Examining Realities

By Massie, Allan | The Scotsman, April 7, 2018 | Go to article overview

Examining Realities


Massie, Allan, The Scotsman


The author's preface begins: "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." When he comes to the end of his stories, however, his face will change, the "melancholy smile" will fade away, and he will address insults and accusations to his listener. I suppose this is a warning directed at the reader.

The book has a sub-title: "The Case-Book of Ryunosuke Akutagawa." The sub-title is inaccurate. What follows is not a case-book, though at times you may think you are being offered materials for such a thing. What we have is a dozen stories or sketches, based on, or deriving from the stories, essays and letters of Akutagawa, one of the most distinguished Japanese authors of the first quarter of the 20th century. He was fascinated by western culture and the Christian religion, and deeply versed in European (which includes American) literature, and it's easy to understand why he appeals so deeply to David Peace, who has lived in Japan for a number of years - the last part of his Tokyo crime trilogy will be published in the summer of 2019.

Akutagawa himself appears attractive, and a writer with a delightfully light touch. He was successful and is now regarded as one of Japan's great writers. Nevertheless his life was haunted by the knowledge that his mother died mad after years in a mental asylum; he himself overdosed on Veronal - a barbiturate sedative - at the age of 35, evidently suicide rather than accident.

The question for anyone ignorant of Akutagawa's work is how much of Patient X is his, and how much Peace's. It's natural to wonder about this, nevertheless futile, and indeed rather stupid. Literature has always fed on literature as well as life, and the acknowledgement of influence or the practice of imitation are at the same time acts of creative criticism and a new departure. If these stories and essays tell us something about Akutagawa, a writer of whom it's likely most of us know very little, if indeed anything, it is also reasonable to treat his appearance in this work purely as fiction. …

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