Despite cries that literature is dead, dying, and self-replicating in the worst way, once in a while a book comes along to remind readers that there’s still a lot of surprise to be found on the printed page. To be sure, writers such as Cesar Aria and Medbh McGuckian are doing their part to keep literature interesting and fun, but having just finished Mario Bellatin’s Flowers & Mishima’s Illustrated Biography (published as a flip edition in Spanish and English by the wonderful 7Vientos, translated by Kolin Jordan) I am secure in the knowledge that compelling writing is plentiful.
The book is the latest English translation of Bellatin’s, whose novellas have been steadily earning him a solid reputation among American readers with both their invention and their brevity. Less really is more, and Bellatin continues this pattern of making big impacts in short books with these two novellas, the first, Flowers, a collection of separate narratives arranged like . . . well, flowers, each different and beautiful individually but combined randomly (or so it seems) to produce a startling effect. Within these quick glimpses, the reader encounters a writer with a prosthetic leg who becomes obsessed with a literary agent’s daughter, a scientist who synthesizes a drug that results in the deformation of hundreds of newborns, a woman who, abandoned by her husband, abandons her child in a most violent manner, and a man referred to as the “Autumnal Lover” for his predilection for the elderly. This collection of oddities comprises a larger tale, though each is compact enough to stand alone. The ideal reader will take them all in, though the book begs for a second viewing where each flower can be examined as a self-contained planet among the larger universe.
It doesn’t take long to get used to the abrupt shifts from story to story before Flowers comes to an end (sort of) and Mishima’s Illustrated Biography begins. And this is where things get very strange. The novella centers on the writer Mishima, who may very well be the long dead Yukio Mishima, though this Mishima exists post-suicide and is headless. Is it so bad to be headless? One only gets a sense of this late in the story, when the narrator confesses that, to Mishima, the worst aspects of this is the “lack” which he must carry with him, conjuring up both Lacanian ideas and Washington Irving’s famous horseman. This Mishima is also, we are informed, the author of several books that savvy readers will recognize as belonging to Mario Bellatin (most notable: Beauty Salon, a fascinating novella that shares more than a few traits with Mishima’s Illustrated Biography). Is this self-reflective literary criticism, meta-autobiographical fiction, or just plain old hijinks? Ultimately it doesn’t matter, as the prose is elegant and engrossing in its directly stated fashion (thanks be to Kolin Jordan) and the ideas are about as exciting as any one might find in literature today. Reflecting on the purpose of writing, Bellatin offers a damn near perfect thesis: “Mishima realized that this mechanism might consist of using a terrible universe as a shield against what that very world produced.” This is why writers write and why readers seek their works. The mirror reflects the horrors of the world, but in the hands of writers like Bellatin, the mirror distorts just enough to offer escape. But we’re never really free from the truth.
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