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Mario Bellatin’s Writers (1) – Shiki Nagaoka

Shiki Nagaoka

He considered it a privilege to include entire visual images within his texts that, in some way, instantly reproduced what the words and the ideograms were so pressed to represent.

from Shiki Nagaoka

A handful of the more than twenty books written by the Mexican writer Mario Bellatin have recently appeared in English, and three are books about writers and writing. Bellatin, like the Argentinian author César Aira, generally writes very brief and wonderfully bizarre novellas. In Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction (Los Angeles: Phoneme, 2012), Bellatin creates an obscure fictional Japanese author who suffered from an extremely oversized nose. After spending thirteen years in a monastery, Nagaoka emerged in 1933 and decided to open up a small film developing kiosk, in part because of his increasing curiosity about the nature of photographs. As a result, “an infinity of photographs passed through Shiki Nagaoka’s hands,” which eventually led him to publish his book Photos and Words (“possibly his most solid work”). Photos and Words quickly “made its way around the world,” influencing the great Japanese filmmaker Yasujirō Ozu and writers such as the Mexican Juan Rulfo (1917-1986) and the Peruvian José Maria Arguedas. Rulfo was also well-known as a photographer, while Arguedas (according to Bellatin) wrote in his diary that the ability “to be able to see reality modified not only by the lens of the photographer but also by the written word that accompanies those images is a path that infinitely strengthens the narrative possibilities of actual reality.”

Bellatin seems purposefully vague about what Nagaoka actually proposed in Photos and Words. Does the book advocate for a new relationship between photographs and words or was it a “subversive” new way to make photographs or was it a way to write fiction inspired largely by narrative photographs? Perhaps it’s all three. Nagaoka “forecasts the forthcoming appearance of an extended and totalizing novel that will definitively consolidate his thinking, but indicates that to achieve it he almost urgently needs the mediation of photography.”

These three writers – Juan Rulfo, José Maria Arguedas, and Shiki Nagaoka – were in agreement, each one on their respective side, that narrative photography really does set out to establish a new type of medium, alternative to the written word, and that perhaps it would be the form in which the books of the future would be conceived.

Shiki Nagaoka and José Maria Arguedas share one other important trait – each has written a novel in an “untranslatable” language. “In his final years, Shiki Nagaoka wrote a book that for many is fundamental. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist in any known language” (its title is only known by a symbol). Nagaoka’s book, “composed in a language of his own invention,…inspires his admiration throughout the entire world.” Somewhat similarly, Arguedes wrote his 1958 novel Los Rios Profundos (Deep Rivers in English) in a Spanish “that has been rearranged according to the rules of Quecha syntax,” according to the book’s eventual translator (twenty years later) Frances Horning Barraclough.  The “untranslatable” novel is but one of many puzzles and paradoxes in Shiki Nagaoka, but it is one of the essential paradoxes, since Nagaoka had written an essay in 1962 which declared “that only by means of reading translated texts does the real essence of the literary, which is, in no way, as some scholars argue, in the language, become evident.” From the age of fifteen on, he had written all of his texts in English or French, before translating them into Japanese.

In 1970, Shiki Nagaoka was murdered by two drug addicts, who sought to rob his photo kiosk.

The narrative of Nagaoka’s life and writing career, which barely consumes thirty pages, is followed by another thirty-some pages of “photographic documentation,” which consists of various historic images and ordinary snapshots. But what each of the photographs is meant to document is utterly inscrutable without its caption. Bellatin is reminding us of the poverty of specificity and context of so many photographic images. Without a caption, none of these images is moored within a reality, and within Bellatin’s faux biography that reality is utterly fictional.

Bellatin selects and uses photographs in a way that plays with the tropes of the snapshot and other routine types of imagery. For example, one image of a mass of  young children (so indistinct that their gender is not readily identifiable) is captioned as the “fifth grade graduation from the Lord Byron School of Foreign Languages.” Helpfully, Shiki’s tiny pinpoint of a head is marked by a black circle.

Bellatin Nagaota photos-001There are several short videos about Bellatin on Phoneme’s website, including one with David Shook, translator of Shiki Nagaoka.

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