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.