Although still an unknown in much of the English-reading world, experimental Mexican author Mario Bellatín is undoubtedly poised for a Le Clézio-esque breakthrough. A Guggenheim recipient, Bellatín is the author of nearly twenty novellas and short works, and has garnered so much success in the international market that he’s recently been courted by the preeminent French publishing house Gallimard to release several forthcoming novels in French translation prior to their publication in his native Spanish. Beauty Salon is only Bellatín’s second publication in English (Chinese Checkers, a compendium of three of his other novellas, was published in 2008).
The novella finds a lonely, unnamed hair stylist caring for the dying victims of an unidentified plague (strongly recalling the AIDS virus) in his converted beauty salon. Where once the salon was plush and dazzling—with elaborate aquariums and exotic fish lining the walls—now it is “simply the Terminal,” refitted with the bare essentials to care for victims of the disease who “. . . are strangers who have nowhere else to die. If it weren’t for the Terminal their only option would be to perish in the street.”
Though dedicated to the care of his “guests,” however, the narrator remains distant, resigned to the suffering that surrounds him. (“I had witnessed so many deaths already that I came to understand that I couldn’t take on myself the responsibility for all sick people,” he explains succinctly.) Only men in the last, most desperate stages of the disease are admitted to the Terminal, and once accepted, they are allowed neither visits from the family and friends who have refused to take them in, nor “false hopes” of recovery, nor “religious images or prayers of any kind.” Guests are allowed to receive “money, clothes and candy. Everything else is forbidden.”
Bellatín’s prose is sparse and to the point, and yet, his narrator is frequently evasive—only hinting at memories either so painful or so joyful that he seems unable to fully articulate them in the midst of his current isolation. The reader is then left to fill in the blanks between the tidbits that he shares, the memories that he casually intersperses between explanations of his daily routine. “Before it was converted into a communal place to die,” the narrator explains in one passage, “the beauty salon would close up shop at eight o’clock.”
There were three of us working in the salon. A couple of nights a week we would get all dressed up after closing time, pack up a small suitcase and head off to the center of the city. We couldn’t travel dressed as women for we had already gotten dangerous situations more than once. Which is why we packed up our dresses and our make-up and carried them with us. Before standing on a busy street corner dressed as transvestites we would hide the suitcase at the base of statues of national heros . . . Our trips to the center of the city lasted until the early hours of the morning, at which time we would get our suitcases and head back to the beauty salon to sleep . . . We all slept together in one bed.
The memory trails off shortly after into other recollections before returning once again, pages later:
bq. My fellow workers, the ones I worked with in hairstyling and cosmetics, died long ago. Now I’m the only one living in the shed. The bed we all used to sleep in now seems too large for me alone. I miss them. They are the only friends I’ve ever had.
Despite—or perhaps because of—the porousness of the narrator’s revelations, 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. Black tetras and angelfish, Amazon piranhas and golden carp. A friend, dressed for the evening in high ‘European’ style, trimmed with feathers and long gloves. A dying man, wrapped in cardboard “to ease his trembling.” A steaming public bath, “exclusively for men,” with a “wooden counter in the lobby with multicolored fish and red dragons carved into it.” A bowl of thin chicken soup, served to the guests each day. A common grave.
Frank, haunting, and darkly evocative, the disparate imagery (perhaps more than the story) of Beauty Salon will linger in the readers’ minds long after the brief narrative has come to a close.