

David Peace has written a biography in fiction. He has assumed Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s writing soul and provided his audience with an insightful meditation on the clarity of madness. The line between author and character is erased in a manner so artful one finds themselves forgetting that it is David Peace who is writing this novel, not Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. Yet, the possibility that Peace’s fiction is not all his own never enters the reader’s mind. To not only attempt such a feat, but to carry it out in a work that is not autobiographical in any shape or form is further proof of Peace’s mastery of the art of fiction.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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