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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