Archive for the ‘Mario Bellatin’ Category

Beauty Salon

July 21, 2020

When Mario Bellatin’s 1994 novel Beauty Salon was reprinted in 2015 he had a very pubic falling out with his Spanish publisher: “Published without authorization and against the explicit will of its author.” This was not so much because he had disowned the novel, but because he had wanted it republished in a new form, rewritten to take account of “everything that happened during the twenty years past since the first publication of the book; a reflection on its current validity, but also an account of what happened with my life, with the elements that were part of it when the book was written.” (You can read more about this here.) For Bellatin, no work is ever finished, and transformation is constant, as can be seen in the English-language edition of Jacob the Mutant (mutation being another form of transformation) where the original text (which purports to be about a lost Joseph Roth novel) is accompanied by a longer text, ‘Could There Have Been a Reason for Writing Jacob the Mutant?’, and a further addition from the translator Jacob Steinberg. In the meantime we have the 2009 translation of Beauty Salon by Kurt Hollander which, at sixty-three pages, can barely lay claim to being a novella.

Beauty Salon, too, is about transformation – the title itself suggesting as much. Yet the transformation that occurs within its walls is no longer that of beautifying, but quite the reverse, “now that the salon has become the Terminal, where people who have nowhere to die end their days.” Those in the salon – that narrator and salon owner refers to them as ‘guests’ – are suffering from a nameless disease from which no-one recovers. There is a general terror of the disease as can be seen from the reaction of those who live near the salon:

“The neighbours tried to burn down the beauty salon, claiming that the place was a breeding ground for infection and that the plague had spread to their homes.”

The narrator, too, has changed in his new role of tending to the dying. He describes his life before as ‘dissipated’:

“I couldn’t wait for the days we hit the streets dressed as women.”

He tells how he and the other salon staff would head into town and, once there, change into women’s clothing in parks and gardens (“The whole transformation must be carried out there, hidden from sight”) and pick up men. Now, however, “I no longer have the energy to go out at night and cruise for men”:

“When the beauty salon changed I also felt an inner transformation.”

Much of Beauty Salon is taken up with the narrator’s introduction of tropical fish to the salon. He talks at length of the difficulties of keeping them alive, alternately tending them dearly and neglecting them (“Without any feelings of remorse I gradually stopped feeding them and hoped they would eat each other”). This, first of all, introduces the idea of nature as something cruel and merciless; when one fish gives birth another female fish tries to eat the babies. It also echoes the narrator’s treatment of the dying. One guest in particular he develops a closer relationship with:

“I guess I felt something special towards him, for I stopped looking after the other guests and throughout his time of suffering I only cared for him.”

Yet later, “From one minute to the next I completely lost interest in him.” When he dies he comments, “By that time the boy’s body was just another body I had to discard,” the word ‘discard’ linking him to the dead fish he removes from the tanks. Strangely, rather than make the narrator seem cruel this gives the impression he is suited to his task.

Beauty Salon is a very powerful and moving story, its more surreal elements only enhancing the tragedy at its centre. Though there is no direct link, it is difficult not to associate the nameless disease with AIDS (1994 was the year that AIDS became the leading cause of death for Americans aged 22 -44) adding a layer of bitter reality to the tale, especially when the narrator too succumbs to the disease. It proves that, beyond his textual trickery, Bellatin has an emotional core. Unfortunately the English translation of Beauty Salon has fallen out of print and we can only hope it meets with the reissue it deserves, even if this may well be in an entirely different version.

The Large Glass

April 23, 2016

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.