Mario Bellatin, Beauty Salon

Publisher: City Lights
2009, 72 pages, paperback, $10.95

if an incurable illness strikes a city or country, the last thing on one’s mind would be taking care of exotic fish and longing for opportunities to dress in drag again. But Mario Bellatin’s novella, Beauty Salon, gives readers the opportunity to experience these interesting juxtapositions. Originally published in 1999, the novella helped make a good name for Bellatin in Latin American literature, and it continues to do so, ten years later, with its first translation from Spanish to English in the summer of 2009 by Kurt Hollander.

Beauty Salon follows the rise and fall of the narrator’s business venture. When a disease that destroys its victims abruptly and gruesomely grows, he converts his aquarium-filled salon into a non-denominational hospice for infected males. Sandwiched between the bodies that have reached death’s door in his now pseudo-sanctuary and the tanks of dying fish once used to bring splendor to his proprietorship, the salon owner delves into public and private issues that plague his beliefs.

This novella of Bellatin’s reads almost like a parable. The struggle for value of life and dignity for death can be seen as the narrator faces troubles with keeping the Sister’s of Charity away from his salon, staying safe from the neighborhood that sees the salon as a problem and not a solution, and taking care of his fish. Moreover, the narrator’s self-motivated task for the infected brings up moral issues when it comes to death. Even though the story cannot avoid labels such as allegory or parable, which to some may be a red light, the essential issue and lesson of finding an appreciation for life when surrounded by death in Beauty Salon is manifested through the owner’s search for purpose in these circumstances that create his own aquarium and boundaries.

The story has a journal-like feel to it. This can be attributed to the absence of dialogue. The author’s choice for omitting this staple in storytelling is risky because it goes against what readers are expecting to see. The effect it has on the text is not negative; it lends the story to be read as a reflective piece by the narrator and adds to the parable-aspect that one gets from such traditional narration often seen in Homeric epics and The New Testament. Unless a reader cannot be separated from dialogue, this stylistic choice of Bellatin does not get in the way of a good read.

Another aspect that helps create that same feel is the narrator’s changing of verb tense. It works to make the severity of the situation seem very close to the actual time in which the story is being told or written. Bellatin writes:  “The arrival of these men bothered me, mostly because no one ever came for me. I wondered what purpose all my sacrifice administering the beauty salon served. I’m still alone…” This confessional point of view is persistent throughout the story. It may or may not work well for certain readers, but this style helps capture quite a bit of the sincerity of the narrator.

Mario Bellatin is one of Mexico’s freshest writers. His works are being translated to feed the hunger readers have for foreign and new writing, and Beauty Salon is a good, albeit, brief way of quenching that appetite.

-Andres Benavides