Reviewed by Heather Cleary
Games are always a serious matter when they are played by the Mexican writer Mario Bellatin, whose particular brand of sport takes aim at the fine but carefully guarded line between fiction and reality. In much of his work, proper nouns are used as props. The presence of recognizable figures like Frida Kahlo (Las dos Fridas / The Two Fridas, 2008) and Joseph Roth (Jacobo el mutante / Jacob the Mutant, 2002) appears to guarantee a text’s credibility, but instead it establishes a continuum between the narrative and the outside world that blurs the borders of both. This is certainly the case in Bellatin’s 2009 Biografía ilustrada de Mishima (Illustrated Biography of Mishima), in which the famed Japanese writer attends an academic lecture on his life and work—years after having committed seppuku.
Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction, a balancing act nimbly performed first by Bellatin and then by translator David Shook, is the result of a similar conflation of fiction and biography, and a similarly irreverent stance toward the literary-academic complex. As the story goes, Bellatin was speaking at a conference when the audience began to press him about his creative influences. Unwilling to answer the question, he invented a Japanese writer named Shiki Nagaoka, whose contribution to letters—largely unknown, he said, due to the vagaries of literary estates and a series of publishing mishaps—was overshadowed only by his extraordinary nose, which was so large he often needed assistance to eat.
Surprised that no one caught on to the ruse, Bellatin penned a biography of this seminal but underappreciated writer, basing his text on a Japanese tale from the thirteenth century called “The Nose.” According to his account, young Shiki exhibited great skill with monogatari, a traditional form of short story, but his physical deformity and the interpersonal complications that came with it led to his seclusion in a monastery and his isolation as an adult. Bellatin goes on to trace the writer’s growing fascination with photography, his encounters with and influence on the writer Tanizaki Junichiro and filmmaker Ozu Kenzo, and his eventual death at the hands of thieves. The text is followed by a bibliography of works by and about Shiki and an extensive dossier of photos labeled as the “Photographic Documentation of Shiki Nagaoka’s Life,” “recuperated” by artist and frequent Bellatin accomplice Ximena Berecochea. The works cited include apocryphal studies attributed to famed Japanese scholar Donald Keene and Mexican writer Pablo Soler Frost, the “Conclusions from the 1st Congress of Nagaokites,” and a biography of Shiki by his sister, Etsuko.
What makes this game satisfying is that it is played out in the open. The epigraphs to the work are culled from the story’s earliest incarnation and a later version by Akutagawa Rynosuke. There is no attempt to conceal their provenance. From there, the biography opens with the following gambit:
The strange physical appearance of Shiki Nagaoka, marked by the presence of an extraordinary nose, was such that he was considered by many to be a fictional character.
Hiding its conceit in plain sight, Shiki insists on its ties to fiction without renouncing its status as a biography. The fact that its subject’s nose makes him seem like an invention is reabsorbed by the text as an objective appraisal. Truth is stranger than fiction, is it not?
Another conspiratorial wink appears toward the end of the text, when Bellatin describes the source of the archival material upon which his (and, supposedly, all the other studies about Shiki) are based:
His sister lived until 2000, when she died of pulmonary disease, patiently collecting this special author’s work. Some appreciate her efforts, but others know that she only manipulated the manuscripts according to her aristocratic family’s orders. Nonetheless, the merit of her persistence cannot be denied, as she worked until the end to rescue her brother’s figure from fiction’s grip, where this character insistently seems to want to be framed.
In other words, what we have here is a biography based on a fiction and supported by documentary evidence known to have been falsified but which is, nonetheless, the central character’s last defense against being remembered as an invention. This elaborate play is all the more effective for its presentation in Bellatin’s understated prose. Shook does an excellent job of preserving his crisp, deadpan delivery while still allowing the reader to sense the occasional smile twitch at the corners of his mouth.
Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction is not only a well-constructed metafictional diversion, but also an important new perspective on one of the most creative and controversial writers working today. Though two volumes of his fiction were already available in English (Chinese Checkers, Ravenna 2008, and Beauty Salon, City Lights 2009—both highly recommended), this is the first to offer a real sense of the way Bellatin’s writing plays games that, as critic J. David Gonzalez puts it, “take a blowtorch to the strictures of narrative storytelling” and present the observable world as being just as tenuous and relative as the pages that describe it.
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