Shortly before his suicide in 1927, the Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa scribbled in the margins of a manuscript that his personal tragedy had been “endeavouring to be great and finding to be small”. Born in Tokyo in 1892, he was revered early in his career as one of Japan’s foremost stylists, among the first to apply Western modernist techniques to traditional Asian stories. But by the mid-1920s, the audience for his nightmarish modernist-medieval tales had dwindled. He became convinced that he would inherit his mother’s insanity – and eventually did. The last years of his life were plagued by headaches and hallucinations of spinning gears and wheels. His dying words recorded a “vague uneasiness about what the future may hold in store for me”.
It hasn’t been all bad. He now lends his name to the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s most prestigious literary award. In the West, he is best known as the source of Akira Kurosawa’s classic movie Rashomon (1950): Kurosawa lifted the murder mystery plot from one story, “In a Grove”, and the mood of existential dread from another, “Rashomon”.
But perhaps that unease was prophetic after all, for he has now been made the subject of a never-ending onion sandwich of a work by David Peace, the Yorkshire novelist who has lived most of his adult life in Japan. Over nine previous books, Peace has tackled Brian Clough, the miners’ strike, serial killings and – in Occupied City – a Tokyo murder whose treatment was directly inspired by “In a Grove”. He has now produced a morbid phantasmagoric hagiography of Akutagawa and his neuroses.
It’s made up of 12 tales, told in different voices, in different styles, each one recalling an episode from the author’s life (or that of his peers). Starting with his father’s mouth at his mother’s vagina (“‘Can you hear me in there? Do you want to be born?’”) and ending with his death at 35 from an overdose of barbiturates, Peace takes us through Akutagawa’s bookish adolescence, his flirtation with Christianity, his psychotic turmoil (complete with duck impressions: “Quack, quack!”) and the 1923 earthquake in Tokyo. “For under the ground he could feel the earth continue to grind and scream, a gigantic mechanical worm burrowing through caverns and tunnels, pushing the ground up, then pulling it back down in its wake.”
Part of the problem with this and many other passages is that you can’t be sure who to credit, since so much is rehashed from Akutagawa’s own stories, letters and notebooks, as well as disparate secondary sources (all painstakingly recorded in a six-page bibliography). The more Peace stacks up his scholarly credentials, the more he condemns his project to secondary status. Take the impressive first story “After the Thread, Before the Thread”, in which Akutagawa tries to climb out of hell on a spider’s thread and falls back down again once his characters, his family and his sins all follow him up. It is an arresting opening. It is also lifted directly from Akutagawa’s tale, “The Spider’s Thread” (itself cribbed from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov). Peace’s tweaks are apt: he makes Akutagawa the protagonist of his own story, he inserts a Christ figure. And I’m sure he’d argue that Akutagawa was always cherry-picking bits and pieces.
However, he suffers from the comparison. Here is a typically precise passage that Akutagawa wrote about his mother from “Death Register” (1926, translated by Jay Rubin):
Hair held in place by a comb, she would sit alone all day puffing on a long, skinny pipe in the house of my birth family in Tokyo’s Shiba Ward. She had a tiny face on a tiny body, and that face of hers, for some reason, was always ashen and lifeless.
And here’s David Peace:
In an upstairs room in the Nihara house in Shiba Ward, day after day, she would sit alone, all day long, puffing on a long, thin pipe, her hair held up in a bun by a comb, her tiny face ashen, her tiny body lifeless, as though already no longer really here, always never really there, emaciated, fading and wasting away, away –
Peace’s treatment reads rather like a cover version in which the singer has added a load of unnecessary oohs and ahhs. He remains doggedly committed to those short bursts of incantatory phrases repeated over and over, over, over and over again (there are some nice pastiches on Goodreads.com). You don’t mind a bit of that on a windswept Yorkshire moor; here, it feels rather like being trapped with a monomaniacal yoga teacher: “…the wind so very strong today, the wind moving through the branches of the trees today, the leaves rustling, the leaves trembling, each leaf, each leaf, halting your dreams, enchanting you, bewitching you.” It’s not helped by the nagging use of the second-person address that would make any reader want to rebel. Who’d want to be trapped by Peace’s imagination?
He veers from sentimentality to misanthropy, loading his stories with putrid details: “leakages of spittle”, “urine and excrement”, even a “weeping, puss-filled cock”. And he completely ignores Akutagawa’s numerous extramarital affairs, which caused him much anguish. In fact, beyond the remote figure of his mother, the women in his life are only witnessed at arm’s length, as either mad aggressors or meek calling-the-great-genius-in-for-his-dinner helpmeets.
Akutagawa was married to Fumi Tsukamoto for nine years; they had three children; but Peace is interested exclusively in male literary rivals. A narrow preoccupation with masculine pursuits might work in a book about a football team but it doesn’t cut it in the life of an author. It feels like fiction drained of any of the real content of life.
“I want to have fun, have fun and forget,” Peace writes as Akutagawa’s mental health declines. “It feels such a long time since we’ve shared a joke and the release which laughter brings”. Tell me about it, says the reader.
Faber & Faber, 320pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 02 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, What Marx got right