“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.


Comments are disabled for this article.

....

Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction
By Mario Bellatin
Translated by David Shook
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono
82 pages, paperback
ISBN: 9781939419026
$14.99
The Skin
The Skin by Curzio Malaparte
Reviewed by Peter Biello

“I preferred the war to the plague,” writes Curzio Malaparte in his 1949 novel, The Skin. He speaks of World War II and the destruction it has wrought on Italy, the city of Naples in particular. But the plague he. . .

Read More >

Love Sonnets & Elegies
Love Sonnets & Elegies by Louise Labé
Reviewed by Brandy Harrison

With the steady rise of feminist scholarship and criticism in recent decades, it is little wonder that the work of Louise Labé should be attracting, as Richard Sieburth tells us in the Afterword to his translation, a “wide and thriving”. . .

Read More >

Conversations
Conversations by César Aira
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

In Conversations, we find ourselves again in the protagonist’s conscious and subconscious, which is mostly likely that of Mr. César Aira and consistent with prototypical Aira style. This style never fails because each time Aira is able to develop a. . .

Read More >

Nothing Ever Happens
Nothing Ever Happens by José Ovejero
Reviewed by Juan Carlos Postigo

You are not ashamed of what you do, but of what they see you do. Without realizing it, life can be an accumulation of secrets that permeates every last minute of our routine . . .

The narrative history of. . .

Read More >

The Pendragon Legend
The Pendragon Legend by Antal Szerb
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Literature in translation often comes with a certain pedigree. In this little corner of the world, with so few books making it into this comforting nook, it is often those of the highest quality that cross through, and attention is. . .

Read More >

Mr. Gwyn
Mr. Gwyn by Alessandro Baricco
Reviewed by Paul Doyle

Alessandro Baricco’s Mr. Gwyn is a set of two loosely interlinked novellas that play with narrative and the construction of character. Ably translated by Ann Goldstein, Mr. Gwyn plays some subtle metafictional games as Baricco delves into what it means. . .

Read More >

Bombay Stories
Bombay Stories by Saadat Hasan Manto
Reviewed by Will Eells

I must admit upfront that I went into reading Saadat Hasan Manto’s Bombay Stories almost entirely blind. I have not read Salman Rushdie. I have read, perhaps, two short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri. I might shamefully add that I really. . .

Read More >