The Large Glass

large glass

It has taken me a while to get around to reading something for Mexicanos perdidos en Mexico, which luckily Richard at Caravanoderecuerdos has allowed to run through March and April and into May. I can’t recall where I first encountered Mario Bellatin’s name – perhaps via Roberto Bolano, or perhaps simply through a rather more amateurish ‘Mexican writer’ search online – but whatever I discovered was enough to convince me to order one of his books – The Large Glass, translated by David Shook, and published by Eyewear in the UK last year. (Although a number of Ballatin’s books have been translated, he has suffered from a lack of a regular English-language publisher).

The Large Glass is subtitled ‘Three Autobiographies’, but anyone expecting a straight-forward recounting of events in Ballatin’s life, or even for the three stories to obviously connect, will be disappointed. The first story, ‘My Skin, Luminous’, is probably the strangest, written in a series of numbered sentences. The child narrator describes how his mother takes him daily to the baths where she displays his genitals to the other women in return for gifts:

“The women rummaged through their belongings and managed, by means of the particular barter for my propitious body, to contemplate me for the time they deemed necessary.”

This is presented as a tradition, which takes on a ‘Golden Bough’ aspect when we discover that “many details about genital-displaying women are remembered, but everything about their exhibited sons is forgotten” because they are killed “mercilessly” when their testicles shows signs of ageing. Having established this surreal premise, Bellatin allows autobiographical elements to enter the story as the narrator remembers a time when he and his mother stayed with his father and brothers – uncertainty (“My brothers – now I understand that I did have brothers – began to hopelessly cry”) suggests he was very young. That their eviction shortly after the father’s departure is repeated in the final story suggests it may be autobiographical, but that is, of course, a presumption.

The second story, ‘The Sheikha’s True Illness’, begins in the most autobiographical fashion:

“Curiously, the protagonists of the last book I had published feel satisfied with the work.”

Having introduced the idea of how those he knows react to his work, the narrator goes on to discuss a more recent story:

“Before closing the door she called me a prostitute; she didn’t understand why else I would have sold, to Playboy magazine no less, a mystical dream that I had had about the sheikha of the religious community we both belonged to.”

It’s unclear whether the story that follows is a repetition of the Playboy story, or if we are indeed reading that story (should it exist). In it Bellatin tells of meeting the sheikha in a hospital where he goes to be treated for an ‘incurable’ disease; this narrative is intercut with memories of when he was first diagnosed, and the tale of a friend killed in a road accident in what becomes a meditation on death and illness. Even the sheikha’s car, an old Datsun on its last legs, seems part of this.

The final story, ‘A Character in Modern Appearance’, begins with the declaration that the narrator, along with his German girlfriend, is searching for a car – a Renault 5. Any suggestion of straight-forward autobiography disappears with the discovery on the second page that the narrator is female, however. As mentioned, this story also contains a childhood eviction; it also echoes ‘My Skin, Luminous’ in the father’s exhibition of the narrator when he dresses her in a folk costume and ties transparent nylon to her wrist and ankles as if she were a puppet.

Bellatin was born with much of his left arm missing and the fixation with deformity, illness and exhibition which pervades these stories may well be rooted in this. The constant shifts in narrative direction also indicate his fascination with the craft of writing. The Large Glass is, in turns, puzzling, invigorating, infuriating, and refreshing. Its title echoes that of Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (as well as the obvious reference to autobiography as a mirror) which has been thought by some to be designed to mock those who search for the key to its meaning. The writer he most reminds me of is Cesar Aira, though this may be a lazy comparison based on brevity and eccentricity. Whatever the case, the most important conclusion is that I fully intend to read more.

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8 Responses to “The Large Glass”

  1. Scott W. Says:

    Great. I want to read more too. I picked up Bellatin’s Beauty Salon on something of a whim and found it riveting, a classic even. I appreciate getting to know a bit more about this one. Aira is an interesting comparison, as I feel a similar desire to pace myself with regard to both Aira and Bellatin’s work. That last Bellatin book was so concentrated, like some of Aira’s novels, that I want to wait until I feel ready for another. But wait I will.

    • 1streading Says:

      I spotted your review just as I was finishing mine – it was interesting to make comparisons. I agree about pacing yourself – luckily that’s easier with Bellatin as his work can be quite difficult / expensive to get hold off!

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    I’m a bit hit-or-miss when it comes to Aira so this probably isn’t for me, Grant! You may have seen it already, but if not, Scott has reviewed the novella he mentioned in his comment above – his post went up last week. 🙂

    • 1streading Says:

      I spotted Scott’s review as I was checking out the links for ‘Mexicans Lost in Mexico’ – Beauty Salon sounds like another fascinating book. I’m not sure I always ‘get’ Aira either, but I quite like that feeling of not getting!

  3. roughghosts Says:

    I’ve heard of neither the author nor the book, but it does sound intriguing. Another for that long list…

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, I think you would find this worth your while. Luckily everything he writes seems to be short so at least it wouldn’t require extensive reading time (though possibly thinking time…)

  4. lonesomereadereric Says:

    Great review! So interesting to read about this as I read Bellatin’s book “Beauty Salon” several years ago and I’ve wanted to read more. I’m also a fan of odd memoirs having read “Will Eaves’ The Inevitable Gift Shop: a memoir by other means” lately. So I think I’d find “The Large Glass” really fascinating.

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