An imaginative glimpse behind the curtain of a sheltered, definitively troubled writer of a century past.
“In the next life, if there is such a punishment, I wish to be reborn as sand.” So says Ry?nosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927), the protagonist and reluctant center of Peace’s (Red or Dead, 2014, etc.) latest venture into fact-based fiction—and not as much a departure from his procedurals as one might imagine, either. Presented as a series of sketches, the book proceeds from one turning point to another while emphasizing constant themes, opening with a parable that speaks to Akutagawa’s idiosyncratic blending of Buddhism with Christianity; “I am not surprised,” says a psychiatrist, archly, when Akutagawa travels to Nagasaki, the most Christian of all Japanese cities, though Akutagawa’s interests turn out to be more nuanced than all that. Another constant is Akutagawa’s obsession with death, beginning with that opening parable and continuing right up until his own suicide at age 35, having left behind a note complaining about his ”vague sense of anxiety.” A section of the book finds Akutagawa fascinated by the ritual death of a general and his wife after the death of the emperor, following an ancient though outlawed custom by which a retainer must accompany a master into the afterlife: “the newspapers were all agreed that General Nogi had committed junshi, following his lord into death, and then Shizuko had taken her own life, a true samurai wife following her husband into death.” Akutagawa, Peace suggests, may just have been taking a place in that chain of suicides, all in obedience to an emperor whose death signaled the arrival of a “new age, a new era!” in which the writer would not comfortably fit. Though the book is a touch too pensive, it has an elegant poetry to it, even in the horrific passages depicting the great earthquake of 1923.
Quiet homage to the progenitor of the modern Japanese short story.