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Posts from the ‘Mario Bellatin’ Category

Bellatin’s Beauty Salon

Bellatin Beauty Salon-001

“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.


Mario Bellatin’s Writers (2) – Yukio Mishima

Bellatin Mishima

Mario Bellatin is a trickster who loves to sow confusion. I recently wrote about Bellatin’s 2012 book Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction, his fake biography of a non-existent Japanese writer. In Mishima’s Ilustrated Biography, he gives us a biography (of sorts) about the real Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, but this biography doesn’t begin until after Mishima has committed suicide and after his ritual decapitation by a colleague.

Mishima is part of a slim, bilingual volume that contains two brief novellas – Flowers (Flores) and Mishima’s Ilustrated Biography (Biografía Illustrada de Mishima). But Mishima is the work that most interests me today. The Mishima we are introduced to seems to be quite alive but lacking his head. Bellatin sketches out a number of disconnected episodes from Mishima’s extended life, many of which are superficially banal; he travels, attends conferences, visits a university, goes to the mall. But nothing in a Bellatin novel remains banal for long. Events mutate and spin off in unexpected directions. Take the example of Mishima’s attempt to find a substitute for his missing head. At first, a craftsman makes him a “rudimentary” head that “looks more like an archaic grenade than an integral part of his body.” He then considers having a kabuki mask made, but later decides that the making of a new head should be a “community project” wherein everyone would have shared responsibility for the end result. And then suddenly the subject is dropped, never to reappear. In Mishima, ideas are thrown out, explored (or exploited), then forgotten, as if attention-deficit has set in.

Bellatin likes to remind us of the utter artificiality of writing, of words, and, especially, of literary genres and forms. There’s a sense of conceptual game-playing to Mishima. What would a biography look like if it was about the life someone leads after his death? What would photographs be like that remained undeveloped? “What kind of fear is capable of generating writing like this?” is a question Mishima asks of himself.

On more than one occasion, Bellatin’s  portrait of Mishima and his own biography begin to merge. Mishima decides to research the drug thalidomide, which, at one time, caused tens of thousands of newborns to have birth defects. (Bellatin’s own right arm is deformed, apparently due to thalidomide or something very similar.) Bellatin even goes so far as to ascribe to Mishima the titles of books written by Bellatin himself, including Beauty Salon and Chinese Checkers.

Appended to the end of the written portion of Mishima’s Illustrated Biography are the promised illustrations themselves – fifty photographs in both black-and-white and color. It doesn’t take long to realize that the authenticity of the photographs and and the accuracy of their captions is extremely dubious and that the visual evidence in the photographs rarely supports the claims made by their associated captions.  Unfortunately, Bellatin’s playful, but mostly lame commentary on the believability of photographs will strike most readers as old news.

Bellatin Mishima Photo Pages-001Double page spread from Mishima’s Illustrated History. (Bellatin is the man in the lower left photograph. Click to enlarge.)

Bellatin’s work is often lauded for being “fragmentary” and “discontinuous.” The same adjectives seem to apply to the overall body of his work. He is the exact opposite of a writer like Patrick Modiano, who I have been reading off and on over the past few months. Modiano essentially writes a variant of the same book over and over, creating a core narrative kernel that he then reexamines, refines, and reworks. Bellatin, on the other hand, is too impatient to stick with any subject for more than a few paragraphs, much less over the course of multiple books. After reading a handful of his books, Bellatin is starting to seem like a descendant of the conceptual and process artists of the 1960s. A few years ago he participated in the “Documenta” exhibition held every four years in Kassel, Germany, through a project he called The Hundred Thousand Books of Bellatin. His proposal was to print one thousand copies each of one hundred different books that he would write, and the related publication contained a suggested list of one hundred possible topics, including: “The Olivetti typewriter bought in a Communist country” and “The act of immersing postcards of classic paintings in the puddles of seawater trapped between rocks.”

I have to admit that I’m of two minds about Bellatin. I tend to think that his works appear more innovative than they really are. We’ll see what happens as I read more of his books, but at this stage my interest is beginning to wane.


Mario Bellatin’s Writers (1) – Shiki Nagaoka

Shiki Nagaoka

He considered it a privilege to include entire visual images within his texts that, in some way, instantly reproduced what the words and the ideograms were so pressed to represent.

from Shiki Nagaoka

A handful of the more than twenty books written by the Mexican writer Mario Bellatin have recently appeared in English, and three are books about writers and writing. Bellatin, like the Argentinian author César Aira, generally writes very brief and wonderfully bizarre novellas. In Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction (Los Angeles: Phoneme, 2012), Bellatin creates an obscure fictional Japanese author who suffered from an extremely oversized nose. After spending thirteen years in a monastery, Nagaoka emerged in 1933 and decided to open up a small film developing kiosk, in part because of his increasing curiosity about the nature of photographs. As a result, “an infinity of photographs passed through Shiki Nagaoka’s hands,” which eventually led him to publish his book Photos and Words (“possibly his most solid work”). Photos and Words quickly “made its way around the world,” influencing the great Japanese filmmaker Yasujirō Ozu and writers such as the Mexican Juan Rulfo (1917-1986) and the Peruvian José Maria Arguedas. Rulfo was also well-known as a photographer, while Arguedas (according to Bellatin) wrote in his diary that the ability “to be able to see reality modified not only by the lens of the photographer but also by the written word that accompanies those images is a path that infinitely strengthens the narrative possibilities of actual reality.”

Bellatin seems purposefully vague about what Nagaoka actually proposed in Photos and Words. Does the book advocate for a new relationship between photographs and words or was it a “subversive” new way to make photographs or was it a way to write fiction inspired largely by narrative photographs? Perhaps it’s all three. Nagaoka “forecasts the forthcoming appearance of an extended and totalizing novel that will definitively consolidate his thinking, but indicates that to achieve it he almost urgently needs the mediation of photography.”

These three writers – Juan Rulfo, José Maria Arguedas, and Shiki Nagaoka – were in agreement, each one on their respective side, that narrative photography really does set out to establish a new type of medium, alternative to the written word, and that perhaps it would be the form in which the books of the future would be conceived.

Shiki Nagaoka and José Maria Arguedas share one other important trait – each has written a novel in an “untranslatable” language. “In his final years, Shiki Nagaoka wrote a book that for many is fundamental. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist in any known language” (its title is only known by a symbol). Nagaoka’s book, “composed in a language of his own invention,…inspires his admiration throughout the entire world.” Somewhat similarly, Arguedes wrote his 1958 novel Los Rios Profundos (Deep Rivers in English) in a Spanish “that has been rearranged according to the rules of Quecha syntax,” according to the book’s eventual translator (twenty years later) Frances Horning Barraclough.  The “untranslatable” novel is but one of many puzzles and paradoxes in Shiki Nagaoka, but it is one of the essential paradoxes, since Nagaoka had written an essay in 1962 which declared “that only by means of reading translated texts does the real essence of the literary, which is, in no way, as some scholars argue, in the language, become evident.” From the age of fifteen on, he had written all of his texts in English or French, before translating them into Japanese.

In 1970, Shiki Nagaoka was murdered by two drug addicts, who sought to rob his photo kiosk.

The narrative of Nagaoka’s life and writing career, which barely consumes thirty pages, is followed by another thirty-some pages of “photographic documentation,” which consists of various historic images and ordinary snapshots. But what each of the photographs is meant to document is utterly inscrutable without its caption. Bellatin is reminding us of the poverty of specificity and context of so many photographic images. Without a caption, none of these images is moored within a reality, and within Bellatin’s faux biography that reality is utterly fictional.

Bellatin selects and uses photographs in a way that plays with the tropes of the snapshot and other routine types of imagery. For example, one image of a mass of  young children (so indistinct that their gender is not readily identifiable) is captioned as the “fifth grade graduation from the Lord Byron School of Foreign Languages.” Helpfully, Shiki’s tiny pinpoint of a head is marked by a black circle.

Bellatin Nagaota photos-001There are several short videos about Bellatin on Phoneme’s website, including one with David Shook, translator of Shiki Nagaoka.