It’s difficult to find adjectives that will bear the full oddity of Mario Bellatín’s books. But it’s at least possible to say they are remarkably elastic—usually slim in size but containing a stretched-waistband world of absurd characters, uncanny scenarios, and endless transformations.
In Bellatín’s accounts of reality, nothing remains what it is for very long, nothing is cataloged properly or fixed in place. Soon enough it shifts shape, or inverts. Male to female, fanged to toothless, indecent to prim, alive to dead; Central Europe becomes California, a beauty salon an aquarium and a hospice, a roadhouse an underground railroad for Jewish refugees.
An impending transformation is at the center of Bellatín’s fictionalized autobiography, The Large Glass. In “My Skin, Luminous,” a young boy is brought to a claustrophobic convent-like bathhouse for the exhibition of his oddities, including his prodigious testicles and glowing skin. In exchange, he receives gifts. Near the end, he suffers, knowing one day he will lose his remarkable qualities. He will become less shapely, his skin more dull. He will change again. When the show ends, so will his rewards.
“I have a premonition that this situation, of displaying my body in exchange for receiving objects, will finish in an instant. . . . Until now, everyone seems to consider it impossible that my luminous skin might at some moment decay. . . . Precisely because no one suspects it, I have the certitude that the transformation will manifest itself soon.”
This story might be read as a parable about many things at once. About puberty. About the pitfalls of the artist’s life in which very little separates grotesque exhibitionism from genuine creation. About the inevitability of aging, and the tyranny of expectations.
A futile performance is also at the center of “A Character in Modern Appearance.” The daughter of a down-on-their-luck family poses as a puppet in an attempt to placate angry landlords demanding their rent. Nylon strings are attached to her body and strung to the ceiling. She’s dressed like a doll, pretending to be bound by the strings, dancing in an exaggeratedly stiff fashion, feigning lack of control. It’s pathetic, and hopeless.
“None of the owners I danced for ever changed their mind. They waited to finish the entire show, some lasting four hours or more, the longest those that attempted to display my feelings toward Mother Nature. But eventually they gave the order for the men to begin their eviction.”
The three stories in The Large Glass, each in their own way, are also about freaks. Bellatín knows that as a society we’re attracted to freaks and monsters, that we can’t tear our eyes away, even as we are repulsed, even as disgust can move some to violence.
The Izcuintepozoli is a rare breed of hairless dog native to the Yucatán that plays a role in the middle narrative in The Large Glass, “The Sheikha’s True Illness.” The narrator, a canine enthusiast, travels to find a genetic “missing link” to a certain breed of dogs. He’s told by a villager that one had indeed been born in the area two years prior:
“He told me . . . that it wasn’t the first one to be born in the region. What happened was that the villagers immediately killed the specimens that appeared with those characteristics. The pup had a great hunchback. It lacked a neck and showed great difficulty moving its head from one side to the other. A particular chronicler of the Indians, Clavijero, mentions a similar specimen called the Izcuintepozoli.”
Corporeal oddities abound: in Bellatín’s Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction, also published by Phoneme Media, the central character is a writer with a massive nose, a protuberance so large it’s literally unbelievable, the stuff of fiction.
“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.”
All of Bellatín’s texts are marked by a continual interpenetration of reality and fiction. They combine the theoretical depth of the essay with the quick gloss of narrative. Like the Argentine César Aira, Bellatín makes a “spectacle out of reality,” in the sense that like Aira’s, his fictions escape from the bounds of book culture and aim at something else, a kind of transmigration into our daily lives and thought. (This concept is taken from Argentine critic Reinaldo Laddaga, whose interpretation of the new Latin American writing is the most cogent and persuasive I have read to date. They are crystallized in Espectaculos de la realidad.)
What he achieves is a subversion of the mental lazy boys in which we lean back, complacent in what we think, believe, and feel.
Jacobo el mutante is one of Bellatín’s better-known texts. In the first Spanish version as published by Alfaguara in Mexico in 2002, it’s 61 pages long. The book is an exegesis of the shreds of an unfinished, fictitious manuscript by Joseph Roth, the early 20th-century Jewish-Austrian writer known for The Radetzky March. Bellatín’s book follows the life arc of the main character in this manuscript—a tavern keeper, cuckold, and quasi-rabbi named Jacob Pliniak, who at one point in the book quite suddenly turns into a woman.
Jacobo el mutante is a hiccupping dream version of one of Roth’s novels, or a hallucinatory version of Roth’s own biography. Many of the common strands of East European Jewish life and literature in the 20th century are evoked: the myth of the golem; the Kabbalah; towns that are alternately enveloped and abandoned by different imperial or national borders; the fear of pogroms; the forced nomadism; the commingling with Christianity; the shadow of impending annihilation; the emigration to the New World.
And Bellatín didn’t stop there with Jacobo. He later published a new, expanded version of the story, titled Jacobo Reloaded. The edition of Jacobo Reloaded published in 2014 by Sexto Piso, a Mexican imprint, is 261 pages long. It begins as a faithful version line-for-line of the older edition, but then forks into something that is absolutely different. In the additional pages, the author turns on the novel itself, to excavate its origins and motivations, starting with a section titled, “Could there have been a reason for writing Jacob the Mutant?”
“Just like the writer Joseph Roth—who, as is well known, is the true author of this book—I also experienced, more than once, what is known as a religious conversion. But unlike Joseph Roth (who simply abandoned his Jewish faith to become a Catholic), I’ve gone through different transformations. I’ve participated in mutations of a spiritual nature . . .”
What kind of mutations? The rest of the book is rife with them. The reader begins to lose track of the strands that typically hold a book together. The cast of characters, the chronology, the physical setting. The line between memoir, criticism, and fiction. The cumulative effect is unsettling and enriching.
If the book sounds challenging, that’s because it is. It rewards re-reading, and one reads it much like one reads scripture—or like Bellatín reads Roth—interpreting it in light of other texts, returning to dip into it in a new frame of mind, comparing it to lived experience, mining it for hidden clues.
Upon re-reading, the vertigo of the first reading diminishes. One begins to weave more and deeper layers of meaning, without ever quite escaping the strange pleasure of feeling one’s grip on the narrative slip away, again and again.
The version of Jacob the Mutant published by Phoneme Media, which has published three of Bellatín’s books in English to date, follows the text of Jacobo reloaded. The Phoneme edition, as is the case with all the imprint’s books, is beautifully and thoughtfully designed, the translation scrupulous—an achievement in its own right. But there’s more to it than that.
In the translator’s afterword, another level of complexity is added to the book’s hall of mirrors quality. Jacob Steinberg, the young translator of Jacobo el Mutante, who has also translated Argentine poet Cecilia Pavón, makes an odd claim. He says he’s turned up evidence as he researched the book that he is the great-grandson of a certain Rose Eigen, who has a biography that is uncannily similar to that of Jacob’s unfaithful wife in the text of Jacobo.
Whether this is meant as another curve in pretzel-like structure of the fiction, or in earnest, I’m still not sure. Nor does it really matter. Bellatín himself readily acknowledges that he’s not interested in literature or fiction per se but in how these are assembled and by what artifices they work. The constant violation of suspension of disbelief—whether in a translator’s afterword, or in a character’s unexplained shifting gender and age—mean that we’re never really sure where we’re standing anyway.
Of course, this kind of deconstruction can feel astringent. As Bellatín points out in a short film by David Shook, co-founder of Phoneme Media and translator of The Large Glass, the book’s full title is The Large Glass: Three Autobiographies. Bellatín notes that that is by definition an absurdity. There cannot be three autobiographies without falsity. Bellatín quite hilariously suggests in the video that “at that point [upon reading the title] the reader should just throw the book away.”
In the end, Bellatín is not interested in truth or identity, or himself, but in the possibilities of an inbetweenness. An altered state that is between a truth and a lie, between hermeticism and communion, simultaneously vulgar and sacred. This is not an easy state to exist in, not for the reader, and not for Bellatín’s characters, who seem to suffer.
Many of his characters, perhaps not coincidentally, are believers. For them, there is one sure way out of all the ambivalence and relentlessness of change. Martyrdom is the apotheosis of a religious life, even if the end is in itself horrible: a true believer burned at the stake, impaled, stretched to pieces on the rack.
Among the very few pieces of autobiographical facts that Bellatín readily divulges without too much in the way of smoke and mirrors is the fact that he is a practicing Sufi.
In the “Sheikha’s True Illness,” the second narrative in The Large Glass, a dervish, a devotee of the mystical Sufi branch of Islam, visits his community’s leader in a hospital. The story weaves together thoughts on death, storytelling, exile, disease, and martyrdom. As the narrator of the story writes, “I know that all the saints are pilgrims. I know that all are sick.”
Martyrdom, when it comes, is a relief from life and disease, from spiritual straining, from moral struggle.
Relief can come in other forms. In Salon de belleza, arguably Bellatín’s best-known work, a beauty salon becomes an improvised hospice for victims of a disease that is evocative of HIV/AIDS but never directly named as such. The salon is decorated with fish tanks that offer some visual solace to the diseased and dying clientele. The beauty salon’s owner literally seeks out the water as a Catholic pilgrim might the miraculous waters of Lourdes in France.
“Sometimes, when no one sees me, I enter my head in the tank and even get to touch the water with the tip of my nose. I aspire deeply and feel that the water emanates something like life. Despite the smell of stagnant fluid, I still detect a certain freshness.”
No matter that the tank is murky and filled with salamanders or guppies. The relief is palpable. There is a temporary loosening of tension, of slack, and indulgence in those three sentences that is rarely found in Bellatín. This is a dunk in holy water. Perhaps even a small moment of simple pleasure at the fact of existence, if not fleeting joy.
Another baptism of sorts comes when Jacob Pliniak submerges himself in a lake in the U.S. West, at the end of the first chapter in Jacob the Mutant, and turns into someone wholly different, a new person: “. . . in whose memory the existence of a Jacob Pliniak is now logged, a dead man that drowned while performing his ablutions in a lake upon whose shores he built his home.”
This is a different relief, the relief of shedding one’s own skin, of molting, of resurrection.
Some have written that Bellatín is an acquired taste. I think he’s more infectious, like a virus. With rereading, he begins to grow on you, inhabit you. His words are toxins that infect your brain. Under this influence your perception shifts and things seem at once more transient and more meaningful than before. A furtive eye-to-eye glance with a stranger on a public street, a scrap of a newspaper with a forgotten headline, a Slavic name on a book spine, a frog with an injured leg crawling unevenly toward a pond. This is the stuff Bellatín makes stories from, “the accidents of everyday life” as they are called in “The Sheikha’s True Illness.” These are the kind of phenomena the toxin named Bellatín awakens us to. This simulacra is life.
One choice is to burrow deep into this swirl. Another is exhaustion. Bellatín’s literature somehow exists perfectly poised between the two states, like a quantum entity that is at once engaged and vital, extinguished and spent.
Marcelo Ballvé writes about Latin American literature for The Quarterly Conversation, including an essay on Macedonio Fernández selected for Dzanc Book’s Best Of The Web anthology. He has also reviewed books for The San Francisco Bay Guardian. He is currently a research director at the online publication Business Insider. He lives in New York.
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