The Most Poetical Topic in the World, According to Mario Bellatin, is No Longer the Death of a Beautiful Woman
by Lucas de Lima on Feb.07, 2014
as Poe once declared, but instead the death of her sidekick and counterfeit, the hairstylist in drag, now a shiny prosthesis to beauty’s phantom limb.
This is what Bellatin’s slim novella Beauty Salon (City Lights, trans. by Kurt Hollander) proposes in its revision of the decadent tradition, a call-to-arms much like Joyelle’s “We Must Be Decadent, Again” post against the ‘forward-thinking’ moves trending in our midst. The book’s indulgence in dystopian-utopian artifice, in fact, moves backward on multiple levels. Not only does it transplant the muse of beauty onto anonymous cross-dressing queers in an unnamed city, but it turns our RuPaul-friendly clock back to the beginning of the AIDS epidemic by any other name: the disease afflicting gay men in the book is likewise blacked-out, unidentifiable as in its early years. After the narrator describes having transformed his salon into a hospice for the HIV+, he unflinchingly refers to it as “the Terminal” or “Moridero” in Spanish, a word whose medieval source recalls those dark ages of the bubonic plague:
The increasing number of people who come to die in the beauty salon is no form of entertainment at all. It’s no longer just friends of mine who are in an advanced state of the disease, the majority of the people here are strangers who have nowhere else to die. If it were not for the Terminal their only option would be to perish in the street. All the aquariums are empty now. That is, all except one. I try very hard to keep something alive.
The narrator’s obsession with his fish emerges from the outset as another regressive tic, as pointless to any would-be plot as a remedy would be to his terminally ill guests. But like fistfuls of glitter, the aquariums do have an effect on everyone’s moods:
For example, when I first got interested in golden carp, in addition to the tranquility I derived from observing them, I would always add something gold to the dresses I wore at night. It could have been a gold belt, gloves or stockings. I believed that wearing something gold would bring me good luck, perhaps save me from bumping into the Goat-Killer Gang that operated in the center of the city. Many people were killed by their attacks, but it was even worse if you survived a run-in with them. The victims of the attacks were treated with contempt when they were brought into the hospitals. Often they weren’t even allowed in for fear of infection. Which is why I began to help wounded comrades who had nowhere to go, and perhaps that is the beginning of this sad Terminal I have the misfortune of running.
Here, we glimpse the fact that Beauty Salon never allows anything to transcend the aesthetic plane and realize a politics or ethics somehow beyond literature. Just as fish are trapped inside the aquarium, the narrator must fend for himself on dangerous streets. And just as the narrator borrows the fishes’ decorousness as less a shield or weapon than a magical charm, Bellatin’s reader holds the novella before her in all its spell, secrecy, and uncertain depth. The salon, the aquarium, and the narrative thus overlap as precarious zones for bodies dying yet nevertheless tended to by the narrator-author; a beauty in decay manages to saturate all three. What I mean by this is that beauty’s death drive– its capacity to suck the world into its hollow core–shapes the ways all bodies in the book are pushed to their own undoing. As the axolotl stuck in the aquarium dismember each other, they mimic the self-annihilation unwittingly brought on by gay men whose sexual attraction also led to their physical deformation and withering away.
In light of so much death around him, the narrator’s detached tone still reverberates pain, rerouting it through unsanctioned forms of identification. Even though he removes all mirrors from the salon, his anecdotes do the job of “infinitely multiplying the suffering, as mirrors facing each other tend to do in such a strange way.” It’s just this virality of language that makes life tolerable, in the end, if not sometimes marvelous. The pursuit of beauty, when taken to the body’s breaking point, enchants because it is directed at both life and death. Any charge of nihilism aimed at Bellatin’s decadence, in other words, does not hold up. In a world that insists on the sanitizing division between the social body and the self, Beauty Salon instead comes to us as an alchemical force, a message translated from the unspeakable limits of the individual.