The Seed of Uncertainty: On Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose For Fiction
Mario Bellatin is the author of a wide-ranging body of work. His more than forty books have been translated and published in countries around the world, by a heterogenous set of presses that range from large multinationals to small independent houses. But this wide range, in any case, has as much to do with the work’s own methods as it does with its distribution. In September 2018, the critics who awarded Mario Bellatin the Premio José Donoso in Chile described his literary project as “audacious, unsettling, and original, constructed like a perpetual game, playing with conventional forms of narrating and conceiving literary space.” Although it is almost an everyday occurrence that critics refer to Bellatin’s work as unsettling and even “monstrous,” perhaps what really provokes this bewilderment is the game that begins, beyond support and genre, with the limits of fiction and what is conventionally considered “literary.”
Mario Bellatin is also the creator of various rules, commandments even, that push literary law to its limits, and then put in place new ones in order to start again. One, perhaps the most well known, is the one he enacted at the Escuela Dinámica de Escritores, a writing school he directed for many years in Mexico City. There, students had to participate in as many experiences as possible with the artists who were invited to present their work, but they were not allowed to bring their own writing into the space. This rule consisted of a single prohibition: writing. The premise behind the ban is that it is not possible to teach writing; rather, such an effort must be directed toward teaching creation, meaning, then, a return to what is meant by the phrase “writing well.” Like film, photography, or dance, writing is for Bellatin an artistic practice; that is, a space free from any restrictions that do not emerge from the writing itself.
This disarticulation of canonized literary forms—the Obligatory Literary Service, as Bellatin himself once called it—can also be found in his approach to other disciplines, performance especially. In such a formalized environment as the literary festival circuit, where the use of the word “performance” to describe what these writers of both of prose and poetry do has become commonplace, Bellatin utilizes these stages to play the role of himself. Through these interventions, as performance art pioneer Allan Kaprow wrote in his 1966 manifesto, “Art and life are not simply commingled; the identity of each is uncertain.” And this uncertainty is rooted in space: in what frame, in what context, under which rules, and subject to which restrictions do we put these two terms—art and life—in relation to one another? According to Krapow, if we shut them away in conventional exhibition spaces—gallery, museum, festival, or even book—a line is drawn to erase such uncertainty: “the name on the gallery or stage door assures us that whatever is contained within is art, and everything else is life.”
The blocking off of institutions limits the creative process as well as interventions of new ways in living in the world. Specifically, by not adhering to the limits separating art and life, and as such ignoring too the strict separation between different artistic disciplines, Bellatin’s work stretches the complex relationship between fiction and reality. But another problem arises at the same time: what is within the confines of art and what is beyond them? Today, in a moment in which literature has lost much of its supposed autonomy, it would seem that art can no longer be defined by a negative assertion, by what “is not” art. Rather, everything, all at once, “is” and “is not” art. Bellatin’s work does not offer an answer to this question, instead maintaining it in suspense. Perhaps, then, it isn’t even the most important thing.
In 1998, Mario Bellatin was invited by the Círculo de Bellas Artes de la Ciudad de México to give a lecture on a well trod topic: “My favorite writer.” According to legend, Bellatin invented a Japanese writer, Shiki Nagaoka, and after the event he was invited to give other talks about this author, so far unknown to the public. These requests led Bellatin to write a biography of Nagaoka, published three years later and called Shiki Nagaoka: Una nariz de ficción (2001, published in English in 2003 as Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose For Fiction, trans. David Shook). Despite the title, the press wasted no time presenting it as a work of nonfiction:
Bellatin traces a naturally interesting path in joining the group of Mexican thinkers that have been intrigued by the work of the Japanese writer known in Western orthography as Nagaoka Shiki after having read Monogatarutsis de juventud [Monogatarutsis of Youth], Tratado de la lengua vigilada [Treatise on a Monitored Tongue], Foto y palabra [Photo and Word], and Diario póstumo [Posthumous Diary], not to mention his most fundamental work. This work, identified by an ideogram, even lacks a translation of its title. According to a Mexican scholar from Tepoztlán, the work develops Nagaoka’s theory of the relationship between his physical defects and his writing, also touching on dark episodes from the author’s own life. But no one has been able to translate this great legacy. Writers such as the Mexican Juan Rulfo (1918–1986) and Peruvian José María Arguedas (1913–1969) have failed in the attempt. Panel discussion on the book Shiki Nagaoka: Una nariz de ficción, with the book’s author as well as Frank Goldman and Anamari Gomis, director of the Centro Nacional de Investigación y Promoción de la Literatura of the INBA. Thursday, August 16, “Manuel M. Ponce” room at the Palacio de Bellas Artes.
Ximena Berecochea, not only a photographer who collaborated with Bellatin on several projects and the author of the doctoral dissertation from which the previous quotation was obtained, appears in the book in question as the person responsible for the “iconographic recovery” of Nagaoka’s photographic documents that form part of the book. That said, the series of events that led to the writing of Shiki Nagaoka: Una nariz de ficción have no more basis than the work itself, except for a few news article (like the one above) that show the aura of reality surrounding the apocryphal Japanese author when Bellatin introduced his own book. The seriousness with which Bellatin treats Nagaoka, including the ensuing series of lecture-performances, even years later, is perhaps the only thing that proves its existence.
The biography of Nagaoka is contemporaneous with the project of the Escuela Dinámica de Escritores and signals, furthermore, the inclusion of photographs in Bellatin’s books. In addition to the prose narration that presents Nagaoka’s life and major writings, the books contains a 25-page photographic appendix in which appear objects and photographs of Nagaoka with explanatory captions connecting the images to episodes previously described in the book and full of ekphrastic exercises in which Bellatin describes some of the photos taken (or revealed) by the Japanese writer. These photographs, as well as many of the scenes described in the book, are “triangulated” by the end, when we are presented with the images they represent, which forces us to re-convert verbal representation into visual.
The fact that the photographic dossier, as part of the biography of a fictional person, functions as a destabilizer and not as proof or documentation of a truth external to art serves to amplify questions about what is real. The photographs are like a double key: they can be seen as proof that the author in question is real, but they are also a game, a trompe l’oeil that throws the authenticity of the object into question. The photographic device, historically linked to the production of truth, is put in tension, at once drawing us closer and pushing us further from reality. Bellatin shows us that the photograph is fiction rather than documentary evidence. He turns to it in order to safeguard the principle of uncertainty without which art would cease to exist. In the space between the text and the photographs there is a paratext that enumerates other of Nagaoka’s works along with bibliographic sources. All of which, until proven otherwise, fictional.
SOME WORKS BY THE AUTHOR
Monogatarutsis de juventud [Monogarutsis of Youth]
Tratado de la lengua vigilada [Treatise on a Monitored Tongue]
Fotos y palabras [Photos and Words]
Diário póstumo [Posthumous Diary]
SOME WORKS ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Conclusiones del I Seminario de Nagaokistas: Paris, 1999 [Conclusions of the First Seminar of Nagaokists]
KEENE, Donald. Literatura japonesa de posguerra. [Japanese Literature of the Postwar Period]
NAGAOKA, Etsuko. Shiki Nagaoka: El escritor pegado a una nariz [Shiki Nagaoka: Writer Stuck to a Nose]
SOLER FROST, Pablo. Posible Interpretación de [Possible Interpretation of ]
Here it is important to remember that the biography is accompanied by two epigraphs, both taken from stories of the same title: “The Nose.” The first is a quotation from an anonymous thirteenth-century Japanese story; the second, from a story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, based on the first. The last part of the book, after the biography and the photographic appendix, is titled “Two Classic Narratives on the Subject of Noses.” It presents the fundamental content shared by the two stories, which are about monks with unusual noses, like Nagaoka’s. Both stories, unlike the bibliographic stories, exist outside the “Bellatin world,” as they are written in the Japanese literary tradition and are referenced in anthologies and texts that have nothing to do with the Mexican writer’s project.
But Mario Bellatin always seem to find a way, like a magnet or a black hole, to make the substrate of the real converge with his project of fiction. He implies, in the biography, that Akutagawa took inspiration from Shiki Nagaoka to write his famous story, which is far from the only intertextual reference in the book. Nagaoka’s influence on writers like Juan Rulfo and José María Arguedas is also mentioned, as well as Junichiro Tanizaki’s unusual visit in order to develop negatives in the photography lab Nagaoka started after being expelled from the monastery, photos that make direct reference to Tanizaki’s 1933 essay In Praise of Shadows.
Nagaoka, according to Bellatin was a writer obsessed with the relationships between language, photography, and literature, which is what led him to write his major work Foto y palabra, a book that had a major influence on the filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu during production of his An Autumn Afternoon (1962). But his impact ostensibly had reached even more far-flung places, like Peru. Proof of that could be found in José María Arguedas’s posthumous diary, which appears in the Nagaoka biography with a quotation of dubious provenance: “Being able to see reality modified not only by the photographic lens but also by the written word that accompanies such images is a path of infinite potential for narrative possibilities of the very same reality.”
Shiki Nagaoka: Una nariz de ficción, in addition to having its origin in a performative presentation that casts doubt on the notion of the author, also destabilizes the idea of the book-object upon whose foundation the edifice of literature is built. Could we consider Bellatin’s “untruthful” lecture as a work of art in itself, or only as part of a process that depends on the book for its conclusion? Might it consist of a “multimedia” and “extraliterary” structure that includes the fictionalization of academic spaces, including the press, with the direct participation of the media of communication? One possible answer can be found in a recent text by Bellatin, the result of a workshop he held in the Cervantes theater in Buenos Aires, entitled Dance Without Movement: “What I do outside my writing is truly part of my writing. I don’t want to do performance. I don’t even really know what that word means. In these acts I try to offer a response to the questions that arise from writing.”
Frequently, these questions and answers arise together. A large part of the manuscript of El jardín de la señora Murakami (2001) [Mrs. Murakami’s Garden], for example, was written while Bellatin read the text aloud and crossed out and changed the parts that did not “sound right” to the audience. In the same way, one could imagine that the audiences present at the lectures at which Bellatin discussed Shiki Nagaoka for the first time had been witnesses to the process of the gestation of the book, the production of which was an open-door operation, as if he were a visual artist holding an open studio for the public. In any case, this open process is controlled by Bellatin himself. The rules of the game are his own creation, stretching and coopting the structures of reality (the university, the press, literature) in order to turn them into writing. There is no Bellatin behind Nagaoka, nor behind Bellatin himself. Reality never quite manages to look exactly like itself. And it is always unclothed: behind its masks, there will always be other masks.
Translated by Will Morningstar
João Paulo Cuenca is a Brazilian writer, born in Rio de Janeiro in 1978. He is the author of five books, translated into eight languages. His latest novel, Descobri que Estava Morto, was awarded the Machado de Assis Prize of the Fundação Biblioteca Nacional, and served as the basis of the feature film A Morte de J.P. Cuenca, shown at more than fifteen international festivals. In 2007, he was selected by the Hay Festival as one of the 39 most outstanding young authors of Latin America, and in 2012 he was selected by British magazine Granta as one of the twenty best Brazilian novelists under forty. He is currently pursuing a master's degree in the Literary Theory and Comparative Literature Program of the University of São Paulo, in conjunction with the University of Cologne.
Will Morningstar is a freelance editor and translator from Boston, with a master’s degree in religion and anthropology from Harvard Divinity School. His translation work has appeared in Strange Horizons and the Massachusetts Review.
In our thirteenth issue, we feature two innovative, hard-to-define figures of Latin American letters: from the present, Mexican writer Mario Bellatin, and from the past, Chilean writer Juan Emar. Together with these authors, we highlight Latin American theatre for the first time with a script by Ramón Griffero, Nahuatl-language poetry by Martín Tonalmeyotl, plus interviews, book reviews, exclusive previews, and more from writers including Rosario Castellanos, César Aira, and Salgado Maranhão.