I like reading weird books. I like writing weird books. But sometimes, I run across a book that’s so weird it causes me to question whether it’s even real.
Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction is a fake biography about a fake Japanese writer by an apparently real Mexican author, Mario Bellatin.
In a few dozen brief pages and an appendix of black and white photos, Bellatin recounts the life of an imaginary 20th-century author well-known for his enormous nose and nearly unknown for his obscure writings, including an untranslatable “work composed in a language of his own invention.” Shiki Nagaoka is said to have been invented by Bellatin when he was asked about his influences at a writer’s conference.
Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction came out in English in 2013, published by Phoneme Media and translated by David Shook … who just happened to found Phoneme Media himself the same year Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction was published.
In his introduction to the book, Shook paints the picture that the biography is legit and the fictional subject, Shiki Nagaoka, is real. “Bellatin’s highly stylized study is the most important work on the author to appear since Pablo Soler Frost’s 1986 monograph,” he writes. “It is my hope that this new translation begins to redress [Nagaoka’s] under-acknowledgement as a major influence on contemporary world literature.”
Shook claims to be currently living in Iraqi Kurdistan, to have served as Honorary Consul for the Republic of Burundi, and to be a member of the board of directors of Kazoza Finance, a Burundian community bank. His bio at the end of the book states, “He’s currently translating Mario Bellatin’s thus far unwritten novela [sic] Writing Lessons for the Blind and Deaf from the future Spanish.”
Shook’s website includes a comical photo of a man with a handlebar moustache, and refers to Shook in the plural “they.” This could be a simple personal pronoun preference, or a clue that “David Shook” is in reality some kind of collective artist project, or perhaps another character invented by Bellatin.
And then there’s the mysterious review on Amazon.
“I for one am eagerly awaiting the translation of Nagaoka’s works into English, especially his last book which ‘doesn’t exist in any known language’. In the meantime this biography is a good introduction to the man and his nose,” wrote “Eleanor” in a review that at first made me laugh in a superior, smug manner (poor, foolish Eleanor — she thinks this is a real biography!) but then gave me pause.
Is “Eleanor” in on the joke? Is “Eleanor” really David Shook? Is anyone associated with Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction who they claim to be?
Now, days after finishing the book, I’m questioning everything.
Is the author real? Is the translator real? The publishing house? Japan? Is the book itself even real?
I’d recommend you read it and judge for yourself but, at this point, who’s to say I’m real?