15 July 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This video has been out for a couple of months, but just came to my attention recently. It’s of Angélica Freitas reading from Rilke Shake, translated from the Portuguese by Hilary Kaplan and published by Phoneme Media. It also won this year’s Best Translated Book Award. (Speaking of which, it’s about time to start planning and releasing info about next year . . . )


Rilke Shake from David Shook on Vimeo.

6 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Tess Lewis, BTBA judge, writer, translator from the French and German, and an advisory editor of the Hudson Review. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Rilke Shake by Angélica Freitas, translated from the Portuguese by Hilary Kaplan (Brazil, Phoneme Media)

ma’am, do you have a mallarmé in your house?
do you know how many pessoas die every year
in accidents with mallarmé?
               statute of mallarmamento


In Rilke Shake, the Brazilian poet, Angélica Freitas, whips up a powerful tonic for even the most stubborn case of anxiety of influence: one cup Rilke, a pinch Gertrude Stein (farting in the tub), two tablespoons Poundian cadences, a dash of Marianne Moore, and toasted Blake, with five hundred hollygolightlies thrown in for good measure, the whole lot shaken not stirred.


Freitas’ antic irreverence and exuberant poetic license are contagious but don’t come at the expense of depth. Even as she “smooth[es] the rough edges of farce,” life’s sharper blades intrude in her poems as heartbreak, poverty, loneliness, depression. In family sells it all, a litany of loss, sacrifice, and shady survival strategies ends as expected. “family sells it all / for next to nothing / . . . you know how it goes.” Even the luxury of perfect teeth are no match for market forces: “perfect teeth, listen up: / you’re not going to get anywhere.” Gathering rosebuds or reading great literature is fine as far as it goes, but an empty stomach will have its way.

ah, yes, shakespeare is very nice, but beets, chicory, and watercress?
and rice and beans, and collard greens?
. . .
life’s tough, perfect teeth.
but eat, eat all you can,
and forget this chat,
and dig in.


Tragedy and heartbreak can strike at any time, even lunchtime, say, as in boa constrictor.

the creak crack
     of bones breaking
     a single tear escaping
     it was like love
the lack of air
     blood rising to the head

where history begins.


Translator Hilary Kaplan won a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant to translate these poems. She has done the grant and Freitas’ poems justice, capturing the many shifts in tone in and between the lines, from playful to wry to sardonic to pathetic, even sentimental, to deadpan and back to playful, sometimes within a single poem. For all of Freitas’ lyric clowning, it’s clear she takes poetry too seriously not to dismantle it and use it to her own purposes.

you need
to live in the ellipses
need to dissect
the frog of poetry—
don’t abolish the pond.
leaper, leap in
to the great leap.


Yes, reader, leap in with both feet, leap in often. But don’t take just my advice, listen to the statute of dismallarmament—“be a patriot, surrender your mallarmé. olé”—and order a Rilke Shake today.

9 March 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Yesterday I wrote a long preview of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, the Reading the World Book Club fiction book for March. Today, I’m switching over to our poetry selection—Diorama by Rocío Cerón, translated from the Spanish by Anna Rosenwong (Phoneme Media.)

As always, you can post your thoughts and opinions about all of the RTWBC books in the comments section below, on Twitter using the hashtag #RTWBC, or at the Facebook Group.

Anna Rosenwong’s Introduction

Anna’s introduction to Diorama might not put all readers at ease, but I think it’s worth quoting from here because it does provide a couple suggestions for how to approach the collection:

Translating Rocío Cerón’s Diorama was at first baffling. As an experienced translator and as a less than conventional poet myself, I know better than to seek clarity or narrative or concrete structure in experimental poetry. Nonetheless, it is precisely this sort of legibility that readers often demand of translated work, which can result in selection bias; difficult, experimental, or what Cole Swenson calls “immanent” poetry is often left untranslated in favor of the more familiar and legible. Diorama is not plainly legible. It is essentially impressionistic, stubbornly elusive, and at times outright hallucinatory.

To get closer to this book, I found I needed—and I urge the reader—to set aside notions of tractability and surrender to its associative and auditory insights. So much of reading and translating poetry is training your ear to the text’s private language, particularly in a text like this, where sound often provides the surest foothold amid the rush of cascading images. This emphasis on sound is demonstrated by Cerón’s enveloping, fierce live performances, and perceptive readers may find much to gain by putting the book down and trying the lines aloud for themselves, attentive not only to sound and rhythm but to the play and gripping of words in the mouth. In its repetitions, its incantations, its subtle and unexpected linguistic linkages, this is work that demands to be spoken and heard.

An Example

The book opens with “13 Ways to Inhabit a Corner,” which is made up of thirteen short pieces. (Obviously.) Here are two of them:

I

Ostriches in flight—there are women whose words are ash trees. Shadows stitch together harbors of air. In the midst of the stampede, a hand rests on the arc of a kneecap. Cigar and smoke. Rosy cypress sleep. The scent reaches far beyond the border. From the bureau—power, smile destroyed/ocher temptation, strophic enjambed body. Vestibule.

XII

Jubilation and adoration in parentheses. Above the long hair of that woman, seen in Baden-Baden, a galaxy hangs. No satellite rings. No saintly crown. Aftershock. Pealing bells (no ecclesiastical province) whisper a half-truth. White and cracked. The lips. We need a new password to get back to the world in time. While the word appears, she draws a spiral in the water. Resplendence.

Anna mentioned section “XII” in her intro stating, “To her translator, it appears that Diorama is Cerón’s attempt to find or forge that password.” Which is intriguing to me.

The Sounds of the Poems

Going back to Anna’s suggestion to listen to the poems, to read them aloud, here are two videos that give you a sense of what the poem sounds like.

And, even more interesting, here’s Rocío herself reading “Sonata Mandala to the Penumbra Bird” as part of the Maintenant Series at Poetry Parnassus.



The Author

Rocío Cerón is from Mexico City and her work combines poetry with music, performance, and video. In addition to Diorama (or DIORAMA? Sometimes it’s in all caps) she’s published Basalto, Imperio/Empire, and Tiento. Her poems have been translated into a number of languages, including Finnish, French, Swedish, and German.

Here’s an interview with her for Poetry Parnassus:

SJ Fowler: Mexican poetry has long been an immense and formidable tradition, reflecting so much of the passion and invention of Mexican culture itself. Octavio Paz is obviously a world-renowned figure, but I think his anthology of Mexican poetry, in conjunction with Samuel Beckett, really opened many eyes in the English-speaking world to the depth of the poetry historically in Mexico. Is this tradition ever present to contemporary poets?

Rocío Cerón: Mexican poets are children of their own traditions and customs, for better or worse. Young poets disdain their ancestors and they frequently succumb to them. I think this is only natural and I don’t think that this happens only in Mexican poetry. My generation does not live under the weight of Octavio Paz anymore. There is a chorus of voices and ways of looking at the world. The global era has played an important role in poetry; for example, by bringing together traditions as far as those of the Slavic world and the indigenous pre-Hispanic poetry. Using Internet these influences can dialogue and share their experience. Translation has become a great tool to re-signify different traditions and their poetic legacies.

SJF: Multi-disciplinary approaches to poetry seem very important to you, fusing the art form with music and art. How central is this to your work?

RC: I was raised in a family headed by my grandfather, who was a scientist, and my grandmother, who was an avid reader and storyteller. Contemporary art has nurtured my poetry. It has become an important influence in my writing and led me to something I call “expanded poetry” (the type of poetry that seeks a dialogue and allows for breaking borders between disciplines). Writing from many angles has been a natural process for me. I am interested in the kind of transversal poetry I call Galaxy Projects, meaning a fusion of language, music, action, video and the body.

It’s a really interesting interview—be sure and check out the whole thing! There’s also a short conversation with Rocío and Anna that World Literature Today published shortly after Diorama won the Best Translated Book Award.

If all goes according to plan, we’ll run a short interview with her some time next week.

The Translator

Anna Rosenwong is a former judge of the Best Translated Book Award, and has a MFA from the University of Iowa and a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Irvine. She has also translated José Eugenio Sánchez’s Suite Prelude a/H1N1 and has published an original collection of poetry, By Way of Explanation.

And from this past ALTA conference, here’s a video of Anna and David Shook (publisher of Phoneme Media) talking about this translation and the editing process.



A Review

If you want another entryway to this collection, I’d recommend checking out this review by Anthony Seidman that appeared in Entropy.

Yet for all its experimental or “immanent” and “stubbornly elusive” language as Rosenwong writes in her informative translator’s note, Cerón’s Diorama skillfully situates itself among longer poems from Latin America which use collage, kaleidoscopic experimentation and an all-observant eye to fly over the history and landscape of a country, people or epoch. Cerón´s new collection commences with the micro, ants foraging for candy in a room, and then opens up to the macro in wider thrusts, addressing a “Pan-Latin American” exploration of “Silenced sun on the Rio Grande or the Amazon,” South America and the harrowing legacy of the Guarani and “Columbus on his knees in Hispaniola: the blindness of deer and the cunning need to procure prey: Malinche, the first American Babel.”

Hopefully by now you’re interested in reading Diorama and participating in this month’s RTWBC!

17 December 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Yesterday I posted a bit of a screed against lists, followed immediately by a list of the six translations everyone’s talking about. My hope is to produce a bunch of lists featuring literature in translation from 2015, all organized by various rubrics that can allow you to find a handful of recommendations with a minimum of posturing and “best-ness.”

On the first podcast of the year, Tom and I talked about our reading goals for 2015. I can’t remember the exact number or percentage, but I vowed to read more books from these sorts of underrepresented countries, since I tend to fall into the habit of reading a ton of writers from France and the Southern Cone, despite knowing full well that there are a lot of great books coming out from other parts of the world.

So, for today, here are four recommendations of titles from countries whose literature tends not to get as much attention as books from Western Europe and South America.

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

One of the best books AmazonCrossing has ever published. (Well, out of the handful I’ve read, that is . . . ) Despite Dalkey Archive’s Library of Korean Literature Series, Korean books still don’t get the attention and respect they deserve.

It’s too early to really call this, but it looks like Bae Suah is going to be the exception to that. Sure, Kyung-Sook Shin got some good press for Please Look After Mom, but I’m not sure how well that sold, and her ensuing titles didn’t get nearly that amount of attention. (Doesn’t help that she went from being published by Knopf to being published by Other Press.)

On the other hand, Nowhere to Be Found was just named to the longlist for the PEN Translation Prize and Open Letter will be bringing out a new novel of hers next October. I wrote a longish review about this book, which opens as follows:

In Nowhere to Be Found, her second work translated into English following Highway with Green Apples, Bae Suah does more with character and narrative in 60 pages than most novelists accomplish in 300. With concise, evocative prose, Bae merges the mundane with the strange in a way that leaves the reader fulfilled yet bewildered, pondering how exactly the author managed to pull this all off.

Plot-wise, Nowhere to Be Found is pretty straightforward. Set, for the most part, in 1988, the unnamed narrator is a young temporary worker at a university in Gyeonggi Province as a sort of administrative assistant and works part-time at a nearby restaurant, running herself ragged in order to support her semi-appreciative family. Not much of the narrator’s life outside of work is depicted. Although she does have a boyfriend of sorts, it’s complicated both by his being away in the military and by the fact that his mother thoroughly dislikes her for being lower class.

This book is great, as is the one we’re bringing out. Get on the Bae Suah train now! And if you’re looking for other great Korean titles to read, grab a copy of The Vegetarian by Han Kang when it comes out in early 2016.

Home by Leila Chudori, translated from the Indonesian by John McGlynn (Deep Vellum)

I could easily have included one of the two Eka Kurniawan titles that came out this year on this list as an Indonesian representative, but those books have gotten some play, and I wanted to use this chance to draw some attention to John McGlynn.

First, in terms of the book itself, it’s a family saga that revolves around Dimas Suryo, a journalist who escapes Indonesia just before Suharto took over. He ends up in Paris with a few of his compatriots, where they open and Indonesia restaurant and dream of returning to their homeland. (Which won’t happen.) Thirty years later, as Suharto’s regime is crumbling, Dimas’s daughter decides to make a documentary on Indonesia for her final project . . .

Written in straight-forward prose, Home is mostly interesting to me for its historical information and the way that it bounces throughout time and point of view to tell this history of exile. It would make a great book club book, and unfortunately was overshadowed, in terms of review coverage, by Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty Is a Wound and Man Tiger, which happened to come out at almost the exact same time. (Doesn’t help that Beauty covers the same period of history, but in a much different way.)

With one exception (Rainbow Troops by Andrea Hirata), the only other Indonesian titles that have been released in the U.S. are from the Lontar Foundation, a nonprofit in Jakarta dedicated to promoting Indonesian literature, which was co-founded by John McGlynn, the translator Home. From what I know of John, he’s the Will Evans of Indonesia. He’s translated and edited over 100 works of Indonesian literature, is the Indonesian correspondent for Manoa, and has edited a special Indonesian Lit issue for Words Without Borders. Almost single-handedly, he’s been introducing Indonesian literature to the world since 1987!

The Knight and His Shadow by Boubacar Boris Diop, translated from the French (Senegal) by Alan Furness (Michigan State University Press)

A full review of this is forthcoming for Three Percent, so I won’t spend too much time on the book itself here. I do want to share the opening of Michael Orthofer’s review at the Complete Review, though, especially since it was one of the only outlets to have covered this book. (Proving once again that if you want to know as much about international literature as possible, you have to read Complete Review and the Literary Saloon.):

As befits a novel featuring a knight in its title, The Knight and His Shadow is fundamentally a quest-tale: Lat-Sukabé receives a message from the woman he still loves but who disappeared from his life eight years earlier, Khadidja—a cry for help: “Lat-Sukabé, come before it’s too late.” He sets out for out-of-the-way Bilenty, where she is apparently to be found, but his account is from his time in the nearby town where he has to arrange the pirogue-trip to Bilenty.

The novel is presented in three acts, covering the three days of his stay there, a holding pattern of sorts. Having embarked on his quest, he must see if he really has the will to see it through—a journey that, he comes to realize, might be something completely different from what he had expected (or talked himself into), Khadidja’s siren-call not quite what it seems to be and his quest perhaps a more personal one than it ostensibly seems.

Diop structures the novel cleverly. Having Lat-Sukabé narrate the account might already hint that this is also a story of personal (self-) discovery, but the transitions lead the reader—and the protagonist—there in an unexpected way.

What most impresses me is how MSU Press has decided to publish a series of translations from Africa and the Middle East. They published books from Senegal, Jordan, and Tanganyika in 2015, and have an Algerian book coming out early next year. Although getting attention and readers for these books is an uphill battle for a university press (for anyone really), they can quickly become one of the go-to presses for finding books from these parts of the world—regions that more commercial houses tend not to pay much attention to, but which we readers deserve to know more about.

Bessarabian Stamps by Oleg Woolf, translated from the Russian (Moldova) by Boris Dralyuk (Phoneme Media)

I’m including this here in part because its been compared to Bruno Schulz, in part because it’s only the second book from Moldova to come out in the past eight years (The Good Life Elsewhere by Vladimir Lorchenkov, translated by the amazing Ross Ufberg being the other), and in part because Phoneme Media deserves as much attention as possible.

First, here’s the first paragraph of the book itself:

One day a freight arrived from Grigoriopol with no head car, but no one noticed. No one even noticed that no one noticed. People often pay no heed, at times, to things they later don’t notice. No one, in fact, knows where this head car is—whether it arrived from Grigoriopol, whether it will arrive, whether there’s even a railroad in those parts.

(This story also includes a Gypsy, which gets an automatic thumbs up from me.)

In the short time they’ve been publishing, Phoneme Media has done some incredible things. They published Diorama by Rocio Ceron, which won the 2015 Best Translated Book Award for Poetry. They did Like a New Sun: New Indigenous Mexican Poetry, which may be the only collection of indigenous Mexican poetry I’ve ever seen. (And which may well make my “Poetry Books I Would Read if I Read More Poetry” list.) The did The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems by Natalia Toledo. They brought out Uyghurland by Ahmatjan Osman, which is the only book in the Translation Database translated from the Uyghur. They’ve published several books by Mario Bellatin. Overall, thanks to David Shook’s vision, they’ve become one of the hippest, most notable presses for finding strange, beautiful books from languages and parts of the world that are underrepresented.

I’m pretty sure that over the next few years—with the launch of Tilted Axis, expansion of MSU and Phoneme and others—it will become easier and easier for readers to find books from parts of the world that have historically been underrepresented. To be honest, looking over the list of books from 2015, I was kind of shocked how hard it was to find books from non-traditional countries. Sure, there are four titles from Georgia and seven from Egypt, but only one from: Angola, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Curacao, India, Pakistan, Mozambique, Senegal, and Tunisia. Added together, these countries accounted for 20 titles published in translation in 2015. By contrast, 94 came out from France along.

27 May 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The eighth annual Best Translated Book Awards were announced at BookExpo America this afternoon, with Can Xue’s The Last Lover, translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, taking home the award for fiction, and Rocío Cerón’s Diorama, translated from the Spanish by Anna Rosenwong, winning in poetry.

Thanks again to the support of Amazon.com’s giving programs, the winning authors and translators will each receive $5,000.

“I’m so excited,” Can Xue said when she was reached for a comment, “I think it’s the most beautiful thing that has happened in my whole life. I always think of the BTBA as a very prestigious prize rewarding writers who have the great courage to achieve their literary ambitions.”

According to the jury, Can Xue’s (“tsan shway”) The Last Lover (published by Yale University Press) was the most radical and uncompromising of this year’s finalists, pushing the novel form into bold new territory. Journeying through a dreamworld as strange yet disquietingly familiar as Kafka’s Amerika, The Last Lover proves radiantly original. If Orientalists describe an East that exists only in the Western imagination, Can Xue describes its shadow, offering a beguiling dream of a Chinese West. Annelise Finegan Wasmoen’s translation succeeds in crafting a powerful English voice for a writer of singular imagination and insight.

The judges also named three runners-up in fiction: Harlequin’s Millions by Bohumil Hrabal, translated from the Czech by Stacey Knecht and published by Archipelago Books, for the wonderful lyricism of its winding sentences; Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney and published by Coffee House Press, for the exceptional promise it demonstrates as a debut novel; and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein and published by Europa Editions, for its vibrant characters and sweeping narrative power.

On the poetry side of things, David Shook, the co-founder and editorial director of Phoneme Media “congratulates translator Anna Rosenwong for her masterful translation of Rocío Cerón’s Diorama, our first book of poetry and one of the most fascinating and important books to have been published in Mexico this century. Phoneme Media is incredibly grateful for the support of the BTBA’s judges and organizers, to Three Percent and its indefatigable director Chad Post, to our fellow shortlisted publishing houses, translators, and authors, and to our readers around the world. Congratulations, Anna and Rocío, on receiving this much deserved award!”

Past winners of the fiction award include: Seiobo There Below and Satantango, both by László Krasznahorkai (recent recipient of the Man Booker International Prize) and translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet and George Szirtes respectively; Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston; and, The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal. (Jansson and Teal are the only author and translator on this year’s fiction shortlist who have previously won the award.)

In terms of the poetry award, past winners include: The Guest in the Wood by Elisa Biagini, translated from the Italian by Diana Thow, Sarah Stickney, and Eugene Ostashevsky; Wheel with a Single Spoke by Nichita Stănescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter; and Spectacle & Pigsty by Kiwao Nomura, translated from the Japanese by Kyoko Yoshida and Forrest Gander.

This year’s fiction jury is made up of: George Carroll, North-North-West and Shelf Awareness; Monica Carter, Salonica; James Crossley, Island Books; Scott Esposito, Conversational Reading and Center for the Art of Translation; Jeremy Garber, Powell’s Books; Katrine Øgaard Jensen, Asymptote; Madeleine LaRue, Music & Literature; Daniel Medin, American University of Paris, Cahiers Series, Quarterly Conversation, and the White Review; and Michael Orthofer, Complete Review.

The poetry jury includes: Biswamit Dwibedy, poet; Bill Martin, translator, critic, organizer of The Bridge; Dawn Lundy Martin, poet; Erica Mena, poet and translator; and Stefan Tobler, And Other Stories and translator.

*

For more information, visit the official Best Translated Book Award site and the official BTBA Facebook page, and follow the award on Twitter.

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.

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Twenty-One Cardinals by Jocelyne Saucier
Reviewed by Natalya Tausanovitch

Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .

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One of Us Is Sleeping
One of Us Is Sleeping by Josefine Klougart
Reviewed by Jeremy Garber

We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .

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Bye Bye Blondie
Bye Bye Blondie by Virginie Despentes
Reviewed by Emma Ramadan

Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .

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La Superba
La Superba by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer
Reviewed by Anna Alden

Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .

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