Mario Bellatin’s Beauty Salon, translated elegantly from the Spanish by Kurt Hollander, is a strange and beautiful parable about human bodies living and dying on the fringes of society. The brevity of Bellatin’s novella is deceptive—in just sixty-three pages, the story of this unnamed narrator, a cross-dressing, homosexual hair stylist who turns his beloved beauty salon into a hospice for victims dying of a mysterious plague, prompts us to consider our collective attitudes toward, and treatment of, the human body—in illness, in death, in poverty, and in opposition to dominant conceptions of sexual behavior.
Bellatin’s narrator has become the lone caretaker for men (only men are welcome here) dying of a plague that has stricken his unnamed city. “The Terminal,” as his beloved former beauty salon for local women is now known, has become the last stop for those affected by the plague. As the disease ravages the city, leaving its victims to die alone in a society than shuns them, at risk of attack from the predatory Goat Killer Gang, the Terminal offers precious refuge.
Curiously—and this is what makes the novella so compelling—the narrator is more concerned with describing the tropical fish he houses in the elaborate aquariums of the hospice-turned-salon than he is with the hospice itself or those he cares for within it. This obsession is a significant part of the structure of the novel: the narrator reluctantly provides information about the daily events of the Terminal in asides that distract him, to his annoyance, from the aquarium, but which he still feels compelled to offer.
The narrator’s hesitance, and his unusual priorities, make reading Beauty Salon a particularly enigmatic experience. Bellatin subverts attempts to understand his character’s motivations and psychology by making this psychology opaque to readers. This deliberate opacity prevents the kind of understanding many readers—particularly many American readers, I’ll contend—may be accustomed to. Contemporary mainstream American literature is dominated by a particular brand of psychological realism that rewards readers in a way that Bellatin has no apparent interest in—these novels carefully track a character’s innermost thoughts, and the smallest of actions is revelatory of character in a strict one-to-one ratio. Bellatin, however, gives us none of this—what we are given is narrative, the narrator’s story, and there is no interceding narratorial presence to account for the protagonist’s actions, or paternally guide our interpretation.
What we do hear much about is the rareness and uniqueness of the fish; the narrator is fascinated by the dynamics within the tank, especially those between sick and healthy fish. The sick human bodies the narrator tends to, however, are merely bodies—not rare, not unique, and of little interest to him. He insists, in fact, upon treating them thus—for his own benefit, and for theirs. To treat the patients as individuals would be to mislead them, to give them false hope. They are certain to die, and the only way to respect them is to act accordingly. Kindness seems almost cruel at times, too, as evidenced by the stringent rules the narrator imposes on the Terminal: no visitors, no gifts, no women, and, notably, no religion.
Beauty Salon is a parable, but one grounded by its specific social critique. The ill are refugees from the social institutions that purport to care for them, but with a very narrow vision of what “care” actually entails—hospitals will not allow them to die there, not with any degree of respect or dignity, at least. The narrator’s distrust of religion reflects his belief that religious institutions, too, impose upon the ill, falsely leading them to believe in a fate for the body that is mystical and untrue. It is notable that the owner of the beauty salon is a homosexual man prone to cross-dressing, who occasionally engages (happily) in prostitution—his is a body that acts in discord with socio-sexual norms. Like his patients, who have been shunned and cast aside, he too is an outsider. The confluence of these factors, as well, suggests an allegorical commentary on the HIV virus and AIDS and the history of the treatment of infected individuals in our society.
Bellatin isolates us with his narrator, and yet keeps us at a remove from him; reading this novella resembled what I would imagine life inside an aquarium to be like, we readers fish swimming in cloudy water, behind glass, within a room that is populated but from which we are at a removecast outside of more traditional narrative techniques The space Bellatin creates between what his narrator says, and does displaces outside events as the story’s central puzzle.The narrator deflects questions about the apparent disconnect between his selfless actions and singular obsession with fish, sternly resisting self-examination. He explains that he fell—as if by accident—into running the hospice: a few friends became ill and he cared for them instinctually. Realizing that there were many others with nowhere else to go, he reluctantly began to take them in, too. He’d taken it upon himself to establish a place in which the sick could die in a way far more respectful of life than any of their other meager options provided, at the same time contending with the mysterious plague and the sick society in which it thrives by escaping into a beautiful if sometimes troubling world of his own creation. He seems to have decided that the only way to survive is safely behind glass, submersed in a watery, submarine world, removed from a society that is far sicker than any of his patients are. By the end of the novel, he has withdrawn from this society nearly completely; his friends all seem to have died anyway, and he has lost interest in even those things that used to give him pleasure.
Bellatin’s rendering here of this strategy of escapism is tender and empathetic—the narrator sometimes does recognize the imperfection of the world in his aquarium, despite himself. He allows the imperfections of the human world to intrude upon his musings on the fish. And it is this allowance, though only half-articulated, that seems to give him the integrity and steadfastness to care for the dying in their imperfection. Despite his his precious fish, despite everything he says, we see what he has done, and his actions belie his words. What he has given to them, and Bellatin to us, is a model for dying, and for living; for treating the abject body with honesty and respect, despite difference and decay—perhaps because of it. Even if it seems too much to say. Bellatin offers a different way of reading, and of telling, a story—one in which what is unsaid, incompletely rendered, allows respectful room for discovering and conveying more than we might have imagined, or were told that we could.