Mario Bellatin - one of the most engaging, mysterious, disturbing, and original authors working today. He truly defies what literature can be by constantly refining and reinventing his own writing methods




Mario Bellatin, Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction. Trans. by David Shook. Phoneme Books, 2013.

Read excerpts at Two Lines Online and World Literature Today

Mario Bellatin, the leading experimental novelist in contemporary Latin America, introduces the neglected work of Shiki Nagaoka to an English-speaking audience for the first time. Bellatin’s highly stylized biography recounts Nagaoka’s early life, including his failed first attempt at love, his decision to enter the monastic life, and his family’s disavowal of him. It contextualizes his untranslatable masterwork, his early use of narrative photography, and his influence on other important world writers, including Juan Rulfo and José María Arguedas. And of course he portrays Nagaoka’s incredible nose, the deformedly large appendage that determined his life path



And then there is Mario Bellatin, whom I have been reading with religious devotion for the last 15 years and continue to do so. I just finished El libro uruguayo de los muertos, one if his finest books to date. He is one of the most engaging, mysterious, disturbing, and original authors working today, not just in Mexico, but all over the world. Bellatin truly defies what literature can be by constantly refining and reinventing his own writing methods. He allows his readers to construct mental bridges between his books, to link and decipher their cryptic contents so they can gain full access to one of the strangest, most hermetic, self-referential (or not) literary universes populated by his very own personal mythology. A great starting point is Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction, which is available in English. - Luis Panini

“I am honored to have ushered Mario Bellatin’s biography of the great Shiki Nagaoka, a writer and artist almost entirely unknown to English-language readers, into English for the first time, and it is my hope that this new translation begins to redress his under-acknowledgement as a major influence on contemporary world literature. Bellatin’s highly stylized study is the most important work on the author to appear since Pablo Soler Frost’s 1986 monograph, Possible Interpretation of [untranslatable symbol], notable for its pedantry, perhaps best evidenced by the average (mean) tally of semicolons per page: 47.”
This is how translator David Shook begins his preface to Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction. However, Nagaoka never existed; Shook is just going along with a joke which, according to a New York Times article, originated at a writer’s conference years ago. When asked about his favorite writer, Bellatin answered that it was a Japanese author who had an unusually large nose and wrote a highly-influential novel in an untranslatable language. The audience members believed the Mexican writer, so Bellatin decided to write this “biography.”
Nagaoka’s story begins with his birth, which was difficult because of his nose. The two midwives who assisted his mother thought his large appendage was a “punishment” for his aristocratic family’s “excessive enthusiasm that accompanied the arrival of foreign ideas.” At an early age, he wrote hundreds of stories (mostly about “affairs related to the nose”) and later experimented with writing stories in multiple languages. Besides literature, Nagaoka was also interested in photography. His combined love of literature and photography later resulted in the book Photos and Words, which “heavily influenced” Juan Rulfo, the real-life writer of Pedro Páramo. However, his early investigations into photography resulted in an unsolved murder which, according to a “certain Mexican writer,” is mentioned in the untranslatable novel.
Following that incident, Nagaoka joined a Buddhist monastery and lived there for 13 years. During this time, he attempted to write “a large novel” that was originally going to be a “masculine version” of Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji but somehow ended up being a Japanese version of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. At the same time, his nose became so big at one point that he needed someone to hold it up for him during meals. As if his troubles during mealtimes were not bad enough, the other monks, despite the rules of the novitiate, would taunt Nagaoka and play with his nose.
After being expelled from the monastery, Nagaoka set up a kiosk to sell rolls of film and develop them. One of his customers was a famous Japanese writer. Oddly enough, Nagaoka was not interested in this writer’s works but rather in his photographs of bathrooms. These photographs inspired Nagaoka to compose “his most solid work,” Photos and Words, which was popular enough to be translated into English by LIFE magazine in the 1950s.
Still, despite the book’s popularity, Nagaoka lived in a modest house and didn’t take his writing career seriously, although he continued to write in notebooks, one of which had a giant nose on the cover. “At the end of his life,” the narrator writes, “he embraced the idea that, realistically, the size of his nose had determined his existence.” Some of these recorded memories appeared in a posthumous work called Posthumous Diary, which inspired a French cult-like group called the “Nagaokites” to further investigate his work. However, “in his final years, Shiki Nagaoka wrote a book that for many is fundamental. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist in any known language.”
Bellatin is obviously having a lot of fun telling this story, and he never tries to hide the fact that it’s a prank. He also slyly pokes fun at the audience members who originally bought the story about Nagaoka. In one scene, while in a state of dementia, Nagaoka throws his manuscripts into a bonfire, which nearly destroyed a forest near the monastery. “Only the timely action of the rest of the monks, who were woken by Shiki Nagaoka’s anguished screams, reduced its consequences to a circle of singed forest. On that occasion, Shiki Nagaoka lied. He said that the fire originated from the passion he had put into his prayers.” Later, the narrator informs us that at the time, the monks didn’t question this.
Following the biographical portion of the book are 30 pages of photographs by Ximena Berecochea. While these photos appear in a section titled “Photograph Documentation of Shiki Nagaoka’s Life,” most of them consist of objects and locations mentioned in the book. Only three of them contain the author, but they were either manipulated to hide his nose or taken from a distance. In fact, the funniest photo is Nagaoka’s fifth grade graduation photo: Only a circle on the faded right side of the photo indicates Nagaoka’s appearance in it.
While it may appear that Shiki Nagaoka is a joke that has gone on for far too long, it is actually worth reading, thanks to Bellatin’s skill as a writer and prankster. Also, the actual text is only 43 pages, so that in one sitting you can also enjoy what the audience of the writer’s conference heard (and believed) so many years ago. - Christopher Iacono

Games are always a serious matter when they are played by the Mexican writer Mario Bellatin, whose particular brand of sport takes aim at the fine but carefully guarded line between fiction and reality. In much of his work, proper nouns are used as props. The presence of recognizable figures like Frida Kahlo (Las dos Fridas / The Two Fridas, 2008) and Joseph Roth (Jacobo el mutante / Jacob the Mutant, 2002) appears to guarantee a text’s credibility, but instead it establishes a continuum between the narrative and the outside world that blurs the borders of both. This is certainly the case in Bellatin’s 2009 Biografía ilustrada de Mishima (Illustrated Biography of Mishima), in which the famed Japanese writer attends an academic lecture on his life and work—years after having committed seppuku.
Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction, a balancing act nimbly performed first by Bellatin and then by translator David Shook, is the result of a similar conflation of fiction and biography, and a similarly irreverent stance toward the literary-academic complex. As the story goes, Bellatin was speaking at a conference when the audience began to press him about his creative influences. Unwilling to answer the question, he invented a Japanese writer named Shiki Nagaoka, whose contribution to letters—largely unknown, he said, due to the vagaries of literary estates and a series of publishing mishaps—was overshadowed only by his extraordinary nose, which was so large he often needed assistance to eat.
Surprised that no one caught on to the ruse, Bellatin penned a biography of this seminal but underappreciated writer, basing his text on a Japanese tale from the thirteenth century called “The Nose.” According to his account, young Shiki exhibited great skill with monogatari, a traditional form of short story, but his physical deformity and the interpersonal complications that came with it led to his seclusion in a monastery and his isolation as an adult. Bellatin goes on to trace the writer’s growing fascination with photography, his encounters with and influence on the writer Tanizaki Junichiro and filmmaker Ozu Kenzo, and his eventual death at the hands of thieves. The text is followed by a bibliography of works by and about Shiki and an extensive dossier of photos labeled as the “Photographic Documentation of Shiki Nagaoka’s Life,” “recuperated” by artist and frequent Bellatin accomplice Ximena Berecochea. The works cited include apocryphal studies attributed to famed Japanese scholar Donald Keene and Mexican writer Pablo Soler Frost, the “Conclusions from the 1st Congress of Nagaokites,” and a biography of Shiki by his sister, Etsuko.
What makes this game satisfying is that it is played out in the open. The epigraphs to the work are culled from the story’s earliest incarnation and a later version by Akutagawa Rynosuke. There is no attempt to conceal their provenance. From there, the biography opens with the following gambit:
The strange physical appearance of Shiki Nagaoka, marked by the presence of an extraordinary nose, was such that he was considered by many to be a fictional character.
Hiding its conceit in plain sight, Shiki insists on its ties to fiction without renouncing its status as a biography. The fact that its subject’s nose makes him seem like an invention is reabsorbed by the text as an objective appraisal. Truth is stranger than fiction, is it not?
Another conspiratorial wink appears toward the end of the text, when Bellatin describes the source of the archival material upon which his (and, supposedly, all the other studies about Shiki) are based:
His sister lived until 2000, when she died of pulmonary disease, patiently collecting this special author’s work. Some appreciate her efforts, but others know that she only manipulated the manuscripts according to her aristocratic family’s orders. Nonetheless, the merit of her persistence cannot be denied, as she worked until the end to rescue her brother’s figure from fiction’s grip, where this character insistently seems to want to be framed.
In other words, what we have here is a biography based on a fiction and supported by documentary evidence known to have been falsified but which is, nonetheless, the central character’s last defense against being remembered as an invention. This elaborate play is all the more effective for its presentation in Bellatin’s understated prose. Shook does an excellent job of preserving his crisp, deadpan delivery while still allowing the reader to sense the occasional smile twitch at the corners of his mouth.
Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction is not only a well-constructed metafictional diversion, but also an important new perspective on one of the most creative and controversial writers working today. Though two volumes of his fiction were already available in English (Chinese Checkers, Ravenna 2008, and Beauty Salon, City Lights 2009—both highly recommended), this is the first to offer a real sense of the way Bellatin’s writing plays games that, as critic J. David Gonzalez puts it, “take a blowtorch to the strictures of narrative storytelling” and present the observable world as being just as tenuous and relative as the pages that describe it. - Heather Cleary

A few years ago the Mexican novelist Mario Bellatin attended one of those literary conferences here where writers are asked to talk about their own favorites. Unwilling to make a choice, he invented a Japanese author named Shiki Nagaoka and spoke with apparent conviction about how deeply Nagaoka had influenced him, fully expecting the prank to be unmasked during the question-and-answer period.
 Instead the audience peppered him for more information about Nagaoka, who was said to have a nose so immense that it impeded his ability to eat. So Mr. Bellatin (pronounced Bay-yah-TEEN) decided to extend the joke and promptly wrote a fake biography — complete with excerpts, photographs and bibliography — called “Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction.”
Across Latin America readers have come to expect such escapades from Mr. Bellatin, 49, who has emerged in recent years as one of the leading voices in experimental Spanish-language fiction. In a score of novellas written since 1985 he has not only toyed with the expectations of readers and critics but also bent language, plot and structure to suit his own mysterious purposes, in ways often as unsettling as they are baffling.
“With Bellatin you are never on solid ground” is the way the critic Diana Palaversich puts it, and Mr. Bellatin agrees. “To me literature is a game, a search for ways to break through borders,” he said in an interview at a park near his studio here, accompanied by two of the dogs that are his constant companions. “But in my work the rules of the game are always obvious, the guts are exposed, and you can see what is being cooked up.”
Though he was awarded a Guggenheim grant in 2002 and has participated in writers’ retreats and workshops in the United States, Mr. Bellatin is little known in the English-speaking world. The first of his works to be translated, a collection of three novellas called “Chinese Checkers,” appeared only within the last couple of years, and “Beauty Salon,” a novella from 1994, is to be published by City Lights Books this week.
Like much of Mr. Bellatin’s work, “Beauty Salon” is pithy, allegorical and profoundly disturbing, with a plot that evokes “The Plague” by Camus or “Blindness” by José Saramago. In an unnamed city that is suffering from an unnamed epidemic a transvestite hairdresser has turned his shop into a hospice for men dying of the disease, caring for them as indifferently as he tends to the fish he houses in aquariums that are his sole diversion.
Many of Mr. Bellatin’s novels, “Beauty Salon” and “Shiki Nagaoka” included, focus on characters whose bodies are deformed, disfigured or diseased or whose sexual identity is uncertain or fluid. That is one reason Ms. Palaversich, who wrote the introduction to a recent Spanish-language compendium of Mr. Bellatin’s work, compares him not to other Latin American writers but to filmmakers like David Cronenberg and David Lynch and painters like Frida Kahlo.
“Each short novel of his forms part of a greater literary universe which is quite hermetic, coherent and plausible, and in which anomalous bodies are the norm,” she said in a telephone interview from Sydney, Australia, where she teaches Latin American literature at the University of New South Wales. “He strips his fictional space of any concrete, recognizable geographical or cultural references, and what you are left with is a fragmentation both of bodies and text, an enigma you want to decipher.”
Mr. Bellatin himself is missing much of his right arm, the result of a birth defect that he says he “plays with, takes advantage of and acknowledges” in his work by “writing with my whole body.” He jokes about “my left hand knoweth not what my right hand doeth,” and depending on his mood, he sometimes appears in public wearing a prosthesis with an attachment, chosen from his collection of more than a dozen, that gives him the appearance of Captain Hook.
“People often say, with a lot of truth to it, that all good fiction writing comes from some wound, out of some distance that needs to be breached between a writer and normalcy,” said the novelist and critic Francisco Goldman, a friend of Mr. Bellatin. “In Mario’s sense, the wound is literal and comes with all kinds of psychological nuance and pain, and seems related to sexuality and desire, the desire for a whole body. One of my favorite aspects of him is this sense that he is writing for all the freaks — either literally freaks or privately and metaphorically, that he really touches us.”
Though Mr. Bellatin was born in Mexico, his father was an immigrant from Peru of Italian descent. The author spent part of his youth in Peru, including two years studying philosophy in a seminary before winning a scholarship to study cinema in Cuba, where he spent almost three years. His first works appeared in Peru, including a debut novel, “Women of Salt,” that he published himself, selling subscription coupons on the street to gather enough money to support himself and print the book. After returning to Mexico, he converted to the Sufi branch of Islam, and has also written under the name Abdul Salaam.
In Mr. Bellatin’s most recent novellas he has sought to strip down and flatten his prose while retaining his fondness for the bizarre. “Jacob the Mutant,” for example, purports to be the reconstruction of a lost text by the real-life Austrian novelist Joseph Roth in which an Eastern European rabbi who flees a pogrom turns into a woman after he arrives in the United States. A forthcoming “Illustrated Biography of Mishima,” about the Japanese author who committed a ritualized suicide in 1970, will tell the story of “what happened to the writer after his head was cut off,” he said.
“An arduous and impoverishing delirium, that of composing immense books,” Jorge Luis Borges remarked in the prologue to “Ficciones,” his own best-known anthology of short stories; a “better procedure is to simulate that those books already exist and offer a commentary.” Though that is a strategy Mr. Bellatin also has employed at times, he and his admirers shy away from such comparisons.
“I am enamored of and very much struck by his way of managing to condense narrative down to a very minimal form of expression, so that at his best, every word is sealed with more weight, suggestiveness, meaning and poetry,” Mr. Goldman said. “Everyone talks about inventing your own language, but he really does it. Every Mario Bellatin book is like a toy, dark, radiant and bristling, like a Marcel Duchamp construction in words.”
Some older critics in Mexico have little use for Mr. Bellatin’s transgressive style and seem flummoxed by his blurring of fiction and reality. “I try not to be involved in any literary group,” Mr. Bellatin said, noting that “my books are most warmly received not here in Mexico but abroad, in Argentina and France.”
In one index of his growing international reputation, Mr. Bellatin recently signed a multibook deal with Gallimard, the prestigious French publisher, that calls for his next several works to be issued in France before they appear in Spanish in Latin America. As usual he has seized on that opportunity to make mischief: rather than publish his original manuscript here, he intends to have someone else render the French translation back into Spanish.
“The writer is always the last one to arrive at the party, the last to have any fun with the act of writing, which can be a Via Crucis as boring as it is pleasurable,” he complained. “I want to read my own production and astonish myself, to be able to read myself as if I too were a reader coming to my own text for the first time.” - LARRY ROHTER  www.nytimes.com/2009/08/10/books/10bellatin.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0




Mario Bellatin, Flowers & Mishima's Illustrated Biography. Trans. by Kolin Jordan. 7Vientos Press, 2014.

This book by Bellatin, one of the greatest contemporary writers, contains two novellas to be published in a flip edition with the text in the original Spanish, and with its translation to English by Kolin Jordan. To complement the unorthodox literary style of Flowers & Mishima’s illustrated Biography, 7V worked with Harmonipan Studio to create a cover which is truly a work of art. The cover’s design is a collage of illustrations originally published in 1771 by Japanese artist Aoki Shukuya. 

Using technology that doesn't exist, a professor gives a lecture about a man living his life without a head. A writer who is missing a leg battles isolation and looks for validation among those who would be the subjects of his research. For the first time, Mario Bellatin's novellas Flowers & Mishima's Illustrated Biography are published in one beautiful hardcover "flip" volume in both the original Spanish and English translation. Bellatin's writing is beautiful, odd, dislocating, and darkly funny. In Flowers, he shapes the story as a "construction of complicated narrative structures based upon the sum of certain objects that together form a whole." Each chapter adds to the narrative but is independent of the last. In Mishima's Illustrated Biography, the story is told from the point of view of students listening to a lecture and punctuated with images from an impossible didactic machine. Half of Mishima's story is told in text, the other half in photographs. Bellatin's language is simple, but each phrase is dense and intentionally vague. The journey through this book may be deceptively easy. Upon your return you'll find that your luggage takes a very long time to unpack. 

ACCORDING TO MOST reliable sources, from Mainichi Shimbun and The New York Times to eyewitnesses in the room where it happened, the famous Japanese author Yukio Mishima committed seppuku and subsequently died.
The Mexican author Mario Bellatin disagrees. In Mishima’s Illustrated Biography — recently translated from Spanish by Kolin Jordan along with his earlier novella Flowers — Bellatin describes the famous author as having survived the ritual suicide. That act becomes a strange footnote in this fictional Mishima’s history; aside from his lack of a head, he is virtually unchanged. He goes on publishing books, giving lectures, traveling around the globe to receive awards and honors.This version of Mishima seems to be compos mentis, even if not entirely compos corporis. It is nigh impossible to wrap our heads around this man who is simply missing a head. Even Kolin Jordan himself, the faultless translator of the text, confessed as much. He translated a section where Mishima, having been given a guest room in which to sleep during a trip, wakes up to screams because the room’s owner has returned early and found a headless man sleeping in her bed. Typing the English translation, Jordan found himself “laughing out loud, having forgotten that our hero was headless!”
This strange case of a beheaded writer is hardly the oddest part of Mario Bellatin’s work. Just trying to characterize Bellatin proves a challenge. He is a Latin American hybrid: born in Mexico in 1960, he spent some of his youth in his parents’ homeland of Peru and studied film in Cuba. He founded the Mexican Dynamic Writers’ School, which espouses such strategies as not writing for weeks on end, and converted to Sufism. A description of his body, in fact, gives a better idea of the mind behind nearly 20 novellas: a finely tanned man with a carefully shaven head and a soft-spoken voice that belies his formidable presence. He is often photographed wearing loose button-down shirts or black tunics, with one sleeve pulled over his left arm. In those photographs, the other sleeve hangs from the part of his right arm that isn’t there.
In Flowers, Bellatin tells the story of the experimental drug Thalidomide, which was prescribed in the 1960s and 1970s to pregnant women to alleviate depression and nausea. Over the coming years, it quickly became evident that the drug caused birth defects, specifically deformed or missing limbs — a story the real-life Mario Bellatin shares. Today, he augments the stump on his right side with numerous prostheses, ranging from the mundane (such as pincers) to the bizarre (a large implement that recalls both a bottle-cap opener and a French curve) and the risqué (a silver dildo, notoriously worn during a literary conference).
This missing part of his body finds its analogue in nearly all of his published work, from the writer in Flowers, who is missing his right leg, and the mysterious protagonist of Hero Dogs, who has no arms or legs, to the unexpected appearance of Bellatin’s identically-named and featured alter ego in Black Ball — and, of course, the headless hero of Mishima’s Illustrated Biography. Even an abnormally large nose suffices for bodily deformity and writing material. The New York Times reported that while at a literary conference, Bellatin and other authors were asked to discuss their favorite writers. “Unwilling to make a choice, he invented a Japanese author named Shiki Nagaoka and spoke with apparent conviction about […] Nagaoka, who was said to have a nose so immense that it impeded his ability to eat.” Somehow, the audience bought it and begged Bellatin for more details — enough that Bellatin spun this odd moment out into a novella (titled, unsurprisingly, Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction). The caption is a reference to Shiki Nagaoka’s nose, damaged intentionally “for the purpose of avoiding that the author be considered a fictional character.”  Because the nose itself has been scrubbed out, there is all the more reason to doubt that this Japanese writer ever could have existed — that this eponymous nose was not simply concocted for fiction. That nose, as much a physical oddity as any of the other characters’ missing appendages, seems too perfectly a transmutation of Bellatin’s identity into his work.
Any attempt to link Bellatin’s books to his identity includes the question of sexuality. When a reader asked him in 2012 about having declared himself gay and also having had a girlfriend who happened to be a Catalan novelist, Bellatin responded: “I think we are past the point of making such distinctions or declarations […] each of us is God knows what.” It comes as little surprise, then, that many of his characters exhibit atypical sexual preferences and orientations; one of his characters in Flowers is nicknamed the Autumnal Lover because of his love for the elderly, while Beauty Salon, his most famous book, is narrated by a gay salon owner who has two male transvestite coworkers. As a mysterious epidemic ravages his city’s population, he turns the salon into “the Terminal”: a hospice or nursing home for victims of this unnamed plague who know they cannot be saved. Upon Beauty Salon’s publication, in Spanish and in English, many critics read into both the narrator’s and the author’s backgrounds and interpreted the spare story as an allegory for the AIDS crisis.
Beauty Salon, although unusual within Bellatin’s oeuvre, is the best place to start reading Bellatin’s work. It is about the same length as all his other books so far translated into English —63 small pages — and equally as elliptical and reticent in parceling out information to its readers. But it is a wholly self-contained story, with a clear beginning and end; the world it describes is understandable in its forces and its trajectory. I read it in a single sitting, and momentarily mistook the bare walls of the room where I sat for those of the Terminal where sufferers rotted and breathed. I thought for a moment, before coming back to reality, that if I looked outside I would see the pond behind the Terminal, where the narrator throws out many things he no longer needs, and the shack where his former coworkers died.
As Adam Morris explains in his essay on Bellatin, "Micrometanarratives and the Politics of the Possible," Beauty Salon is, in a sense, a “first-order” book that presumes no antecedents. Only a couple of Mario Bellatin’s other books translated into English so far — including Hero Dogs, found within the collection Chinese Checkers, and Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction — offer their readers the same luxury. All of Bellatin’s books are all strangely interconnected, both to each other and the rest of the world. His universe is a rhizomatic and nonlinear one, defined by the strange and unexpected interconnections between his own life and his various stories, and even those of other writers.
Flowers, for example, is the other of Bellatin’s most famous titles in the hispanophone world. The winner of Mexico’s Xavier Villaurrutia Award, it announces its ambitions and its intertextuality in its preface:
There is an ancient Sumerian technique […] It allows for the construction of complicated narrative structures based upon the sum of certain objects that together form a whole. It’s in this way that I’ve tried to relate this tale; structured a bit like the epic poem of Gilgamesh. The idea is that every chapter can be read separately, as if it dealt with the contemplation of a flower.
What follows is a surprisingly fragmentary text that hops from moment to moment, and reaches out beyond the novella itself. There are several main threads to the narrative, and different sections center on different moments: a doctor and his assistant interviewing purported Thalidomide victims to determine whether they are eligible for compensation by the drug’s manufacturer; a writer with a stone-studded prosthetic seeking some sort of religious transcendence; his acquaintance the Autumnal Lover, who slowly grows close to the elderly people with whom he wishes to have sex; a husband and wife who divorce and watch their lives spiral out of control as the husband cannot afford child payments and the mother raises the child on her own; and three beauticians who come from out of town to spend an evening at a nightclub. It’s easy to wonder if those three women are supposed to echo the three male beauticians from Beauty Salon, although no concrete evidence is ever given. And, later, the text unexpectedly references “the story of the transparent bird’s gaze […] written by Mario Bellatin” — another novella that Bellatin indeed has already written.
All these references and vaguely connected narratives have the strange effect of making Flowers an even more dreamlike text. Its full interpretation remains agonizingly out of reach. The 35 sections, each prefaced with the name of a flower, sometimes refer to the flower in question, and sometimes not. The book as a whole explicitly contemplates many different themes — bodily deformations, atypical or failed families, varieties of love, theatrical spectacle, science as a religion failed by its practitioners — but only fleetingly mentions flowers throughout. It is as if Bellatin decided to write down his own contemplations and considerations, which we happen to have the luxury of reading if we so wish. But Bellatin’s writing is too striking and cohesive to reduce to mere musings. As more and more of his books have been translated, the strangeness and interconnectedness of his work has come to light.
Bellatin’s extraordinary use of intertextuality and metatextuality draws attention to itself; it is as if his stories were as incomplete as his own body, as his alter egos walking around in his fictional worlds. In Bellatin’s “first-order” narratives, the prostheses are somewhat literal. The protagonist of Hero Dogs missing all four limbs uses his dogs and  the people around him as his prostheses. In Beauty Salon, the narrator himself is a prosthesis to these victims incapacitated by plague; the story ends when he himself can no longer serve (or narrate) his purpose. In Flowers, many of the Thalidomide victims (and mutants hoping for equal restitution) use money or actual prostheses to complete themselves.
And in Mishima’s Illustrated Biography, something must serve as a prosthesis for Mishima’s missing head. He lives in the world of Flowers’s victims, but cannot follow the same path that those victims do; in fact, he claims that he lost his head because of Thalidomide exposure in utero and attempts to fly to Germany to receive compensation for it. He is rebuffed because anybody can see the exposed muscle and bone of his sliced-off neck, and ascertain that no drugs caused this loss. So if the drug company cannot redress his missing head, what can?
Mario Bellatin’s head, actually. If this sounds suspiciously like an assertion that Bellatin is replacing Mishima, it would not be entirely unfounded. This replacement or displacement is one of the most shocking elements of Mishima’s Illustrated Biography. Two extraordinary scenes of authorial displacement dominate the novella’s 56 pages: a lecture and a play.
During the lecture about Mishima that takes up the present moment of the novel’s arc (which is frequently obscured by Mishima’s own thoughts and memories), the narrator, a member of the lecture audience, is shown a projection from a “teaching machine” that includes several of Mishima’s books. But they are not cover images for The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea or The Sound of Waves. Instead, “we regarded the covers of Chinese Checkers, Beauty Salon, and Mrs. Murakami’s Garden.” The first time I read these words, I suspected it was simply a joke on Bellatin’s part — one step beyond the author-as-fictional-character tricks of Michel Houellebecq in The Map and the Territory or Michael Martone in Michael Martone by Michael Martone. So Bellatin decided to slip in his own books under Mishima’s own name — what of it?
But then came the other moment of shock: “[Mishima] remembered very clearly when they staged a play based on his book Beauty Salon […] What was happening onstage shone brighter than anything that happened in daily life.” The idea of bringing one of Bellatin’s own novels to life by using actors within another novel is a particularly inspired one, but as I read it I felt like a trapdoor was opening beneath me, and I was falling.
Did I fall? Or did my mind fall? One of those happened, and I hadn’t yet come to the most shocking part, the moment when I knew that the line dividing fiction from reality had been violently severed:When the play based on Beauty Salon was over, and perhaps keeping with the prophetic nature he was sure was contained within the text, he ran backstage and was overcome by the sight of his own character. He later took him home. A painful experience ensued, both for Mishima and the actor. The process that finally allowed the actor to strip himself of the character was a slow one. Mishima thought with horror on the whole situation. Before finishing, just when the actor was at the point of fleeing, the character injected the aches, the sickness into Mishima’s body, which, curiously, was the theme of the play that had just been performed. That was how Mishima came to be contaminated, by his own book, with an incurable malaise.
Immediately before this episode, Mishima wonders to himself about Beauty Salon, “What kind of fear is capable of generating writing like this?”
Fear — somehow that emotion had never occurred to me. What kind of fear was driving this strange sequence of books? The answer came as I asked Bellatin by email: “Do you think of yourself as one self, or as many selves?”
He answered my question with another question: “Is any of us just one self? Much of what I try to do in my writing is to eliminate time and space — what's left besides the self?” As those elements are stripped away from his diverse works, what slowly results is a single universe containing the worlds of all his inventions. It might simply be classified as Mario Bellatin’s universe — one that appears to be parallel to mainstream literature, or even, perhaps, a willful misreading of mainstream literature.In the final part of Mishima’s Illustrated Biography, Bellatin recalls Kafka through a character called the “man-poem.” This character, from a friend’s story, bears wounds on his back much like the ones inflicted by the machine from “In the Penal Colony”:
When he turned around, the man-poem’s back was gray and covered in symbols. They looked like small wounds caused by a needle. Mishima said [to his listeners that] he wasn’t able to decipher the meaning at that time. All he could do was fall to his knees and lick the droplets of blood falling from the newest symbols on his lower back. With his back still turned the man-poem said that, in a way, the symbols told Mishima’s story up to the time of his assisted suicide. Mishima told him he didn’t care to know, not now and not then, anything about what happened on that occasion, when his head was separated from his body with one swift slash.
In Kafka’s story, the notorious machine was designed to pierce an accused man’s back with thousands of needles to write in blood the law he had broken. But here Bellatin is destroying the rules of authorship, and using the not-so-raw materials of finished art to create new artworks of his own, drawing energy from his forebears like Mishima licking the man-poem’s blood.
As Mishima’s Illustrated Biography draws to its close, it takes an even more puzzling turn away from the typical conventions of narrative, towards wholesale disappearance. The man-poem is a transformed lumberjack’s son who turned gray and bloody at the moment he was supposed to say “amen” for his family’s supper. Through this transformation, the lumberjack’s son disappears from his own life while the man-poem enters it. Similarly, Mishima and the machine used for the lecture about him disappear a few pages later: “The impeccable Japanese professor ended his intervention that evening by affirming that Mishima never really existed. Neither did the teaching machine he had invented, by means of which we had been watching a kind of reflected reality.” If this is supposed to be a parallel transformation, what replaces the vanished Mishima? Is this a sly wink telling us that the headless Mishima in the audience is entirely Bellatin’s own invention? I could not decide on a satisfactory answer. And I was reminded of Bellatin’s answer to my question: “what's left besides the self? To tell the truth, I'd like to eliminate that as well — that's something I'm working on.”Erasures and displacements and replacements — these are the themes that ground Mario Bellatin’s recurrent focus on deformed bodies and intertextual machinations. If, as the professor asserts before leaving, “the figure of Mishima should remain always situated just beyond the reach of any gadget or apparatus,” then even the most finely calibrated intellect has to come face-to-face with the infinite, black abyss of Bellatin’s imagination. Aristotle’s unities of time and place have long since been destroyed; Bellatin’s brilliance, in his desire to eliminate himself, is to destroy the unity of the author. He has taken in the entire universe and used its materials as a prosthesis wherever he wishes to supplant his own work. The result, emblematized in Flowers and Mishima’s Illustrated Biography, is a deconstruction that removes himself from the center of his work. As the line between truth and fiction, life and art, grows increasingly blurred, it comes as no surprise to find Mario Bellatin standing at this divide, dancing in the gray zone. - Jeffrey Zuckerman
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Mario Bellatin, Beauty Salon. Trans. by Kurt Hollander. City Lights Publishers, 2009.

"Like much of Mr. Bellatin’s work, Beauty Salon is pithy, allegorical and profoundly disturbing, with a plot that evokes The Plague by Camus or Blindness by José Saramago."--New York Times"Including a few details that may linger uncomfortably with the reader for a long time, this is contemporary naturalism as disturbing as it gets."--BooklistA strange plague appears in a large city. Rejected by family and friends, some of the sick have nowhere to finish out their days until a hair stylist decides to offer refuge. He ends up converting his beauty shop, which he’s filled with tanks of exotic fish, into a sort of medieval hospice. As his “guests” continue to arrive and to die, his isolation becomes more and more complete in this dream-hazy parable by one of Mexico’s cutting-edge literary stars. 

An extremely slender, sad tale by Bellatín recounts a gay man's reflections on the waning days of sexual excess and the specter of death wrought by AIDS, though here AIDS is a mysterious, nameless plague. Formerly a stylist in a beauty salon in an unnamed city, the narrator, a transvestite, has now transformed the salon into the Terminal, where people who have nowhere to die end their days. The Terminal has become a kind of hospice for dying gay men, the hair dryers and armchairs sold to buy cots and a cooker, the mirrors removed to avoid multiplying the suffering. The manager keeps exotic fish in aquariums, which he keenly observes as an allegory of what's happening in the larger world: as symptoms of the sickness become apparent on his own body, he notices a fungus growing on the angelfish that fatally infects the others. The narrator's brutal reasoning renders Bellatín's tale an unflinching allegory on death. - Publishers Weekly 

"Beauty Salon, by Mexican novelist Mario Bellatín, originally published in Spanish in 1999 and now out from City Lights Books in a translation by Kurt Hollander, is short. A mere 63 pages, which is good, because its density requires multiple re-reads--and in that curious inversion of fiction, the less the author says, the more expansive the story's meaning becomes. . . His book itself is a place--contained and at times claustrophobic--like the beauty salon refuge, like the suffocating aquariums. And in it, despite its spare style, lives a dense story that leaves a reader unsettled, and unsettlingly intrigued." - Shawna Yang Ryan, The Rumpus --The Rumpus 

"In his first work translated into English, Mexican short-novelist Bellatin presents the testimony of a hairstylist who turns his successful big-city salon into a refuge for men dying of an incurable disease. . . . Including a few details that may linger uncomfortably with the reader for a long time, this is contemporary naturalism as disturbing as it gets." --Ray Olson, Booklist 

"Like much of Mr. Bellatin's work, "Beauty Salon" is pithy, allegorical and profoundly disturbing, with a plot that evokes "The Plague" by Camus or "Blindness" by José Saramago. In an unnamed city that is suffering from an unnamed epidemic a transvestite hairdresser has turned his shop into a hospice for men dying of the disease, caring for them as indifferently as he tends to the fish he houses in aquariums that are his sole diversion." --The New York Times 

"Beauty Salon succeeds in suggesting whole worlds just outside of its pages. The effect is distinctly cinematic: a montage of images which catch the reader's eye and expand the reality of this anonymous man, anonymous disease, and anonymous city far beyond the story itself." --Larissa Kyzer, Three Percent

"Some authors take time creating an overall feel for their book. But when you're writing a novella of well under 100 pages, you don't have much time to set the tone. Mexican novelist Mario Bellatin doesn't waste any establishing the tenor of Beauty Salon. He does it with the first two sentences: 'A few years ago my interest in aquariums led me to decorate by beauty salon with colored fish. Now that the salon has become the Terminal, where people who have nowhere to die end their days, it's been very hard on me to see the fish disappear.' . . . Bellatin's description of the world is blunt and brutal." --Tom Gebhart, Blogcritics

"Reading Beauty Salon one is very much in the presence of a man who knows what he believes and tries to consciously put that forth to the reader, and trying to work out just what this is--and why he believe this--constitutes the book's primary interest . . . Beauty Salon is, like the fish tanks described within, a small, closed environment, although the paths that can be taken through it are many." --Scott Esposito, Conversational Reading 

"The bleak, rapid-fire sentences of Mexican writer Mario Bellatín's Beauty Salon give the spare novella an airless hyper-immediacy--and a terrible, unstoppable momentum. . . Bellatín's tale exists outside an ethical conversation. Rather than pose moralistic questions, he sets about elegantly illuminating the book's epigraph, a quotation from the equally efficient Yasunari Kawabata: 'Anything inhumane becomes human over time.' In a few haunting pages, Bellatín makes this piercingly clear." --Megan Doll, Bookforum.com

"Mexican writer Mario Bellatin has created a rare literary feat: in just 63 pages he has produced a novella that sparkles with beauty and clarity as it delves into one of the most horrifying and shunned diseases of our times--AIDS. . . . Written in simple sentences that flow offortlessly without the interruptions of chapters, Beauty Salon is a lyrical piece about how a disease is turning its victims into pariahs, and as a result has made  our society less human. Mario Bellatin had the courage to write about this taboo in a country that is known for its homophobia, and in return he was rewarded with a little book of deep beauty." --David D. Medina, Literal. Latin American Voices

"Bellatin's fiction is very fresh and invigorating... 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. ... The effect of this is disconcerting and strangely moving..." --Eric Karl Anderson, Chroma 

"Imagine a salon that becomes 'the Terminal,' a surreal yet all too real refuge for strangers 'who have nowhere else to die.' I'm still haunted by the narrative voice and the aquariums. (You'll have to read it to find out about them.)" --Robert Gray, Shelf Awareness

"[This] strange and beautiful parable about human bodies living and dying on the fringes of society . . . prompts us to consider our collective attitudes toward, and treatment of, the human body -- in illness, in death, in poverty, and in opposition to dominant conceptions of sexual behavior. . . . [Bellatin provides] a model for dying, and for living; for treating the abject body with honesty and respect, despite its difference and decay -- perhaps because of it." --Maggie Riggs, Words Without Borders 

"In a sparse style, the short novel Beauty Salon . . . relates the story of a mysterious illness that plagues an unidentified city. . . . The seemingly simple tale offers a complex network of motifs, symbols and paradoxes. The aquariums that adorn the beauty salon, for instance, become the barometer of the advancing plague: like the `strong young men who had once been beauty queens and then disappear with their bodies destroyed,' the beautiful fish die in the aquariums and are flushed down the toilet. Similarly, once he contracts the plague, the narrator asserts: 'I feel like a fish covered in fungus from whom even its natural predators will flee.' . . . Despite its brevity, Beauty Salon stands to linger in the aquariums of our memories, at times, like the monstrous axolotls, revealing the ugliness of the world, at others, like the mystic golden carp, providing hope for a better tomorrow." --Eduardo Febles, The Gay and Lesbian Review

"In the Terminal, like the flashy fish that inhabit the aquariums, and the terminally ill that die around them, everything floats. There are no turns of the heart, or sudden twists. We drift through the inevitable. If poetry is making nothing happen, as Auden once said, than this novel shows that prose can as well." --Jesse Tangen-Mills, Bookslut 

With last week’s post about Bellatín’s prostheses, I was finally piqued enough to put down the other books I’m engaged with and read through Beauty Salon’s 63 pages.
The most striking thing to me about this book is the voice, which is completely detached from any external reality. This is of course notable, since the book is narrated by a person who presides over terminally ill people in their final days on Earth.
Reading Beauty Salon, it takes a little while to get over the implicit assumption that the Terminal (as the Beauty Salon is now called) is some kind of a medical care facility or even a hospice. It’s really neither, as the narrator doesn’t see his role as extending even so far as giving comfort to the dying. It’s just a place to die, a way for people to forgo the indignity of dying on the street like animals.This is where the detached tone becomes interesting. Because the narrator is surrounded by the dying all day, and because he is linked to them by homosexuality (and later by being afflicted with the disease itself), one would assume that he would naturally want to empathize with them, or at least he would be drawn in by empathy. But no. In fact it is the opposite: it becomes evident that the narrator’s philosophy toward death prevents him from any sort of attachment with the dying: One I take them [the sick] in I make sure to bring them all to the same point in terms of their state of mind. After a few days of living together I manage to impose the appropriate atmosphere. I don’t really know how to describe this state, although it’s something like a total lethargy in which even the possibility of them inquiring about their own health no longer exists. This is the ideal state in which to work. In this way it’s possible to avoid becoming involved with any particular individual. It’s easier to handle the workload and the chores get done without interference.
I find that “total lethargy” downright frightening, even for a terminally ill person, although Bellatín’s prose is such that these sorts of statements come off as very downplayed. Seeing how Bellatín develops his narrator’s sensibility toward death through the feel of the prose and the narrator’s approach to the Terminal is, I would argue, the primary interest in this book. The voice is very particular, very developed. It is an utterly detached voice, and the narrator’s resolute detachment—belied at times by a certain creeping fascination with death itself—is extremely well-honed; there were only a few points in this translation that struck me as off-key. Reading Beauty Salon one is very much in the presence of a man who knows what he believes and tries to consciously put that forth to the reader, and trying to work out just what this is—and why he believe this—constitutes the book’s primary interest. (That is all to say, this is a book that does not have much of a plot—a book that does not need much of a plot—and those for whom plot is the sine qua non should look elsewhere.)
And then there are the fish! I would guess that at least half of Beauty Salon is given over to the narrator’s thoughts on the fish he keeps, or has kept, in various aquariums in the Terminal. Obviously there are some very superficial comparisons to be made here—some of the fish get sick and die, the aquarium is a closed, befogged environment, etc—although Bellatín is clearly not putting these forth as the most profound associations we should be drawing here. These links can be made as a sort of introductory approach to the relationship between the Terminal and the aquariums, but the full nature of this relationship between the two is very much more complex.
On one level it’s simply intriguing that the narrator is so piqued by these fish. He keeps going on about them, yet he remains so detached from the human beings dying all around him. One begins to think that the latter is a self-defense mechanism, since the narrator associates with these people but also makes it clear that he gave up their lifestyle because it was leading him to ruin. (Also, notably, at one point the narrator references hours and hours “in hospital waiting rooms” while his deceased mother underwent “innumerable tests.” It seems the topic of the terminally ill and their care is something with deep roots for him.)
On another level, it’s notable that the fish are distinguished by their characteristics (some are cheap and durable, others are pretty but fragile, some are murderous and exotic, others eat waste), whereas the humans are barely differentiated. In illness they have become the same, that is the narrator’s stated goal. The sick and dying are merely escorted to the grave, while the fish are cared for in ways particular to their special needs. The narrator needs them for some reason, although this reason—clearly related to the ideal of beauty as the narrator sees it—is hard to define. Again one is intrigued by the narrator, who can clearly be so methodical and full of care when he wants, but chooses not to exercise this care for his fellow humans.
The deep-lying strand that unites the two is the narrator’s highly developed and somewhat vague concept of beauty. Throughout Beauty Salon wafts the story of a young man who dies in the narrator’s care. He is notable as the only guest the narrator becomes emotionally invested in, the only one who is given an actual grave after dying (the rest of the guests are placed into a mass grave), and the only one with whom the narrator has carnal relations (which, seemingly, infect the narrator). At one point the narrator puts an aquarium with black tetras near his bed to cheer him up but then quickly recants:
From one minute to the next I completely lost interest in him. That’s why, at a certain moment, I took the aquarium away from the side of his bed and treated him as distantly as I do all the guests. Almost immediately afterward the disease flared up violently. he died soon after. . . .
Strangely enough three fish died at the same time as the boy. While it is true that by that time the fist had lost some of their former splendor, there were still a good number of them left. . . . Right after he died, I found three black tetras lying stiff on the bottom of the fish tank. I tried not to think about anything while I fished them out. Black tetras need a water heater, and I had one plugged in all the time. At that time I still followed the steps necessary to maintain an aquarium. Which is why I consider it more than just a coincidence that the three fish perished on the very night the boy died. The next day I unplugged the water heater. Two days later I checked to make sure that none of the black tetras had survived in the cold water.
The exactly relationship between the salon the the fish tanks remains open, as does the relationship between the salon, the tanks, beauty, and death; what is clear is that both the salon and the tanks at times stand in for places of rejuvenation, and as places of inescapable death, (of a “curse”). Through both flows the mix of beauty, death, and eroticism that is at the heart of this slim work.The book ends with the narrator plotting the final steps he will take before he succumbs to the disease. He will push all the death out of his salon, fill it again with the instruments of beauty, fill the aquariums with beautiful fish. And then, he reasons, once he dies, a sort of rival terminal care group will take over and do what they consider the work of mercy and what he considers an abhorrent perversion: they will care for the dying. In the narrator’s view they will war against nature and stretch out the patients’ deaths as long as possible. Whereas the narrator sought to make his salon neutral ground, a place where death simply worked its will on humanity, the beauty salon will become a place “dedicated to dying.” And then the narrator’s words are finally revealed as the thoughts of a dying man, and thus perhaps the narrator’s ethic of illness as simple deterioration is disproven: he has, after all, done the most thorough thinking of his life while in the grips of death.
Beauty Salon is a carefully crafted work that clearly embodies a potent mix of ideas, although shrinks from pinning them down. Although one might consider the illness a metaphor for AIDS—and thus somewhat dated—it is really much better seen a metaphor for sickness in its many senses, and for what sickness does to humanity. Regardless, the book’s rather stringent call to simply let the dying die, and its conception of what care for the terminally ill does to humanity, certainly remains controversial and fresh. Moreover, the relationships worked out here and the narrator’s voice transcend any particular place and time. It is a slight work, one that would perhaps have been better packaged with another work of Bellatín’s (especially since readers of this work will surely want to sample some of Bellatín’s 20-some other works), although in this case slight cannot mean, like the short stories of Kafka, simplistic or unworthy. Beauty Salon is, like the fish tanks described within, a small, closed environment, although the paths that can be taken through it are many. - Scott Esposito



Mario Bellatin, Chinese Checkers. Trans. by Cooper Renner. Ravenna Press, 2007. 

A fascinating collection of three strange and thought-provoking short stories by acclaimed and prize-winning Spanish-language Mexican writer, Mario Bellatin: Chinese Checkers;Hero Dogs; and My Skin Luminous, stories describing clearly and rationally a life that is not rational, clean, precise or progressive. Passionately translated by Cooper Renner, editor of elimae magazine, this book is illustrated by Bellatin's casual and realistic photos and bears a thoughtful Foreword by Ken Sparling who discusses the nature of translation itself. This is Bellatin's first book to appear in an English edition. 

When I first began reading Roberto Bolaño before he had been translated into English, I felt uncomfortably zealous: on one hand I wanted to keep him secret and on the other I couldn’t help but tell my friends. I have the same feeling about Mexican author Mario Bellatin; however, unlike Bolaño, we won’t have to wait for his death to read him in English, as Cooper Renner has already translated three of his novellas in one volume, Chinese Checkers: Three Fictions.Ten years ago Bellatin attracted critical attention in Latin America with the publication of Flores, a novel told in 35 chapter-fragments that describe genetic experiments told from a disturbingly scientific distance (in one extreme case a nurse inoculates his own son with AIDS). The book received the acclaimed Xavier Villaurrutia prize in Mexico (previous winners include Juan Rulfo and Octavio Paz), and soon after he was awarded a Guggenheim grant. Since then Bellatin has written over a dozen strange books, from autobiography of a Japanese Hamlet to journalistic accounts of an annual party in Mexico City that takes place in decrepit buildings. He also opened his own school of writing (the Dynamic Writers School) that paradoxically proclaims that writing cannot be taught and goes as far as to prohibit students from writing. Chinese Checkers mirrors Bellatin’s intriguing and incongruent oeuvre: the novellas are neither his greatest hits, nor thematically linked. Their only shared attribute is brevity, a Bellatin trademark (the majority of his books falling under the two hundred page mark) along with a grotesque emphasis on the human body (Bellatin uses a prosthetic limb).
Chinese Checkers, the first of three novellas, is divided into two stories: that of a gynecologist’s murder of his own son, and a patient’s son’s childhood adventure. We begin with the gynecologist narrating his gradual disengagement with his wife, later his loss of interest in his profession and finally his son's death. While frequenting brothels that he sterilely describes as "discreet place, clean, with a young and friendly personnel," the gynecologist feels cured of his pains by probing the very thing he treats. As the narrative progresses, although not entirely linear, his son begins to act out, stealing money from his family, until finally he cracks and   must be institutionalized. His father gives him an injection to calm him down and kills him, “To my surprise, my son began to respond in a way opposite to what I expected. He started to show signs of distress.”
The second story focuses on a boy’s search for a reimbursement by an unnamed company. The gynaecologist explains that the boy had told him about a trip to his uncle’s house where he is sent to collect money “for finding a fly in a soft drink bottle he had not yet opened.” For a day the boy wanders, and meets an old women with a crown, who complains that she has no one to with whom to play chinese checkers. After spending a day in what could either be an asylum, a nursing home, or a company, the boy finally receives the compensation money, and escapes to make it back to his uncle’s house before dawn.
The connection between the two stories is not clear, except perhaps for the title, here translated as Chinese Checkers, that in Spanish (damas chinas) implies a game of domination, in diagonal lines (his patient’s son), and vaguely, prostitutes.
Hero Dogs, published as a novella in Spanish, unravels in a Beckettian void, describing and re-describing the most mundane domestic events of an invalid, occasionally flirting with allegory (the story’s subtitle already indicates that his life reveals the future of Latin America) that leave the reader asking whether the cold anecdotes of the immobile man should be understood as dismal lyricism or pathetic comedy. The immobile man, once a patient in an insane asylum, spends his life training Belgian Malinois depending mostly on his trainer-nurse to discipline them, while his mother and sister on a different floor gather plastic bags that they spend days sorting. Like in Baudelaire’s prose poems, here mundane domestic items take on great importance. A map of the world marked with the cities where Belgian Malinois could be a satirical portrait of progress, or a simply another layer of absurdity.
I only question Ravenna Press’s decision to put pictures of a young handicapped man and dogs that don’t appear in the Spanish version, despite being provided by Bellatin himself, and thereby ground the abstract haunted immobile man of Hero Dogs in a specific time and place (Mexico sometime in the '80s, most likely).
The last piece My Skin, Luminous is the shortest and weakest work in the anthology. As part of an ancient tradition in India, a mother exposes her son’s genitals at the entrance of hot springs. Her father a Mussolini supporter, and a pig roaster, now in a wheel chair, manipulates the boy and his body, perhaps as payback for his father's absconding or to make him pay his debts incurred from his special schooling. The boy, who narrates the story, fears that his mother will one day cut him, then cover him with something that will cause infection, and let him die, as is the tradition. Questions such as why are we here and where are we, come to mind, along with, could it get any more bizarre? Like a bad contemporary art exposition, I found myself wondering whether I was supposed to be laughing at the daftness of the work, or recognizing the artist’s cojones in the plunge into unchartered territory. The juxtaposition of images, the glistening scrotum, roasted pig, along with the lamps covered in soap are beautifully bothersome; however, one does question whether or not this piece should have been published as novella in the first place, as the others. The fast-paced narrative of My Skin, Luminous reads like a short story.
Like Bolaño, Bellatin seems to take his cues from the Spanish-speaking literary world. If the Boom generation was inspired by Faulkner, the post-post-Boom writers are inspired somewhat by Becket, Pessoa, although for the most part Latin American writers like Jodorowsky, Pizarnik, Eilson, Piñera, Ribeyro, as well as some of the less accessible Boom writers like Jose Donoso. And yet this is part of Bellatin’s disappearing act; he’s not quite that either. Some of his works are clearly inspired by Tanizaki and Mishima, going as far as to even use Japanese names (El jardín de la señora Murakami, Shiki Nagaoka: Una nariz de ficción). Often, Bellatin’s work is exactly what you don’t expect it to be, just like the author, who at once on every page is visible, and yet with each line more obscure.Then, there’s the translation to contend with. You could divide translation into two extremely opposite tradition: English and German. In the English tradition a good translation is smooth, as though it were originally written in English, assuming that ideas are universal. In the German tradition, in part inspired by Herder’s essentialist theories, a good translation preserves the flavor of the original, even at the cost of clarity. Cooper Renner, editor of the long running online journal elimae and poet, leans on the German tradition, but despite his “search for the truth” as explained in the forward, the translation often errs. Bellatin’s prose is plain, almost bereft of style (although that in and of it itself is a style), choosing false cognates and copying syntax render his prose inaccessibly awkward. Lines like, “Despite the sordidness of the incident, it occurred to me that there had been something luminous in the woman’s attempt to disguise the situation” or “I resolved that farther along, when the situation was truly insupportable, I would take action” aren’t merely inaccurate, they’re distractingly discombobulated.
And due to Bellatin’s sparse prose, translating him is more similar to translating poetry. Requiring le mot juste, rather than a word that sounds something like the original (in the line above Cooper translates insoportable as insupportable, a word that in English I don’t think I’ve ever heard outside of computer speak).
With the upcoming translation of Bellatin’s more internationally known Beauty Salon (it was a finalist for the Médicis Prize in France) from City Lights Books, this author will hopefully soon be receiving more of the attention he deserves. In literature unlike plastic arts there is no reward for spotting new talent, except perhaps a good translation; unfortunately, sometimes not even new talent is afforded that. - Jesse Tangen-Mills 

Chinese Checkers, the first novella in Mario Bellatin’s Chinese Checkers: Three Fictions, introduces us to a gynecologist who tells us within the first few sentences that, “the constant dealing with women seems to have altered my character. I feel that touching their bodies only for medical reasons deforms, in some way, my desires.” Throughout the text, though, it becomes apparent – this narrator has not only an altered perception of the women he encounters, but seemingly everyone in his life, down to his family. The only person we see have a real impression on the narrator (who never names himself – notably, none of the characters within the text are graced with names) is the boy of a patient with a story of his own outlined in the second half of the text.
The narrator’s altered desire materializes in the form of the massage parlors and brothels he frequents, admitting to us that, “it has been a long time since I stopped asking myself how I really feel about my wife.” The narrator’s wife serves as a device to show us how the narrator feels – the first-person language is uncomfortably sparse and sterile, the narrator often telling us that his wife knows what annoys him, knows how to interpret him, inviting us, too, to take on that role.And throughout each “adventure,” as the narrator calls his encounters with the various prostitutes he frequents, he is constantly reminded of the boy of his patient and a particularly long story the boy has told him. We don’t know the story of the boy until later, but we know the story follows the narrator through each encounter. We’re left to wonder if the boy reminds the narrator of his own son, a boy who proved to be “a challenge” that the narrator had to “deal” with. The narrator’s son acts out as he grows older, is perhaps addicted to drugs – the text isn’t entirely clear here – but we know that this is a narrator obsessed with control, controlling his life, the direction of his life, and a misbehaving son has no place there. So the narrator “deals” with it, “takes action.”
And he is surprised when his daughter is so upset with the death of her brother.
Afterward, his wife is upset, too, claiming the narrator, “had always acted as if [he] were a god.” He claims to not know what she means, but we know – he’s shown us the lengths to which he will go to control his own quality of life, the actions he takes without regard to the people around him.As the narrator retells the boy’s story in the second half of the text (we’re reminded often that the narrator is retelling the story with quick drips of, “the boy told me,” over and over), we see the boy ask a Virgin Mary statue for guidance and later compare the old woman he encounters to the Virgin, too. When the boy admits the comparison to the old woman, she is offended, adding that she, “despised a religion in which the central idea concerned a father who condemned his son to be murdered.” Immediately, we are reminded of the narrator, his actions regarding his own son, and his wife’s accusations of his god-like sentiment.
Later, the old woman tells her own story of a mother whose daughter drowns on the beach, the mother later led to a mental break as a result, and we’re to gather later that the story is actually the old woman’s own story, that her own carelessness leads to the death of her young daughter, a moment that has affected her for the rest of her life. Perhaps this is the portion of the story haunting the narrator – the death of his son will never affect him in this way and he seems confused by the mourning of other people.
There’s more within the sparsely written Chinese Checkers, a compliment to Bellatin in that so much can be said with such empty text. In some ways, the story is reminiscent of a Raymond Carver story, especially in stand-out images, like the crown the old woman wears, the light blue shoes of the young boy. It’s a work requiring our immediate attention as we read it, leaving us uncomfortable in our skin, hoping the people in our lives give us more regard than Chinese Checkers’s narrator. - Lisa Battison

 “No symbols where none intended,” Beckett admonishes all who would hope to wrest from a fictional text a meaning laid down, deliberately or not, in its images. Written by Mexican author Mario Bellatin and transparently rendered into English by Cooper Renner, “Chinese Checkers” seems to be a story whose mysterious unfolding might be illuminated by a study of its symbols. There appear to be several of significance in this, the eponymous fiction of a collection appearing for the first time in English, from Ravenna Press. My use of the conditional accords well with Beckett’s injunction, which allows symbols but does not insist on them, and the story’s narrator, whose strategy is one of disengagement. Before considering the narrator, let us regard the title Bellatin chose to give his story in the light of a possible meaning for his text, never forgetting Beckett’s caution.
More than checkers, chess, or other games played on a board with movable pieces – Chinese checkers is the solitary pursuit of an end, which is to advance one’s own pieces across a field mined with the enemy’s – or enemies’, for Chinese checkers can be played by six. Unlike similarly constituted games, winning is not achieved by the elimination of an opponent’s pieces but by shepherding all one’s own safely across the field. The haven to which one strives to bring his pieces home is a mirror image of his starting point. Hunting down one’s opponent, as well as strategy, is not at issue where chance and self-consciousness are the determinants of success. As a metaphor for a fiction, Chinese checkers suggests a viewpoint notable for an almost solipsistic regard of one’s self, which registers alien movements within the field of vision with dispassion. The player is self-absorbed and intent on self-aggrandizement (accumulating pieces in the zone opposite), and – in his unwavering gaze into the “mirror” across the field – narcissistic. While this interpretation may be mine alone, it fits the case of Bellatin’s two-part story. Chinese checkers is mentioned in the text only once: a mother whose negligence results in the drowning of her two-year-old daughter plays it obsessively; it is, therefore, connected textually to the insanity resulting from her guilt. Told by an old woman to a boy, the incident is later related by him to the narrator, who – in the story’s second part – relates it to us, or to an unidentified listener. Bellatin’s device throughout “Chinese Checkers” is to make the man’s narration seem a confession. (The man speaks of his narration as a “testimony [13].”) To this end, the man employs the terms “I remember,” “I think,” and “I believe” as prefix to the sentence’s substantive content. This strategy has the effect of implying an immediate auditor and of weakening the sentence syntactically – reinforcing our opinion of the man as remote and evasive. 
On reflection, one is tempted to propose the game of Chinese checkers as a symbol for madness. With the exception of the boy, all the story’s characters are askew, to borrow Ken Sparling’s terminology from his foreword to the volume. The game, then, can be considered a symbol rich in overtones of derangement resulting from neglect by others, a nearly aseptic disengagement from others, a disturbing emotional neutrality, or illness. Impassivity is overwhelmingly evident in the man and to a lesser extent in other characters (again, with the exception of the boy, who is their foil).  Chinese checkers fits the Postmodern notion of writing as game and apocrypha. (By the latter, I mean its “falseness” as a legend to a map of a real world.) The game is neither Chinese nor checkers. According to Renner, Bellatin has said: “Odio narrar.” (“I hate to narrate, or to tell stories.”) This admission from the artist underscores the sense of his fiction’s artificiality – its existence as invention; literature is a game and, like all games, duplicates, to the degree that its author wishes, conditions of reality without aspiring to it. Like the game, it may also be pointless. One may write stories in the same way one plays Chinese checkers: to pass the time or, helplessly, because one must. A final observation concerning the game is pertinent: Chinese checkers allows for multiple players (and viewpoints), as I already have noted. Although solitary, each player moves according the dictates of desire and with minimal engagement. (Players do not take or capture their opponents, but jump over them.) The game’s procedure is, in musical or narrative terms, polyphonic. Just so is Bellatin’s story, with its portmanteau of narratives and a central consciousness that describes its own actions without judgment or comment – a character that moves by indirection, with no other reason to move than to go forward and remain free of emotional attachments.
I was injecting the drug into him. I had to hold it forcefully. Shortly thereafter he went into convulsions. I moved back a short distance and watched how my son’s body was shaking in a rhythmic way. My first reaction was to wrap the syringe and the empty vials in paper. Then I put them away in my bag (31).
Coming late in part 1 during the man’s narration of his own story (as opposed to the boy’s he will relate in part 2), his response to his son’s death – by a drug he himself administered – is characteristic. He withdraws and witnesses, occupying himself with professional concerns. (His interest in medicine is perfunctory. “I noticed, with a sort of panic, that I had begun to practice medicine in an almost mechanical manner [7].”) His disinterested, acutely self-conscious state is conveyed by Bellatin, and Renner, in a cool and analytic succession of sentences. The circumstances of the delinquent young man’s death are left equivocal. We cannot know whether or not the father (narrator) meant to administer a lethal dosage. Following immediately the son’s destruction of valuable decorations (a fact the man chooses to observe without comment or emotional reaction) and his injection of “a larger dose than usual” – we can suspect the man of having murdered his son for expediency. Our suspicion is likely to be confirmed by his having remarked on the previous page:
Officially, my son’s demise was considered the result of an inability to tolerate the substance which he had administered to himself. In other words, it was labeled as an overdose (30).
If we assess this problematic action using the Chinese checkers metaphor, however, I am inclined to the opinion that he allowed his son to die rather than murdered him: like the game’s player, the man will “jump” a person standing in the way rather than “take” him. To have arrived at this conclusion is to demonstrate the value of a controlling symbol to suggest meaning – and the danger, should the critic prove overly ingenious.
What is interesting from the viewpoint of narrative strategy is where Bellatin has chosen to place this confession: it occurs before the man’s relation of his son’s death, casually, while describing a visit from his son-in-law. The sentence following his explanation of his son’s overdose jars by its incongruity: “My son-in-law’s intellect seems to have developed solely for money-making.” Inappropriate response is characteristic of the man; so, too, is absence of remorse. Bellatin causes him to recall three instances in which patients died as a result of negligent diagnosis or preparation:
I remember that at the same time I began to doubt my vocation there was a series of deaths in cases under my care. Of course there was no direct relation. Although, to be sure, there was some degree of negligence on my part.…  Another case even more clearly could not be held against me.…  It is evident that I bore a major responsibility in no case. But inside I felt a certain guilt. As if the energy generated by my state of mind attracted evil toward the women who frequented my practice. It soothes my conscience somewhat to think of the miraculous cure of the same woman whose son spoke to me that day in the office. That occurrence helps me balance out, in some fashion, the ledger of my professional obligations (13).
To the list of those who would die under his care can be added his son: “Perhaps I did not pay attention to the symptoms…. Bruises on his body…. a wound to the forehead, a scratch … noticeable limp (5).” Bellatin shows us the man’s transaction with “evil” (an unusual word in what appears to be a realistic fiction proceeding along psychological lines): he moves between denial and partial acceptance of his professional responsibility, not to mention a moral one, until – fraudulent transaction completed – he balances his ethical accounts. The miraculous cure refers to the unaccountable disappearance of the cancer of which the boy’s mother is dying (the same boy whose story the man narrates – almost as if it were his own – in the story’s second part). As her doctor, the man takes no credit for her cure, characterizing it as miraculous (another instance of atypical diction. There is one other: he speaks of men in jail and the clients of brothels as “servants of a dark place [17]”). Strangely, the man experiences the identical sensation when he thinks of the woman’s recovery as he does when approaching a prostitute on the street or in the brothels he frequents. 
I use this term [miraculous] for recoveries which escape the normal flow of things.... The comparison seems rather unlikely, but the sensation is like that produced when I meet a woman of the streets (15).
To escape the normal flow of things is what he wishes but can effect only superficially; for example, with the adoption of a youthful wardrobe and hairstyle when he thinks “about the possibility of taking on behaviors outside [his] routine (18).”
The narrator is inclined to flee “a situation which [he can] not control (25).” (Avoidance response is also practiced by a Chinese checker player, who jumps over the opposition instead of confronting it.) At the conclusion of the fiction’s first part, his wife has gone to a shop to replace décor destroyed by the son prior to his death. She calls him to help with the “negotiations.” He resolves a difficulty and then declines her invitation to lunch, deciding instead to visit a brothel. To himself or to an auditor, he explains his choice by remarking that, when on the telephone with his wife, he recalled the woman cured of cancer and also her son, “the boy with a somewhat abnormal head (33).” His aversion to abnormality may remind the reader of the story’s fourth sentence: “I feel that touching their bodies [those of his women patients] only for medical reasons deforms … my desires (3).” We know already that, for him, the woman (her inexplicable cure) and brothels are related ideas – perhaps because of this deforming of desire. In this final passage of part 1, Bellatin suggests, with symbolic economy, a web of conscious and subconscious associations: women – cancer – miraculous cure – boy – deformity –   wife –their dead son – sex. The anxiety they provoke in the man causes him to flee to a brothel. (In actuality, it may be the thought of the boy’s story that drives him there. Throughout part 1, it is felt as a powerfully attractive absence, like a black hole.) Within the nexus, the boy disturbs him most. He and his head (which is not misshapen but without the “customary roundness [9]”) are an idée fixe. The narrator’s identification with the boy, which Bellatin wishes us to make (both characters wear sky-blue footwear), is difficult to explain but central to an understanding of the fiction. We must look to its second part for a possible explanation. Bellatin creates one other web of associations in his text: the white furnishings of the shop where the man and his wife meet seem linked to an earlier incident: the white trousers marked by a spot of blood from a procedure performed on a woman shortly before a christening ceremony they attend. Another guest mistakes the blood as his own. The reader senses a disquieting relationship of disease, blood, sex, birth, ritual, mutilation, and self-mutilation.
Before taking up the boy’s story, which as I said has been felt as an absence, let us consider the sofa in the narrator’s practice, where man and boy sit during the mother’s chemotherapy. During one treatment, the man is told the story he will relate in part 2.
[the boy’s sky-blue sneakers] left tracks on the black surface of the sofa. I do not know if those tracks had begun to acquire some significance in my head, but I decided to get rid of the sofa a week after proclaiming the boy’s mother cured (22). While he can offer no adequate explanation for wanting to be rid of the sofa, the wish to do so must be an attempt to destroy a link to the boy, his story and deformity, and to the woman – not to her disease but to her cure, the thought inciting in him the same reaction as a prostitute does. Yet the man would like to give the sofa to the madam of a brothel. I explain his wish as an attempt to remove the anxiety caused primarily by the boy’s story to the safety and release he finds among anonymous sexual encounters. (Bellatin deals with subtleties of the mind; to attribute a single cause to any act is a simplification.) The attempt is unsuccessful for the man is impelled to narrate the boy’s story in part 2.
The story the boy tells is that of his search for his father, although the father is replaced (by psychoanalytic substitution) by an authority of a delivery service who will agree to pay him restitution for a letter intended for his father. The letter is delivered to his brother-in-law’s house where the boy spends weekends so that his father can be alone with his dying wife. The messenger informs the boy that a refund is due him because the letter has only now been delivered after being lost for a year. Where it has been and how it should have come to be delivered to the uncle’s house cannot be explained. The boy assumes responsibility for securing payment on his father’s behalf and travels to the city, where the company’s offices are located. As in a dream or a Kafka fiction, his quest is frustrated by circumstances – most trivial, one sinister.
The latter is an old woman, whom he meets in the company’s offices. Unwashed, wearing a metal crown and a fox skin, with a chauffeur-driven limousine, menacing “assistants,” and a conservatory of plants grown under lights – she suggests a malign character in a fairy tale. She will pay the boy the refund the company has repudiated, if he will accompany her home. At dinner, she tells him about a cruise she took with her husband, during which some cows being transported fell overboard. They were left to drown – a tragedy arousing pity only in her and her husband. Earlier, in the company’s offices, she told the boy the story of the drowned girl. But by the time of her husband’s death, she was unable to feel sorrow: “his death had caused her neither true sadness, nor the recurrence of her feelings when the girl drowned in the sea (47).” Here, Bellatin returns to his fiction’s principal theme: indifference. Only the boy remains whole – sane, unskewed, compassionate. “The boy confessed to me [the narrator] that he climbed the stairs, thinking about what it would mean to a loving father to lose a child (43).” He has in mind the drowned child, but he may also be thinking of his own father, who has been entirely absent from his story. On the old woman’s orders, the assistants lock the boy in a child’s room, confirming her role as witch (or if the reader prefers realism to fairy tale) a mad woman. (She is also likened by the boy to the Virgin Mary, perhaps because of the former’s miraculous power over death and role as agent of a deliverer – both of which the boy desires.) The dolls he finds imply the drowned girl, as if the old woman sought, in her madness, to transform him into her. The boy escapes from the house and – on his way home to his uncle’s – is overtaken by the assistants, who give him the restitution he has been seeking for his father. Having “redeemed” his father at the risk of his own life (or identity), the boy is, in turn, rescued by his father from his uncle’s indifference inside his walled house. Reunited with his father, the boy is able – one suspects, at last – to breach the wall that has separated them:
When his father came that afternoon to pick him up, the boy handed him the scribbled-upon envelope…. They went silently out to the street.…  After they had gone about a block, the boy started talking (52-3). 
The reconciliation and redemption the boy and father share are – in my opinion – the reason for the man’s obsession with the story and his compulsion to narrate it – or testify to it. In the boy’s quest undertaken for his father’s sake, both father and son may have been saved. The man (narrator) is beyond all hope of rescue. Or perhaps it is not the wish to be saved but only his bafflement that such rescue is possible that make him assimilate the boy’s story. Bellatin isn’t saying.  - Norman Lock

Interviews at Molossus
Writing off the page with Mario Bellatin by Heather Cleary
Interview with Cooper Renner: Translating Mario Bellatin by Angela Woodward
Mario Bellatin interviewed Alain Robbe-Grillet in 2008, a week before Robbe-Grillet died, and only now released it for publication.

PGW-JacobTheMutant-Bellatin

Mario Bellatin, Jacob the Mutant, Trans. by Jacob Steinberg. Phoneme Media, 2015.

Conceived of as a set of fragmentary manuscripts from an unpublished Joseph Roth novel, Jacob the Mutant is a novella in a perpetual state of transformation—a story about a man named Jacob, an ersatz rabbi and owner of a roadside tavern. But when reality shifts, so does Jacob, mutating into another person entirely.

“Everyone talks about inventing their own language, but Mario Bellatin actually does it.” —Francisco Goldman

“…one of the leading voices in experimental Spanish-language fiction.” —New York Times
“Mario Bellatin has indisputably become one of the literary stars of the Latin American scene.” —Radar Libros (Argentina)

“One of the most original figures of recent Latin American fiction.” —ABC (Spain)

“Bellatin’s unusual narrative world doesn’t need to exceed the conventional limits of the short novel in order to take possession of mind of the reader, who’s left seduced by the turbid and convulsive beauty of his stories.” —El País (Spain)

It’s a complicated thing,” Mario Bellatin once said, “trying to interpret my novels. I think they often don’t allow interpretation. Though if there were something coherent to them, it might be in their form and not their content.” In the case of Bellatin’s unsettling, exhilarating aesthetic project, this insistence on form serves not only as a commentary on the changes his books have undergone as they are reissued and reimagined over time, but also as a reminder that—in a creative practice marked by the adoption of different personae along the literary spectrum, the invention of biographical subjects and bibliographical references, and other writerly games—the narrative itself is only part of the equation.
Known not only for the published work that earned him the prestigious José María Arguedas prize earlier this year, but also for public interventions like his Dynamic Writing School, the main directive of which is not to produce text, and a literary conference in which the invited speakers were replaced by trained stand-ins, Bellatin has been a major cultural figure in the Spanish-speaking world for some time now. It is only recently, though, that his work has reached critical mass in English: in addition to the critically acclaimed Beauty Salon (City Lights 2009), since 2013 Phoneme Media has published Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction, The Transparent Bird’s Gaze, and now Jacob the Mutant, with more releases planned for the coming year. This proliferation will finally offer readers a more complete glimpse into a complex body of work that, taken as a whole, pushes literature—sometimes rather forcefully—in the direction of conceptual art.
Jacobo el mutante was first published at a moment in which Bellatin’s experiments involved donning various masks to work between and whittle away at neatly delimited literary genres. He wrote El jardín de la señora Murakami (Mrs. Murakami’s Garden, 2000) in the guise of a translator, annotating his edition of the Japanese “original” with enigmatic, often contradictory footnotes and addenda. The following year, he published Shiki Nagaoka: una nariz de ficción, the apocryphal biography that famously arose from one journalist’s insistence that Bellatin name a literary influence during a press conference (irritated by the rote question, Bellatin invented an author on the spot; later, realizing that no one had caught on, he doubled down on the ruse and published a study of Shiki’s life and work, complete with photographic documentation). In the work here reviewed, Bellatin poses as a literary scholar who unearths a lost Joseph Roth manuscript.
The first section of Jacob the Mutant opens with a lengthy quotation from the text mentioned above, supposedly Roth’s unfinished novel The Border (an apt title given the role these demarcations play in assigning new and often precarious categories of being to those who cross them). As this first section progresses, the prose shifts constantly between this “found” material, a secondhand account of the recovered manuscript, and exegetic commentary on the text. Translator Jacob Steinberg does an excellent job of preserving the texture generated by the interaction of these distinct voices and the flirtations with academic discourse embedded throughout; he also does an admirable job of preserving the difference in tone and cadence between this text and the commentary that follows.
Jacob the Mutant , notwithstanding its buried mise en abyme about the act of writing, positions itself primarily as a work of literary historiography. The book’s opening pages establish this central conceit:
The Border was perhaps one of the least known works of the Austrian writer Joseph Roth. A complete translation has yet to surface, although fragments have shown up, like the lines offered above, in specialty magazines in Paris and on the West Coast of the States. The Stroemfeld publishing house in Frankfurt holds an old edition in its archives that is believed to be complete, while the independent publishing house Kiepenheuer & Witsch has another version that, many hold, is just composed of a series of fragments.
Spoiler alert: though Joseph Roth was indeed published by the two German houses mentioned above, and though he did, in fact, write a text called “Die Grenze” (The Border), the work appeared in 1919 and belonged to Roth’s journalistic production (not surprisingly, transmutation does not figure prominently in the original German text). With Jacob the Mutant, then, Bellatin offers us yet another case study in literary shape shifting—both his own and, retroactively, non-consensually, Roth’s.
Despite being described as unfinished, the “found” text on which Jacob the Mutant centers is anything but underdeveloped. The story follows Jacob Pliniak, at once a rabbi in a region where “families have begun to abandon their ancient beliefs” and the owner of a border town tavern that serves as “a cover for an escape route for scores of Jews fleeing the Russian pogroms.” His accomplice in this endeavor is a mysterious figure named Macaque who, “years later, in New York City, would become the stage actress Norah Kimberly.”
Jacob’s days are marked by a series of dramatic events, most of which are recounted second hand in Bellatin’s characteristic deadpan, deftly rendered by Steinberg. Our protagonist discovers that his wife is having an affair with the young man who helps her run their tavern at night; he struggles to instruct the town’s children in their religious tradition, despite the fact that the town seems to have severed its ties with the past; he finds himself in the United States and is reunited with his estranged wife. Oh, and then there’s the mutation to which the book’s title refers. One morning,
Jacob Pliniak submerges in the lake to carry out his ritual daily ablutions. Instants later he returns to the surface, having transformed into his own daughter. But not into the girl that we’ve know until now, but rather into an elderly woman, eighty years of age . . . It’s important to point out that in the Kabbalah these transformations that entail person, gender, and time are referred to as “Aphoristic Pools.”
The narrator quickly moves on as though the event were par for the course, leaving the reader not with a story of a transformation, but rather the idea of transformation itself. This idea is multiplied, exponentially: thus far, we have Roth’s text, transformed (or created from whole cloth) for use in a fiction penned by a writer posing as a literary historian, and in which the middle-aged male protagonist suddenly transmutes into an elderly woman on an unsuccessful crusade against the dance academies cropping up in her community.
The book, for its part—like many of Bellatin’s texts—is also an object in a state of flux. Jacobo el mutante was published in several distinct editions in Spanish before being reissued in 2014 as Jacobo reloaded. It is on this later version that Steinberg’s translation is based: though the title of the English work evokes the earlier editions, its paratext adheres to the other. In place of Ximena Berecochea’s lyrical, hermetic photographs, the reader is given a series of whimsical illustrations in the form of Zsu Szkurka’s “Explanatory Maps” to the text, along with something like an afterword, titled “Could There Have Been a Reason for Writing Jacob the Mutant?”
In this recent addition, Bellatin reformulates the narrative of Jacob Pliniak as part of his own history, expanding upon the earlier text and integrating it with memories of his grandfather—who also underwent “numerous transformations.” He in turn links these stories to his own conversion to Sufism. Asserting that he, “like the writer Joseph Roth—who, as is well known, is the true author of this book,” has undergone similar “mutations of a spiritual nature,” Bellatin draws a direct line between himself and Jacob through the recollection of one such transformation, in which “I found myself completely submerged in water.”
Over the course of his commentary, Bellatin brings up many of the themes found in the narrative it follows—the bonds of family; the competing imperatives of tradition and progress; the ephemeral nature of identity. The idea of transformation that has been so prominent throughout is presented here not only as something that happens to us, but also as something we do to others—in the way we remember them, the way we take up what they leave behind. The writing feels intimate, but in such a carefully constructed way that it defies the lull of sentimentality, urging the reader instead to reflect on the way the pieces of this unconventional, elusive, hypnotic book fit together. For those familiar with Bellatin’s work, these mystical and sometimes contradictory affirmations also demand to be considered in light of what the Argentine writer and critic Alan Pauls has called the “immense, oceanic” whole to which they belong.
Following a brief text titled “Affairs with Respect to Jacob the Mutant that It Would Be Good Not to Forget or Leave to Chance,” in which Bellatin presents the “Mariotic Theory” (“Something that occurs each time a minimal, isolated incident breaks with an established order, followed by the emergence of a chain of uncontrollable chaos”), followed by the third refrain of an enigmatic verbal snapshot titled “The Wait” and another of Zsu Szkurka’s maps, the volume enters its final movement: a translator’s afterword. In his note, Steinberg eschews the reflections on knotty passages and anecdotes about working with the author expected of the genre in favor of the somewhat salacious account of Rose Eigen, a woman born to Eastern European immigrants in New York City in 1907 who became estranged from her family when it was discovered that she was having an affair with the young superintendent of the building where she lived with her husband and son.
The note takes a mystical turn moments later, as Steinberg asserts:
It may be difficult to believe—decidedly more difficult for those uninitiated in the art of the transmigration of souls—but I, Jacob Steinberg, the English translator of Jacob the Mutant, am the reincarnation of that woman, Rose Eigen.
Perhaps I should also make note here that I am her great-grandson . . .
The avid reader must certainly already recognize certain similarities between my great-grandmother’s story and that of the book Jacob the Mutant.
Just as Jacobo el mutante is presented as (yet another) translation of fragments of a lost text, Jacob the Mutant is a translation that brings the aesthetic proposal of Bellatin’s work to its logical extreme: Steinberg presents his intervention in the text as an extension, rather than an echo, of Bellatin’s writing. “In another of the epilogues that I wrote for this translation,” Steinberg continues,
(a text that, now that I am looking for it, I cannot find in any complete document; only fragments of it appear in various journals and folders), I said that the only mechanism for making sense of Jacob the Mutant was to give in to its perpetual state of transformation. To remain always a reader in continuous mutation.
When we talk about translation, too often we talk about what is lost. The brilliance of this translator’s afterword—which does not comment on Bellatin’s text but rather performs it anew, weaving Roth’s fragments together with Steinberg’s personal history, religion, and family tree—is that it establishes a parity between Bellatin’s productive appropriation of Roth’s narrative persona, and his own, of Bellatin. As a whole, then, that belongs to a greater whole, the recent publication of Jacob the Mutant not only offers the reader a memorable exploration of the compelling but futile drive to hold on to the familiar in a world marked by constant change; it also insists on the status of its translation as the rebirth of a work that, like its protagonist, will continue to take on new and ever vital forms. - Heather Cleary

Inventing a New Language: A Conversation with Jacob Steinberg

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