“Now the only thing I ask is that they respect the loneliness to come.”
The owner of the beauty salon in Beauty Salon is a gay guy who dresses in drag at work and cruises for men after hours. He raises tropical fish in aquariums placed throughout the salon for the amusement of his clients. But then a local gang called the Goat-Killer Gang begins causing havoc in the city and their wounded victims routinely become infected (and infectious) with a fatal disease. The salon owner renames his business The Terminal and takes in the dying victims who have been shunned by the rest of the city. But he rigorously prohibits any medicine in The Terminal. The disease is incurable, so why falsely prolong the process of dying? “I don’t know where we got the idea that helping sick people means keeping them away from the jaws of death at all costs. I made up my mind…that if there was no other option the best thing was a quick death under the most comfortable conditions I could offer the sick person.” Eventually, he, too, gets infected. And slowly, the tropical fish are dying off.
It’s hard not to see the incurable disease brought on by the rampages of the Goat-Killer Gang as a metaphor for AIDS. But the focus of Bellatin’s writing is as much – if not more – on the complex narrator than the disease. The unnamed narrator is quirky and opinionated, and many readers won’t find him to be the most compassionate of caretakers. Bellatin always seems to be writing against the grain, a tendency that can make his brief books seem ephemeral. But Beauty Salon is a little gem of mischievousness and misdirection.
Unlike several other novellas by Bellatin that I have reviewed recently (here and here), Beauty Salon does not contain photographs. But it’s by far the best of the books of his I have read so far. And the cover design by Montreal-based Em Dash Design is fabulous. The brilliant cover image of a pair of empty, mid-century, Eames-like salon chairs has an almost invisible overlay of stylized leaping fish which can just be seen in the lower portion of the image above.
Mario Bellatin. Beauty Salon. San Francisco: City Lights, 2009. Translated from the Spanish Salon de Belleza (2000) by Kurt Hollander.