JUNE 15, 2016
LAST YEAR, Mexican writer Mario Bellatin kicked up a bit of controversy with his publisher, Grupo Planeta, when he asked his legions of fans not to buy his most famous novel, Beauty Salon. Originally published in 2000 by an imprint of the Spanish-language publishing giant (translated into English by City Lights in 2009), Beauty Salon was about to celebrate its 20th anniversary, and Grupo Planeta was set to publish a new edition, when Bellatin took to social media to make his case. The writer — known as well for the elaborate prosthetics he wears in place of his missing arm as he is for his mind-bending literary style — had a simple request that the publisher, it seemed, eschewed: Bellatin had offered to produce a rewrite of his seminal piece of work, a palimpsest, if you will, examining the book’s influence and validity after decades in circulation. Instead, the writer claims, Grupo Planeta went to press without his permission (publishing the original text with only a brief summary, written by Bellatin), which he only discovered when he found it on the shelves in a bookstore in Mexico City. The brouhaha didn’t come as a surprise to Bellatin’s admirers; many have grown accustomed to the kind of performativity indicative of his persona as an artist known for pushing the proverbial envelope, always reshaping literary laws, exposing their rigid limitations as well as their possibilities. None of this should serve as a distraction, however, when it comes to Bellatin’s style, which is at once as haunting as it is playful and cerebral — as it is frank.
The Large Glass (translated from the Spanish by David Shook) is as close to a memoir as readers can expect from a writer who has made a career of revising and recoding the fundamental DNA of a literary aesthetic he helped to define; an aesthetic that remains among one of the most influential in contemporary Latin American letters. Bellatin’s contribution to the genre — like the Marcel Duchamp painting it is named for — reveals itself as a body of work that is greater than the sum of its parts, as much a product of artistic capriciousness and instability as it is about stasis and the permanence of memory. Rather than experiencing this book as a complete entity, Bellatin invites readers to encounter it in three sections, each part governed by its respective form and rules. The first, “My Skin, Luminous,” is written in short, numbered vignettes and executed with a rapid-fire succession that assaults the reader even as it seduces; “The Sheikha’s True Illness” — evoked in lush prose that is slow and meditative — presents itself as a rumination on faith and belief; and the final section, “A Character in Modern Appearance,” shows Bellatin questioning the very nature of memory and time, of gender and bodies, in a metatextual display of genre-bending prose. Instead of resulting in a disjointed and schizophrenic narrative, though, The Large Glass is a reflection on the body and desire in prose that exists in the realm between the mystical and the erotic. Taken as a whole, the book invites the reader to look at and through the many facets of this artist’s chameleonic identity, ever shifting and morphing, always on the verge of becoming something familiar yet unrecognizable.
In “My Skin, Luminous,” the author begins with an account of his experiences as a boy in the public bathhouses of a nameless town. His mother exploits her son’s nudity, coaxing Bellatin into exposing his genitals to other women in exchange for random trinkets and wares. “Many times,” Bellatin writes, “[these gifts] were things to eat or small garments for personal adornment: plastic earrings or some thin cord clasped around her wrist.” His mother’s actions soon allow them to gain admission to the bathhouse for free. As their visits grow in frequency, Bellatin notices his complexion slowly changing. “Without anyone warning me,” he explains, “my skin became covered with a type of patina, slightly viscous, and with a luminosity that for some is even more amazing than my own genitals.” Over time, the young Bellatin is slowly transformed into a source of spectacle, a piece of curiously constructed art meant to be looked at and admired from afar but never touched. Through this transcendent experience, removed from the brutishness accompanying corporeality, Bellatin develops an awareness of his own body, viewing it from outside of himself: “I am always in relation with bodies exaggeratedly strong and, on the other hand, with skeletons that can barely sustain themselves.” And yet: Bellatin and his mother soon realize that random charms and tubes of lipstick cannot pay the rent. After a forced eviction from their home and his father’s decision to abandon his family, mother and son are left with the daunting task of picking up the pieces of a life laid bare, exposed.
The second section, “The Sheikha’s True Illness,” examines Bellatin’s relationship to his faith when the leader of his Sufi community falls ill. “Despite being in front of her,” he states, “the sheikh didn’t seem to recognize me. She looked withdrawn into her pain.” The sheikha’s malady cannot be treated, it is determined, until her shoes are removed, but the nurses and doctors find this task harder than expected. In the midst of the struggle, Bellatin wonders about the beliefs and traditions he has introduced into his life and their inability to govern him. “Perhaps I am not sure of my faith,” he writes,
I have heard many times that the Sacred Koran places the cloth of judgment first upon he who in some way believes it. It says that those who believe falsely—in other words, all Muslims at some point in their lives—will be the most severely punished.
Only through persistent questioning and by facing off with crippling doubt, does Mario Bellatin attain a level of clarity and understanding regarding those beliefs we call on to govern our spiritual lives. True faith, he seems to suggest, only comes when we scrutinize, question, and challenge.
Bellatin’s experimental aesthetic is most at play in the final section of The Large Glass — “A Character in Modern Appearance.” At this point, we meet an adult Mario Bellatin who, along with his German girlfriend, begins a quest in search of a used Renault 5 to purchase. Led by, “a gigantic man […] with a large overbite and rather small eyes” Bellatin and his partner willingly follow along as the stranger takes delight in interrogating the couple. All the while, as he recounts this incident, Bellatin plays with the nature of memory and fact and fiction. “I think I’m something of a liar,” he admits at one point. “I repeat that it is not true that I had a German girlfriend and that I never, what’s more, have thought about the possibility of buying a car.” He further challenges his readers — forcing us to confront larger questions about the self, memory, and time — by introducing yet another incarnation of himself, a female version who is forced by her father to dress as a puppet and dance for the landlord of their building in order to avoid eviction. “I became, from that moment, a real doll,” the female Bellatin explains. “My brothers helped my father to climb onto the remains of the wall. From there, he managed the strings attached to my wrists and ankles.”
Mario Bellatin’s achievement, as an artist and creator, comes from his keen ability to think beyond the simple binaries we generally apply, as if such definitions could lead us to a greater understanding of who we are. But for all this attention to the multiplicity of selves, and to the bending and shaping and distorting of the narratives we tell ourselves and each other, The Large Glass offers no new revelations about Bellatin or his work. As Walter Benjamin writes in one of his essays: “Familiar though his name may be to us, the storyteller in his living immediacy is by no means a present force. He has already become something remote from us and something that is getting even more distant.”
Case in point, The Large Glass: Mario Bellatin requires us to consume its contents in discrete portions, savoring each sip with a thirst that is at once as foreign as it is familiar. Only when we give up our stubbornly restrictive notions about art — about what it is supposed to reveal — can new approaches and forms emerge. And so Bellatin offers the reader only fleeting tastes and glimpses of his true self. It’s as if he is telling us, You think you know me, but guess again.