2 April 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Back when I was in junior high, my best friend and I would spend hours and hours playing Double Dribble on his Nintendo. (Fun fact! This game was called “Exciting Basket” in Japan.) I might be 100% wrong, but I’m pretty sure this was the first basketball game for the Nintendo. And man, was it ever low rent. Keep in mind, this was decades before things like “player likeness” or “realistic gameplay” became buzzwords. I mean, the fact that it sort of looked like the big square blobs took jump shots was pretty impressive. (This was in that period where Nintendo games had exploitable flaws, like getting your left fielder stuck in the wall so that the game would have to be forfeited. I did that every time my brother was about to beat me . . . Because forfeits don’t count!) Just look at this “action”:

Anyway, my friend and I were obsessed with Double Dribble, and basketball, and sports, and the NCAA tournament. We would create endless “brackets”—sometimes real, sometimes invented out of “seasons” we would play against each other—and then play out the whole tournament over the course of a sleepover fueled by endless amounts of pop and popcorn.

The thing that I remember most about these nights though is that I never won a game. Actually, I take that back. I distinctly remember playing out one particular bracket—all 63 games—and winning exactly one game. And I only won that when my boxy blob hit a half-court shot at the buzzer to win by a point. I sucked at that game.

Or, maybe more to the point, my friend was just better than me at all sports competitions. Nerf basketball, Techmo Bowl, sandlot baseball, sprinting, tennis, etc. This used to piss me off to no end. Losing sucks. But losing here and there, or half the time, or even two-thirds of the time, can be totally OK. Can help you cherish those victories. But losing 99.9% of all competitions? Fuck that.

Quitting games, giving up once I got down, trying not to try, acting like it all didn’t matter—these were all the strategies I employed, unsuccessfully, to hide the fact that I really hated losing. Instead, I’d just pout off, go to my room and read books. Everyone’s a winner when you read!

Although there are many other reasons to be jealous of my old friend—he’s actually published a book, I’m sure he makes at least twice as much as I do, he owns his own house, he lives in a nicer city than Rochester—the thing that still gets to me is that feeling of desperation when we were playing Double Dribble and I just wanted one single victory.

Over the years, my childish anger has become adult anger and I hate a whole slew of things instead of just some dumb Nintendo game. For example, I now hate Mario Kart and its cheating ways. And gross corporate ways of thinking. And Jonathan Franzen’s writing.

But I still hate losing. Which is why I get especially testy around book award season. I’m pretty sure that every single year I’ve predicted that this would be the time than an Open Letter Book would win a national award. I mean, we’ve been doing this for seven years, we publish books that people have praised and referred to as “extremely important,” we know all of the judges of these awards personally and they seem sympathetic to our aesthetic . . . but, then, nothing. And not just nothing—which is to be expected, since if there’s one rule in life it’s that no matter how good a book is, there’s one out there that’s even better—but our books never even make the list of finalists. Actually, we never even make the longlist.

There are three major national awards for literature in translation: the Best Translated Book Award (which I’m ignoring here because we administer it, putting it in a slightly different, less completely objective, category), the National Translation Award, and the PEN Translation Prize.

I was going to try and break this down statistically, look at which presses have been represented on which award lists, which languages are favored, etc., etc., but unfortunately, I can’t find anything about the NTA 2013 longlists or finalists, so screw it. I can say that we did have one book on the “2014 longlist“https://literarytranslators.wordpress.com/2014-awards/2014-nta-award/nta-longlist/ (The Dark by Sergio Chejfec, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary), but nothing on the shortlist. (I believe Chejfec’s My Two Worlds, which was translated by Margaret Carson, did make a shortlist back in 2012?, but of course I can’t find that anywhere now that I’m looking.)

In terms of PEN’s Translation Prize, this is only the second year that they’ve included a longlist stage in their announcements, but so far, we’re 0-for-2. And we didn’t have any titles on any of the shortlists prior to that. So, we’re likely 0-for-7. Meanwhile, all of our colleagues—Archipelago, Two Lines, NYRB, Deep Vellum, New Directions, Yale University Press—have been honored with at least one selection. (The real winner is Will Evans who has published one book, and that one book won the Typographical Era Translation Award AND is longlisted for the PEN Translation Prize. Yahoo! Go Texas and Deep Vellum!)

There are some damn fine books on these lists, and the winners have been consistently amazing across the board. Which is a testament to how many excellent translations are coming out these days. We’re living in a golden age. I’m always following these awards, reading the books I think have a chance at winning, making mental predictions, etc. It’s fun to follow, even if we don’t have a horse in the race.

And to be honest, I’m never quite sure why this bugs me, or why I take it so personally. It’s not like I wrote or translated any of the books. Although, that said, I do see the consistent shunning—on all the lists, not just the award ones—as some sort of judgement of my editorial tastes and selection process. And I’m always curious if our books would sell better and win a lot more awards if, say, Archipelago published them. Is there an Open Letter stigma? And if so, isn’t it mostly a Chad Post stigma? I’ve pissed off my fair share of people by having strident opinions and making stupid jokes, so I wouldn’t be surprised if our books got shafted just because of my proximity to them. I’m also 100% sure that if we were based in any major city—one with a legit indie bookstore and some form of books coverage—we would be doing much better. For all of its good points, and despite all of the nationally respected writers and translators living in the area, Rochester kind of sucks at books.

Regardless, the whole thing reminds me of Double Dribble and how I’m a sore, petty loser. That said, I’m sure that by book 150, one of our titles will have sunk a half-court shot and won us a slot in the Final Four! (Sorry—that metaphor is jacked.)

On to the April books!

Desert Sorrows by Tayseer Al-Sboul, translated from the Arabic by Nesreen Akhtarkhavari (Michigan State University Press)

It’s really spectacular that Michigan State University Press has committed to doing more works of literature in translation, mostly from Africa and the Middle East. Readers deserve access to more works from these parts of the world, and it’s perfect that a university press is stepping up and helping bring these voices to English readers.

Of course, I say this both because this is the first work by a Jordanian poet to come out since 2009, and because I am a Michigan State alum.

On that note, I hope MSU kicks the shit out of Duke on Saturday night. Duke wins all the time—the world will in no way be improved by a Duke victory. But if MSU wins? That’s a huge number of people whose lives just got incrementally happier.

By contrast, when Duke wins, their fans just cackle maniacally, go back to counting their gold coins like Scrooge McDuck, and run ads about how Order Has Been Restored. They don’t need any more victories in life.

(Obviously kidding. People who know me know that I’m a Duke fan—as long they’re not playing MSU. I love ACC basketball and the Duke-UNC rivalry and all of it. That said, Go Spartans!)

Jacob the Mutant by Mario Bellatin, translated from the Spanish by Jacob Steinberg (Phoneme Books)

This is Mario Bellatin:

And if that doesn’t convince you to read his books, maybe the fact that he’s Valeria Luiselli’s mentor will. (He appears several times in her new book.) In fact, the two of them will be reading together at the ALTA conference in Tucson this October.

I have yet to read this Bellatin—a copy of it should be on its way to us—but I really like Flores and Beauty Salon. He’s a strange, brilliant writer. And it’s so good that Phoneme is making a number of his books available.

The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (Open Letter)

This is one of our big 2015 books. Gospodinov’s Natural Novel is a cult book, beloved by many of my favorite booksellers and readers. And The Physics of Sorrow_—his follow-up novel—is bigger, more mature, and even more amazing. Whereas in _Natural Novel he structured everything around the idea of a fly’s eye, Physics uses the myth of the Minotaur and the labyrinth to convey a family’s history. It’s bold and fascinating, and a book that’s already receiving some decent Twitter love.

Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes , translated from the French by Sian Reynolds (Feminist Press)

Tom and I are planning on talking about this book (“a raucous road trip in which two mismatched private investigators—the Hyena, a mysterious and ruthless vigilante, and Lucie, an apathetic and resentful slacker—cruise the streets of Paris and Barcelona in search of a missing girl”) on the Three Percent podcast. The plan is to talk about this on May 12th, so if you want to join in and read along, get a copy of this now, and send any and all questions and comments to threepercentpodcast@gmail.com.

Sphinx by Anne Garréta, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan (Deep Vellum); The Art of Flight by Sergio Pitol, translated from the Spanish by George Henson (Deep Vellum)

These two books perfectly represent the importance of Will Evans and Deep Vellum.

Although Anne Garréta has been writing for decades (Sphinx was originally published in France in 1986), and although everyone loves the Oulipo, this is the first book by the first female member of the Oulipo to be published in English translation. It’s a book in which . . . Actually, following the lead taken by Daniel Levin Becker in his introduction, I’m not going to point out the Oulipian constraint. It’s better for you to read the book and figure it out . . .

Sergio Pitol is another author who has been completely overlooked. He’s written a dozen or so works, including the “Trilogy of Memory,” of which, this is the first volume. He won the Cervantes Prize in 2005, and in the words of Álvaro Enrigue, Pitol is “not just our best living storyteller, he is also the strongest renovator of our literature.” Yet the only thing of his to appear in English is “By Night in Bukhara,” which is included in A Thousand Forests in One Acorn. It’s time that Pitol has his moment.

With this start—Boullosa, Garréta, Pitol, Gnarr, and Shishkin—Deep Vellum is both making a statement and filling in some gaps for those of us obsessed with world literature. It’s only a matter of time before Deep Vellum is as well regarded and beloved as the Archipelagos and Dalkeys of the world.

Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes and I Refuse, both by Per Petterson, both translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Graywolf)

Speaking of presses that are held in extremely high regard, the transformation of Graywolf from plucky Minneapolis-based nonprofit into publishing power house has been incredible to watch. Just think for a second about how they had four finalists for various National Book Critics Circle Awards this year, including three in the Criticism category. That’s the same number that FSG had, and one more than W.W. Norton. And I think that part of it stems from the success of Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses.

That book—along with The Elegance of the Hedgehog_—was the first literary translation to hit the _NY Times best-seller list in ages. It was a huge boon for Graywolf and brought a lot of attention from people who may not otherwise have been paying attention. With that success they started getting “bigger” authors, more reviews, more critical attention, more sales (I suspect), and have become one of the most respected and admired presses in the country.

Just to drive this point home, I got all excited the other day when the Open Letter Twitter account hit 10,000 followers. Just for shits and giggles, I checked out some other presses to see where we stand in comparison. We’re basically the same as Dalkey Archive, but Coffee House (another Minneapolis press taking over the world) has 37,300 and Graywolf has 235,000. 235,000 followers! That’s incredible!

Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell (AmazonCrossing)

This may well be the best literary book that AmazonCrossing has published to date. Bae Suah is about to become the favorite writer of every member of the “literati.” She is like a female version of Sebald, but with more emotion, a sharper writing style, and a storehouse of incredible works that will be coming out over the next few years. And she’s going to blow people’s minds.

I reviewed this book for the forthcoming issue of list: Books from Korea, and will post about that when it goes live. In short, this 60-page novel (that is a packed with as much detail and character development as most 300-page books) blends the mundane and the strange in the most evocative manner, focusing on a young woman who works a boring administrative university job, has an awkward experience trying to visit her “boyfriend” in the army, receives a couple strange calls from a lecturer on criminal sociology, and gets involved in some S&M tinged sex games.

I can’t recommend Bae Suah highly enough, and by the time her fourth and fifth books come out, everyone’s going to be talking about her as one of the great women writers of our century. Get on the bandwagon now.

A26 by Pascal Garnier, translated from the French by Melanie Florence (Gallic Books)

At some point this summer, I’m going to go on a Ganier and Simenon bender. Thanks to Gallic and Penguin, there are a number of titles available from both authors—all of which are quick, dark, noirish reads that would be perfect for a day at the beach. (The beach is on my mind, since it’s actually 60+ degrees here today, making it the first Rochester day above freezing since last August. Approximately.)

To be honest, I’m sort of surprised that Garnier isn’t one of Tom Roberge’s authors. (I’m not sure he’s actually read Garnier yet.) This sort of book—featuring a ramshackle house that Yolanda hasn’t left since 1945, and where her brother, dying of a terminal illness, turns “murderous”—sounds right up his alley. Maybe this could be another Three Percent Podcast Book Club book? Goes in line with the Manchette from last month . . .

The Queen’s Caprice by Jean Echenoz, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale (New Press)

Echenoz is such an interesting writer for the way that he’s evolved over the course of his career. The early books—_Cherokee_, Chopin’s Move, Big Blondes, _Double Jeopary_—are fun works of French noir. Or “noir.” In these novels he toys with the genre in entertaining ways, creating a great blend of “mystery” and humor.

Then there’s the “Eccentric Genius Suite,” which includes Running, Ravel, and Lightning and is a set of fictional biographies of strange dudes, like Tesla and Ravel. It’s wonderful, and a few steps removed from the early stuff.

And now, after being published for decades, we’re finally treated to a collection of Echenoz’s short fictions, which are set all over the world, and explore a number of different literary styles and modes.

Coincidentally, my class talked with Mark Polizzotti the other week, and he mentioned a new Echenoz book that’s sort of a return to the humorous-noir of old. Can’t wait to read that one as well!

Life Embitters by Josep Pla, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush (Archipelago)

I know that most people are excited about the four volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle that Archipelago is bringing out this month, but the last thing the world needs now is another list of books suggesting you read his magnum opus. (Although, as best I can gather from this New Yorker article, Knausgaard or Ferrante? if you’re not knee-deep in Karl Ove’s issues, you’re engrossed in Ferrante’s Neapolitan literary soap opera.)

Pla is definitely worth checking out though. He’s one of Catalonia’s greatest authors, mostly known for The Gray Notebook, which NYRB brought out last year. This collection of stories is his first work of pure fiction to be available in English.

The Buddha’s Return by Gaito Gazdanov, translated from the Russian by Bryan Karetnyk (Pushkin Press)

What I know about Gazdanov, and why I’m including this book here, can be summarized in this anecdote: When I was in Estonia last summer, Sjón was there as well, along with Gesche Ipsen from Pushkin. Sjón had just read Gazdanov’s first book, The Spectre of Alexander Wolf and was raving about how strange and wonderful it was and how he wanted more Gazdanov books to come out. Well, here we go.

Fairy Tales by Robert Walser, translated from the German by Daniele Pantano and James Reidel (New Directions)

There’s no way to improve on ND’s jacket copy, so, this:

Fairy Tales gathers the unconventional verse dramolettes by the Swiss writer Robert Walser. Narrated in Walser’s inimitable, playful language, these theatrical pieces overturn traditional notions of the fairy tale, transforming the Brothers Grimm into metatheater, even metareflections.

Snow White forgives the evil queen for trying to kill her. Cinderella doubts her prince and enjoys being hated by her stepsisters; The Fairy Tale itself is a character who encourages her to stay within the confines of the story. Sleeping Beauty, the royal family, and its retainers are not happy about being woken up their sleep by an absurd, unpretentious Walser-like hero. Mary and Joseph are taken aback by what lies in store for their baby Jesus.

24 October 14 | Monica Carter | Comments

James Crossley is a bookseller at Island Books. He writes regularly for the store’s Message in a Bottle blog and for the website of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association.

By now you may be asking which BTBA-eligible books I’m most looking forward to reading. Probably not, but let’s pretend. Without further ado:

Baboon by Naja Marie Aidt (translated from Danish by Denise Newman) is a short story collection that’s the first of this author’s work to reach English, and it’s touted as “audacious writing that careens toward bizarre, yet utterly truthful, realizations.” What’s not to like about that? Aidt is originally from Greenland, which is another bonus, as reading her book would get me one step closer to my secret goal of reading something from every country on the globe. Yes, I know Greenland is technically not a country, but it looks so big on Mercator maps that I count it anyway.

Mario Bellatin, who I’ve read before and very much enjoyed, has a new book out from Siete Vientos that contains two separate works, Flowers and Mishima’s Illustrated Biography. The latter portion sounds like non-fiction that wouldn’t qualify for the BTBA, but Bellatin says that it describes “what happened to the writer after his head was cut off.” So yeah, made up. It’s a bilingual edition with the English side having been translated by Kolin Jordan, and it’s a gorgeous little product. Not that I’m judging it solely by its cover, but it does tend to jump out of the stack at me.

Another Spanish language book that carries high expectations is Adam Buenosayres by Argentinian Leopoldo Marechal, a novel so massive that it took two translators, Norman Cheadle and Sheila Ethier, to tackle it. It was first published in 1948 and was Marechal’s attempt to create an epic that would do for his native city what Dickens did for London and Joyce did for Dublin. Among other Latin American writers who were influenced by it was Julio Cortázar, which is more than enough for me to take an interest in it.

From Germany comes The Giraffe’s Neck, about a tightly-wound, aging biology teacher in a failing public school. It’s written by Judith Schalansky (and translated by Shaun Whiteside) who previously brought the fabulous Atlas of Remote Islands into the world.

Javier Cercas is yet another writer whose fiction is always on my to-read list, and the next book of his on my plate is Outlaws, a novel in which an adult lawyer reconnects with the rebellious political gangster who transfixed him during his youth in 1970s Spain. That it’s by Cercas is one thing, but it’s translated by Anne McLean, so I know it must be good.

We Are the Birds of the Coming Storm is by Lola Lafon, a French writer who’s new to me. Translated by David and Nicole Ball, it was the subject of an intriguing review in the web magazine Full Stop that was very positive while admitting the difficulty of describing or responding to it. Which is like catnip as far as I’m concerned.

Lastly, there are two books, both from Dalkey Archive Press and also by French writers, that engage in the kind of metafictional play that drives some people up a wall but makes them must-reads for me. The first is The Author and Me (translated by Jordan Stump), in which writer Eric Chevillard attempts an ultimate refutation of the notion that narrators, even ones who share the author’s name, are mouthpieces for his opinions. A quote: “If all cauliflower and even all memory of cauliflower were abruptly to vanish from the face of this earth—O miracle!—then, I swear, I would don mourning clothes of red and gold, with a pointy hat and a party whistle unrolling from my lips with every breath.” I’m right there with you, Eric. Sorry, “Eric.”

On the slightly more serious side there’s Antoine Volodine, who I think may be undertaking the most important fictional project of our time. Using various pseudonyms (including the Volodine name), he’s producing a body of work that comments on and indicts contemporary society from the vantage of an imagined, not-too-distant future. His fiction has been spottily available in English from various publishers, and it’s been hard for American readers to grasp its scope, but Writers, translated by Katina Rodgers, looks to provide a useful summary. The different stories in the book purport to come from several Volodine heteronyms, finally together between covers.

It’ll take me a while to finish all these, and by then I’m sure I’ll have a new list of favorites to supplant or supplement them. Stay tuned.

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.

5 March 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Vincent Francone on Flower & Mishima’s Illustrated Biography by Mario Bellatin, translated by Kolin Jordan, and out from 7Vientos.

Since the site is about a week behind in posting reviews, I thought we’d start back in with a short and sweet one by Vince. We were at AWP in Seattle last week (we had a blast seeing all those familiar faces, as well as making a new set of new superfans!), and it’s been a bit tough coming back from the jet-lag. Anyway, here’s the beginning of Vince’s review:

Despite cries that literature is dead, dying, and self-replicating in the worst way, once in a while a book comes along to remind readers that there’s still a lot of surprise to be found on the printed page. To be sure, writers such as Cesar Aria and Medbh McGuckian are doing their part to keep literature interesting and fun, but having just finished Mario Bellatin’s Flowers & Mishima’s Illustrated Biography (published as a flip edition in Spanish and English by the wonderful 7Vientos, translated by Kolin Jordan) I am secure in the knowledge that compelling writing is plentiful.

The book is the latest English translation of Bellatin’s, whose novellas have been steadily earning him a solid reputation among American readers with both their invention and their brevity. Less really is more, and Bellatin continues this pattern of making big impacts in short books with these two novellas, the first, Flowers, a collection of separate narratives arranged like . . . well, flowers, each different and beautiful individually but combined randomly (or so it seems) to produce a startling effect.

For the rest of the review, go here.

5 March 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Despite cries that literature is dead, dying, and self-replicating in the worst way, once in a while a book comes along to remind readers that there’s still a lot of surprise to be found on the printed page. To be sure, writers such as Cesar Aria and Medbh McGuckian are doing their part to keep literature interesting and fun, but having just finished Mario Bellatin’s Flowers & Mishima’s Illustrated Biography (published as a flip edition in Spanish and English by the wonderful 7Vientos, translated by Kolin Jordan) I am secure in the knowledge that compelling writing is plentiful.

The book is the latest English translation of Bellatin’s, whose novellas have been steadily earning him a solid reputation among American readers with both their invention and their brevity. Less really is more, and Bellatin continues this pattern of making big impacts in short books with these two novellas, the first, Flowers, a collection of separate narratives arranged like . . . well, flowers, each different and beautiful individually but combined randomly (or so it seems) to produce a startling effect. Within these quick glimpses, the reader encounters a writer with a prosthetic leg who becomes obsessed with a literary agent’s daughter, a scientist who synthesizes a drug that results in the deformation of hundreds of newborns, a woman who, abandoned by her husband, abandons her child in a most violent manner, and a man referred to as the “Autumnal Lover” for his predilection for the elderly. This collection of oddities comprises a larger tale, though each is compact enough to stand alone. The ideal reader will take them all in, though the book begs for a second viewing where each flower can be examined as a self-contained planet among the larger universe.

It doesn’t take long to get used to the abrupt shifts from story to story before Flowers comes to an end (sort of) and Mishima’s Illustrated Biography begins. And this is where things get very strange. The novella centers on the writer Mishima, who may very well be the long dead Yukio Mishima, though this Mishima exists post-suicide and is headless. Is it so bad to be headless? One only gets a sense of this late in the story, when the narrator confesses that, to Mishima, the worst aspects of this is the “lack” which he must carry with him, conjuring up both Lacanian ideas and Washington Irving’s famous horseman. This Mishima is also, we are informed, the author of several books that savvy readers will recognize as belonging to Mario Bellatin (most notable: Beauty Salon, a fascinating novella that shares more than a few traits with Mishima’s Illustrated Biography). Is this self-reflective literary criticism, meta-autobiographical fiction, or just plain old hijinks? Ultimately it doesn’t matter, as the prose is elegant and engrossing in its directly stated fashion (thanks be to Kolin Jordan) and the ideas are about as exciting as any one might find in literature today. Reflecting on the purpose of writing, Bellatin offers a damn near perfect thesis: “Mishima realized that this mechanism might consist of using a terrible universe as a shield against what that very world produced.” This is why writers write and why readers seek their works. The mirror reflects the horrors of the world, but in the hands of writers like Bellatin, the mirror distorts just enough to offer escape. But we’re never really free from the truth.

5 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Just received this message from City Lights about a contest they’re running to tie-in with the release of Mario Bellatin’s wonderful Beauty Salon:

In a recent interview with PRI’s World Books, Beauty Salon author Mario Bellatin described a writing technique called the “No Method”: “For years I tried to create for myself a method of writing that would be my own. I called it the No Method, not because it was influenced by the Japanese theatrical form of that name, but rather because it was about appending a ‘no’ to all the elements that supposedly make up literary texts. No adjectives, no dialogue, no space, no time, no omniscience, no names, and so on and so forth, until I had compiled a long list of noes. It was in that way, restricted all the way down to the most minimal aspects, that I began to see that, in a certain sense, things could be named anew.”

Our challenge to you: use Bellatin’s No Method—no adjectives, no dialogue, no space, no time, no omniscience, no names—to write a short piece of fiction (under 200 words), and send your entry to contest [at] citylights [dot] com under the subject line “No Contest.” The person with the best entry will receive a free copy of Beauty Salon and a choice of four other books from our City Lights Publishers Literature in Translation list. Submissions are due no later than October 15, 2009.

The winner will be announced in our November newsletter.

14 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Mario Bellatin’s Beauty Salon.

Bellatin’s a pretty interesting author (see this post about the recent NY Times profile) and hopefully a bunch more of his books (especially Flores) will come out in the near future.

Larissa—who’s reviewed a number of books for us—also reviews for L Magazine and is working towards her Master’s in Library Science, while also studying Danish. Recently, she wrote a very interesting piece on Scandinavian crime fiction that you can find here.

Here’s the opening of her review:

Although still an unknown in much of the English-reading world, experimental Mexican author Mario Bellatín is undoubtedly poised for a Le Clézio-esque breakthrough. A Guggenheim recipient, Bellatín is the author of nearly twenty novellas and short works, and has garnered so much success in the international market that he’s recently been courted by the preeminent French publishing house Gallimard to release several forthcoming novels in French translation prior to their publication in his native Spanish. Beauty Salon is only Bellatín’s second publication in English (Chinese Checkers, a compendium of three of his other novellas, was published in 2008).

The novella finds a lonely, unnamed hair stylist caring for the dying victims of an unidentified plague (strongly recalling the AIDS virus) in his converted beauty salon. Where once the salon was plush and dazzling—with elaborate aquariums and exotic fish lining the walls—now it is “simply the Terminal,” refitted with the bare essentials to care for victims of the disease who “. . . are strangers who have nowhere else to die. If it weren’t for the Terminal their only option would be to perish in the street.”

Click here for the full review.

14 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Although still an unknown in much of the English-reading world, experimental Mexican author Mario Bellatín is undoubtedly poised for a Le Clézio-esque breakthrough. A Guggenheim recipient, Bellatín is the author of nearly twenty novellas and short works, and has garnered so much success in the international market that he’s recently been courted by the preeminent French publishing house Gallimard to release several forthcoming novels in French translation prior to their publication in his native Spanish. Beauty Salon is only Bellatín’s second publication in English (Chinese Checkers, a compendium of three of his other novellas, was published in 2008).

The novella finds a lonely, unnamed hair stylist caring for the dying victims of an unidentified plague (strongly recalling the AIDS virus) in his converted beauty salon. Where once the salon was plush and dazzling—with elaborate aquariums and exotic fish lining the walls—now it is “simply the Terminal,” refitted with the bare essentials to care for victims of the disease who “. . . are strangers who have nowhere else to die. If it weren’t for the Terminal their only option would be to perish in the street.”

Though dedicated to the care of his “guests,” however, the narrator remains distant, resigned to the suffering that surrounds him. (“I had witnessed so many deaths already that I came to understand that I couldn’t take on myself the responsibility for all sick people,” he explains succinctly.) Only men in the last, most desperate stages of the disease are admitted to the Terminal, and once accepted, they are allowed neither visits from the family and friends who have refused to take them in, nor “false hopes” of recovery, nor “religious images or prayers of any kind.” Guests are allowed to receive “money, clothes and candy. Everything else is forbidden.”

Bellatín’s prose is sparse and to the point, and yet, his narrator is frequently evasive—only hinting at memories either so painful or so joyful that he seems unable to fully articulate them in the midst of his current isolation. The reader is then left to fill in the blanks between the tidbits that he shares, the memories that he casually intersperses between explanations of his daily routine. “Before it was converted into a communal place to die,” the narrator explains in one passage, “the beauty salon would close up shop at eight o’clock.”

There were three of us working in the salon. A couple of nights a week we would get all dressed up after closing time, pack up a small suitcase and head off to the center of the city. We couldn’t travel dressed as women for we had already gotten dangerous situations more than once. Which is why we packed up our dresses and our make-up and carried them with us. Before standing on a busy street corner dressed as transvestites we would hide the suitcase at the base of statues of national heros . . . Our trips to the center of the city lasted until the early hours of the morning, at which time we would get our suitcases and head back to the beauty salon to sleep . . . We all slept together in one bed.

The memory trails off shortly after into other recollections before returning once again, pages later:

bq. My fellow workers, the ones I worked with in hairstyling and cosmetics, died long ago. Now I’m the only one living in the shed. The bed we all used to sleep in now seems too large for me alone. I miss them. They are the only friends I’ve ever had.

Despite—or perhaps because of—the porousness of the narrator’s revelations, Beauty Salon succeeds in suggesting whole worlds just outside of its pages. The effect is distinctly cinematic: a montage of images which catch the reader’s eye and expand the reality of this anonymous man, anonymous disease, and anonymous city far beyond the story itself. Black tetras and angelfish, Amazon piranhas and golden carp. A friend, dressed for the evening in high ‘European’ style, trimmed with feathers and long gloves. A dying man, wrapped in cardboard “to ease his trembling.” A steaming public bath, “exclusively for men,” with a “wooden counter in the lobby with multicolored fish and red dragons carved into it.” A bowl of thin chicken soup, served to the guests each day. A common grave.

Frank, haunting, and darkly evocative, the disparate imagery (perhaps more than the story) of Beauty Salon will linger in the readers’ minds long after the brief narrative has come to a close.

14 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is a few days old now, but it was great to see Larry Rohter of the New York Times do a special feature on Mexican novelist Mario Bellatin. Bellatin—and his books—are really interesting. Even the opening story in the piece is awesome:

A few years ago the Mexican novelist Mario Bellatin attended one of those literary conferences here where writers are asked to talk about their own favorites. Unwilling to make a choice, he invented a Japanese author named Shiki Nagaoka and spoke with apparent conviction about how deeply Nagaoka had influenced him, fully expecting the prank to be unmasked during the question-and-answer period.

Instead the audience peppered him for more information about Nagaoka, who was said to have a nose so immense that it impeded his ability to eat. So Mr. Bellatin (pronounced Bay-yah-TEEN) decided to extend the joke and promptly wrote a fake biography — complete with excerpts, photographs and bibliography — called “Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction.”

And if this sort of intellectual game-playing wasn’t already intriguing enough, he also fools around with his body:

Mr. Bellatin himself is missing much of his right arm, the result of a birth defect that he says he “plays with, takes advantage of and acknowledges” in his work by “writing with my whole body.” He jokes about “my left hand knoweth not what my right hand doeth,” and depending on his mood, he sometimes appears in public wearing a prosthesis with an attachment, chosen from his collection of more than a dozen, that gives him the appearance of Captain Hook.

“People often say, with a lot of truth to it, that all good fiction writing comes from some wound, out of some distance that needs to be breached between a writer and normalcy,” said the novelist and critic Francisco Goldman, a friend of Mr. Bellatin. “In Mario’s sense, the wound is literal and comes with all kinds of psychological nuance and pain, and seems related to sexuality and desire, the desire for a whole body. One of my favorite aspects of him is this sense that he is writing for all the freaks — either literally freaks or privately and metaphorically, that he really touches us.”

Beauty Salon came out from City Lights this week (see “our review”: by Larissa Kyzer) and has been nominated for this year’s Best Translated Book Award. Definitely worth checking out, and hopefully City Lights will be bringing out more of Bellatin’s works in the near future.

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