Review: Beauty Salon by Mario BellatinBeauty Salon
Published by City Lights
Reviewed by Eric Karl Anderson
Whatever expectations about plot and character development you’ve come to expect from reading fiction should be left behind when reading Mexican novelist Mario Bellatin. One might pick up the novella Beauty Salon with its cover photo of empty pink chairs and hairdryers expecting a domestic female drama. Instead, we are introduced to the transvestite narrator who has transformed his beauty salon into a hospice or “terminal” (as he calls it) to care for the diseased homeless in the final stages of a terminal illness which has swept the globe and will soon obliterate this entire unnamed city. Rather than spend time ruminating on this mysterious plague, the narrator gives detailed accounts of the multiple kinds of fish he’s raised and how his care for them has been superseded by his duties to the dying patients he takes in. Intricate descriptions of the different kinds of exotic fish he’s raised are offered, but we are barely given any idea how the disease manifests itself with the patients of the terminal or the consequences of this plague to society. The effect of this is disconcerting and strangely moving revealing the degrees to which the narrator must emotionally distance himself from the world he inhabits.
Bellatin gives us a modern pared-down rendering of Samuel Butler’s satirical utopia Erewhon. Illness might as well be a crime in this sternly benevolent transvestite’s converted “Salon to the Stars” given the dingy beds, minimal food and lack of attention the patients who spend their final days in the terminal receive. Empathy is forsworn in favour of detached care. One patient who arrives even receives a beating from the narrator. Only men are allowed to have beds in the converted terminal; women are left to die in the street. Later on in the book, the narrator reflects how he mistakenly developed an emotional attachment to one of his very first patients. In conclusion to his debate about how the diseased should be cared for it becomes clear that their treatment is of little consequence given that this procession of dying men are all soon going to end up in similar anonymous graves.
Bellatin is a writer who is likely to become just as well known for his behaviour in real life as for his often disturbingly bizarre prose. He frequently poses for photos wearing an array of elaborately-designed prosthetic arms given that he is missing most of his right arm and is playful in interviews, in one case inventing a Japanese writer with an enormous nose who he claims influenced his own writing. With his pared down style and conscious experimentation in prose, Bellatin shows an affinity to the Nouveau Roman and its focus on objects rather than the traditional elements of the novel. Bellatin seeks to portray fragments of experience rather than a coherent world. Characters aren’t defined by descriptions, but remain only as emotionally-charged glimmers in the narrator’s memory. Bellatin’s fiction is very fresh and invigorating if not always satisfying. The book closes with an impending sense of doom. The reader is left searching for the beauty in life like the narrator who looks for his remaining exotic fish hidden behind a film of algae which has coated the inside of the tank over a long period of time. You can barely see it, but you know its there.