6 May 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Christopher Iacono on Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction by Mario Bellatin, translated by David Shook, and out from Phoneme Media.

Most people can appreciate high-quality writing with a good (literary) prank, and most people can appreciate a finely cultivated mustache. And when you have both, and it stems from these guys:

you obviously and absolutely cannot go wrong. Not much more needs to be said as an introduction for either Mexican author Mario Bellatin or translator David Shook, other than that both are incredibly accomplished, and another review of Bellatin’s work is here and David has the coolest mustache and reviewed for Three Percent before. So, without further ado, here is a bit of Chris’s review:

Nagaoka’s story begins with his birth, which was difficult because of his nose. The two midwives who assisted his mother thought his large appendage was a “punishment” for his aristocratic family’s “excessive enthusiasm that accompanied the arrival of foreign ideas.” At an early age, he wrote hundreds of stories (mostly about “affairs related to the nose”) and later experimented with writing stories in multiple languages. Besides literature, Nagaoka was also interested in photography. His combined love of literature and photography later resulted in the book Photos and Words, which “heavily influenced” Juan Rulfo, the real-life writer of Pedro Páramo. However, his early investigations into photography resulted in an unsolved murder which, according to a “certain Mexican writer,” is mentioned in the untranslatable novel.

Following that incident, Nagaoka joined a Buddhist monastery and lived there for 13 years. During this time, he attempted to write “a large novel” that was originally going to be a “masculine version” of Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji but somehow ended up being a Japanese version of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. At the same time, his nose became so big at one point that he needed someone to hold it up for him during meals. As if his troubles during mealtimes were not bad enough, the other monks, despite the rules of the novitiate, would taunt Nagaoka and play with his nose.

After being expelled from the monastery, Nagaoka set up a kiosk to sell rolls of film and develop them. One of his customers was a famous Japanese writer. Oddly enough, Nagaoka was not interested in this writer’s works but rather in his photographs of bathrooms. These photographs inspired Nagaoka to compose “his most solid work,” Photos and Words, which was popular enough to be translated into English by LIFE magazine in the 1950s.

For the rest of the review, go here.

6 May 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

“I am honored to have ushered Mario Bellatin’s biography of the great Shiki Nagaoka, a writer and artist almost entirely unknown to English-language readers, into English for the first time, and it is my hope that this new translation begins to redress his under-acknowledgement as a major influence on contemporary world literature. Bellatin’s highly stylized study is the most important work on the author to appear since Pablo Soler Frost’s 1986 monograph, Possible Interpretation of [untranslatable symbol], notable for its pedantry, perhaps best evidenced by the average (mean) tally of semicolons per page: 47.”

This is how translator David Shook begins his preface to Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction. However, Nagaoka never existed; Shook is just going along with a joke which, according to a New York Times article, originated at a writer’s conference years ago. When asked about his favorite writer, Bellatin answered that it was a Japanese author who had an unusually large nose and wrote a highly-influential novel in an untranslatable language. The audience members believed the Mexican writer, so Bellatin decided to write this “biography.”

Nagaoka’s story begins with his birth, which was difficult because of his nose. The two midwives who assisted his mother thought his large appendage was a “punishment” for his aristocratic family’s “excessive enthusiasm that accompanied the arrival of foreign ideas.” At an early age, he wrote hundreds of stories (mostly about “affairs related to the nose”) and later experimented with writing stories in multiple languages. Besides literature, Nagaoka was also interested in photography. His combined love of literature and photography later resulted in the book Photos and Words, which “heavily influenced” Juan Rulfo, the real-life writer of Pedro Páramo. However, his early investigations into photography resulted in an unsolved murder which, according to a “certain Mexican writer,” is mentioned in the untranslatable novel.

Following that incident, Nagaoka joined a Buddhist monastery and lived there for 13 years. During this time, he attempted to write “a large novel” that was originally going to be a “masculine version” of Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji but somehow ended up being a Japanese version of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. At the same time, his nose became so big at one point that he needed someone to hold it up for him during meals. As if his troubles during mealtimes were not bad enough, the other monks, despite the rules of the novitiate, would taunt Nagaoka and play with his nose.

After being expelled from the monastery, Nagaoka set up a kiosk to sell rolls of film and develop them. One of his customers was a famous Japanese writer. Oddly enough, Nagaoka was not interested in this writer’s works but rather in his photographs of bathrooms. These photographs inspired Nagaoka to compose “his most solid work,” Photos and Words, which was popular enough to be translated into English by LIFE magazine in the 1950s.

Still, despite the book’s popularity, Nagaoka lived in a modest house and didn’t take his writing career seriously, although he continued to write in notebooks, one of which had a giant nose on the cover. “At the end of his life,” the narrator writes, “he embraced the idea that, realistically, the size of his nose had determined his existence.” Some of these recorded memories appeared in a posthumous work called Posthumous Diary, which inspired a French cult-like group called the “Nagaokites” to further investigate his work. However, “in his final years, Shiki Nagaoka wrote a book that for many is fundamental. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist in any known language.”

Bellatin is obviously having a lot of fun telling this story, and he never tries to hide the fact that it’s a prank. He also slyly pokes fun at the audience members who originally bought the story about Nagaoka. In one scene, while in a state of dementia, Nagaoka throws his manuscripts into a bonfire, which nearly destroyed a forest near the monastery. “Only the timely action of the rest of the monks, who were woken by Shiki Nagaoka’s anguished screams, reduced its consequences to a circle of singed forest. On that occasion, Shiki Nagaoka lied. He said that the fire originated from the passion he had put into his prayers.” Later, the narrator informs us that at the time, the monks didn’t question this.

Following the biographical portion of the book are 30 pages of photographs by Ximena Berecochea. While these photos appear in a section titled “Photograph Documentation of Shiki Nagaoka’s Life,” most of them consist of objects and locations mentioned in the book. Only three of them contain the author, but they were either manipulated to hide his nose or taken from a distance. In fact, the funniest photo is Nagaoka’s fifth grade graduation photo: Only a circle on the faded right side of the photo indicates Nagaoka’s appearance in it.

While it may appear that Shiki Nagaoka is a joke that has gone on for far too long, it is actually worth reading, thanks to Bellatin’s skill as a writer and prankster. Also, the actual text is only 43 pages, so that in one sitting you can also enjoy what the audience of the writer’s conference heard (and believed) so many years ago.

25 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

David Shook—who has reviewed for Three Percent. in the past—is starting a new project to produce a short documentary film and a five-chapbook set of indigenous Mexican poetry. Rather than explain this in my own words, I asked him to write a short introductory post laying out the basis for this venture. As you can see below, you can help make this possible by donating through Kickstarter and at the very bottom I’ve included the trailer for _Kilometer Zero, a covertly filmed documentary about poets in Equatorial Guinea._

I’ve been writing about endangered languages since 2007, when I co-wrote the headnote to World Literature Today’s Endangered Literatures issue, which sought to extend the defense of endangered languages by emphasizing the quality and diversity of their respective literatures. In short: the death of a language means the death of a literature, whether its skeleton is preserved (and rearranged) in the literary ossuaries of the academy or forgotten wholesale.

I began translating Isthmus Zapotec poet Víctor Terán in early 2008, from an anthology of contemporary indigenous poets I picked up on one of my many trips through Oaxaca, where I had spent time in several Zapotec communities. That translation project resulted in a remarkable friendship, first stoked over mezcal-boiled plums in Oaxaca City and further strengthened by a three-week tour of the UK in 2010. Over the course of our relationship I found myself increasingly inspired—not just by Víctor’s poems, which often combine an erotic pastoralism with a sonic delight I aspired and struggled to replicate in my English-language translations, but by his activism, his vision to strengthen the Zapotec language and culture by the act of writing poetry.

His approach to the issue is pragmatic—he has little influence on the political and economic hegemony of Spanish in Mexico, and he can’t dictate educational policy. But he can—and does—inspire Zapotec speakers, especially young ones, to value their literary heritage. Cultural pride is the primary reason that Zapotec parents continue to raise their kids in Zapotec, maintaining its lifeblood.

Víctor and his contemporaries—fellow poets Natalia Toledo and Irma Pineda as well as artists like Demian Flores and Soid Pastrana—have inspired me to make a movie about their work, their literary activism. I’m working with award-winning filmmaker Ben Rodkin, a close friend and regular collaborator whose films resonate with their own visual poetry. We need your support. Please visit our Kickstarter campaign to read the details of what we’re planning, which includes the publication of poetry from five indigenous Mexican languages. I hope you’ll give if you can—any amount makes a difference. And I hope you’ll tell others about what Víctor is doing, and how we hope to document it.

David Shook is a poet and translator in Los Angeles. Recent translation projects include Roberto Bolaño’s 1976 manifesto “Leave Everything, Again” (forthcoming in the Picador edition of The Savage Detectives), Mario Bellatin’s Shiki Nagaoka, and Kilometer Zero, an illicitly filmed documentary about tortured Equato-Guinean poet Marcelo Ensema Nsang.

Kilómetro Cero Trailer from Ben Rodkin on Vimeo.

28 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For the second time this week, we’re running a review of a BTBA Poetry Finalist. Up today is Aleš Šteger’s The Book of Things, which is translated from the Slovenian by Brian Henry and published by BOA Editions.

David Shook review this for us. He’s a poet and translator in Los Angeles, where he edits Molossus, the online broadside. (More on Molossus in the near future.) Current translation projects include work by Mario Bellatin, Tedi López Mills, and several other Mexican poets, as well as a portfolio of poems from Equatorial Guinea.

Here’s the opening of his review:

The Book of Things, published in Slovenian in 2005, is Aleš Šteger’s fourth book of poetry in ten years, beginning with his Chessboards of Hours, published in 1995 when he was 22. Despite his many international awards, including the 2007 Rožančeva Award for best book of essays written in Slovenian, TBOT is his first collection to be translated into English. Translator Brian Henry, best known for his translation of Tomaž Šalamun’s Woods and Chalices, praises “the philosophical and lyrical sophistication of [Šteger’s] poems,” and has achieved that same sophistication in translation. The book is structured in seven chapters of seven poems each, following the strange preface “A,” which Henry calls a “proem” though it is written in verse. The other forty-nine poems are titled after things with no obvious connection to each other, from the first poem “Egg” to the last poem “Candle,” with stops as varied as “Strobe Light” and “Cocker Spaniel.” The first set of seven is completed with “Knots,” “Stone,” “Grater,” “Cat,” “Sausage,” and “Urinal,” the last of which completes its well-developed imagery of the urinal as the mouth of a fish embedded in a restroom wall with a haunting testicular threat:

“What kind of human voice is on the other side of the urinal?
Are people happier, more timeless there, fish Fa?
Or there is no other side,

Only the visions of drunks, tensed in fear
That you don’t close your thirsty mouth, Faronika,
As fair punishment for grinding your yellowed teeth.

And castrate us.”

Click here to read the review in its entirety.

28 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Book of Things, published in Slovenian in 2005, is Aleš Šteger’s fourth book of poetry in ten years, beginning with his Chessboards of Hours, published in 1995 when he was 22. Despite his many international awards, including the 2007 Rožančeva Award for best book of essays written in Slovenian, TBOT is his first collection to be translated into English. Translator Brian Henry, best known for his translation of Tomaž Šalamun’s Woods and Chalices, praises “the philosophical and lyrical sophistication of [Šteger’s] poems,” and has achieved that same sophistication in translation. The book is structured in seven chapters of seven poems each, following the strange preface “A,” which Henry calls a “proem” though it is written in verse. The other forty-nine poems are titled after things with no obvious connection to each other, from the first poem “Egg” to the last poem “Candle,” with stops as varied as “Strobe Light” and “Cocker Spaniel.” The first set of seven is completed with “Knots,” “Stone,” “Grater,” “Cat,” “Sausage,” and “Urinal,” the last of which completes its well-developed imagery of the urinal as the mouth of a fish embedded in a restroom wall with a haunting testicular threat:

What kind of human voice is on the other side of the urinal?
Are people happier, more timeless there, fish Fa?
Or there is no other side,

Only the visions of drunks, tensed in fear
That you don’t close your thirsty mouth, Faronika,
As fair punishment for grinding your yellowed teeth.

And castrate us.

That complex layering, which combines metaphor and mythology—Faronika is a mythical fish from Slovenian folk songs—with the physical and contemporary—Fa is a popular brand of bathroom soap—is characteristic of Steger’s poems. In his preface Henry notes that Šteger’s use of couplets, tercets, and quatrains represents a notable departure from his freer first three collections. Their faux formality is a perfect medium for that layering.

Henry has done well to replicate the tone and sound play of the Slovenian originals, as in “Mint,” here in its entirety:

Mintafiction, minthane, mintabolism.
There the smell of mint grows out of bone,
Out of s neighbor’s thumb and a stranger’s shin.
No animal could do it, it’s not worth repeating.

Mintatax, mintasound, mintaphysics.
For what stays, when only plants try
To heal a musician’s rib and the mayor’s skull.
No laxative could do it, it’s not worth mentioning.

Even less who will remember, cannot forget.
Endless fields of mint, ruts, indifference.
Mintamen. Mintanight. Mintanaught.
No dictionary could do it, it’s not worth noting.

Šteger’s frequent mention of bones and stones remind me of Vasko Popa’s The Star Wizard’s Legacy, in the late Morton Marcus’ last translation, but Šteger’s Things achieve a greater density with their descriptive imagery. The wordplay Šteger employs to build novel mint-abstractions exemplifies his dry, observant humor. Elsewhere in the book he employs darker imagery to similar effect, as in “Coat,” which begins:

Do you remember the archivist who committed suicide
Because of one misplaced sheet?
The three librarians who never returned from the warehouse?

The history students who bit the professor’s neck in an exam
Because he could not remember the price of potato soup in May 1889?
The parrot who endlessly shouted Stalingrad, sexual revolution, self-
reliance?

“Coat” exemplifies Šteger’s greatest achievement with The Book of Things, the subtle development of the lexicographer’s pathos, the impossibility of objectivity. It’s one of the best collections of poetry in translation in recent memory, a Balkanized encyclopedia of things carefully examined.

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