Mario Bellatin’s new novella Beauty Salon, translated by Kurt Hollander and published this July by City Lights, is the haunting tale of beauty salon turned death parlor, named the Terminal by its homosexual owner and former stylist, for men dying from an unnamed plague. Like his other work, it is allegorical, brief, and eery. Though this is just his second work to be published in English, following Chinese Checkers, translated by Cooper Renner and published by Ravenna Press in 2007, Bellatin is well known throughout Latin America. He has won the Xavier Villarrutia Award and been awarded a Gugenheim Fellowship. He was born without a right hand, and frequently wears a variety of hooks.
To celebrate the release of Beauty Salon, Molossus presents an interview with Bellatin, from early 2007, a new portrait of Bellatin by Laura Peters, and another 2007 interview, this one with Cooper Renner and about translating Chinese Checkers.
A Conversation with Mario Bellatin
Carlos M. Sotomayor
tr. David Shook
This interview from early 2007 is reprinted from Carlos M. Sotomayor’s website, letraCapital, and followed the Peruvian release of his novel Perros héroes, at the Trujillo Book Fair. In his introduction Sotomayor writes that “Mario Bellatin has achieved the maximum reduction of the author’s presence in each of his books,” and he goes on to question him about that presence.
A few copies of the Interzona edition of Perros héroes, from Argentina, were circulated in Lima. Now, [the Peruvian press] Matalamanga has printed a nice edition of the novel. How do you take that?
Each edition is a new work. I try as much as possible to make each book appear as if it was just written. There are several editions of Perros héroes—on Alfaguara, on Interzona, on Matalamanga, on Ravenna Press, on Passage du Nord Ouest—but I don’t think that any are the same—I’m referring to the text itself—or that any annuls the others.
Is it possible that a Peruvian edition of one of your books that hasn’t appeared in our bookstores will arrive in Lima?
I’ve always published on several presses at the same time. It seems interesting to me to see how the texts take distinct paths according to the routes that their editors draw up. There are several books that haven’t been published in Peru, and I’d like to hear creative proposals from Peruvian editors to make the editorial projects really work.
The protagonist of Perros héroes, this blind and invalid man, really existed. How did you find him?
One particular afternoon I answered an ad in the classifieds for Belgian Malinois Shepherds. It was like discovering a wrinkle in reality that contained this fiction, that an induced fiction—that of once upon a time—could be difficultly achieved.
Regarding the concision of your language, or as Villoro would say, in “your phrases polished like rocks,” I detect a particularity in your work that in spite of this leaves a lot unsaid, a lot that the reader must complete…
It’s high time to return to the reader the liberty of recreating their own universes. That’s why I try to make the texts appear as if from nothing. Without a predetermined context or an author full of answers supporting it. I know that achieving that is something impossible, but to play with that possibility can be a good pretext for writing.
Your novels have been published in many countries and translated into various languages. Where do you think they’ve understood you best?
I don’t pay much attention to what happens with the books after they’re published. Nonetheless, I’ve received very interesting work from critics that have constructed proper discourses using my books as their base. For me it’s been important to see how a text can generate another autonomous text. These works have mostly come from France and Argentina.
In Lima you have a large following, including many young writers who appreciate your understanding of literature. How do you take that in relation to what happened in the ‘90s?
What you say satisfies me immensely, but I’m not sure if it’s true. I hope that someone feels close to what I do. I don’t have much contact with what happens here. Lima has been reduced to two or three friends. In the ‘90s I didn’t know much about was happening either. At that time Lima was reduced to two or three friends. Everything else, everything outside the confinement of my writing, I always considered it a plus that it never had to do with the things I was or am doing.
My friend Ezio Neyra told me that in Mexico Alfaguara published a book that compiles several of your novels. Is that because all of your books engage in dialogue with one another and are parts of a whole?
It’s strange, the part of your question “My friend Ezio Neyra told me.” It gives me the sensation that the existence of a book is in doubt. Something that would be perfect. Not to write a book but to simply name it and thus achieve its apparition. It reminds me of what I’m trying to do now. Writing without writing. To make a work of literature without needing to write it as it is assumed that books are written. To achieve that—which I’m still not sure how to do in any concrete manner—the first step was to liberate myself from the writer named Mario Bellatin, and what better way to do so than to bury him beneath his complete works.
Carlos M. Sotomayor is a Peruvian journalist and writer. He edits letraCapital.
A Few New Hooks for Mario Bellatin
Laura Peters, Painter of Poets, is an actor, artist, and musician in Los Angeles. Her most recent screen appearances were on Happiness Runs and Text.
A Conversation with Cooper Renner
Cooper Renner is the translator of Chinese Checkers: Three Fictions by Mario Bellatin, out this year from Ravenna Press. One of the three pieces, My Skin Luminous, appeared in the May edition of elimae . Bellatin is a Mexican writer who began publishing in the mid-1980s and came out with a slew of interesting novellas in the 1990s and 2000s. These have been published by various houses in Mexico, Spain, and Latin America, along with translations into German and French. But this is the first collection of this fascinating and unsettling writer for the English-speaking world. I interviewed Renner to learn more about how he came across Bellatin, and what it was like rendering these unusual works into English.
What attracts you to Bellatin?
Bellatin is a very interesting writer, not least because of his devotion to the novella form. Apparently the economics of publication in Spanish-speaking countries are more humane than ours. His publishers are willing to issue slim books of under 100 pages. His focus, in the works included in Chinese Checkers as well as in others I have read, seems to be on exploring the ins and outs of specific situations. He is not plot-driven, nor do his characterizations seem to function in the normal way—that is, to create a sympathetic character whom the author leads through some sort of growth process to a sort of epiphany. Any given one of his sentences, isolated from its context, might seem like an ordinary narrative sentence in a traditional work. But Bellatin’s contexts don’t work that way: situations and thought repeat and recur in an apparently random fashion; he refuses to orchestrate climaxes and artificial excitements, even where a conventional writer would immediately do so.
We were talking about running out of things to read. I’ve almost stopped expecting, at this point, to come across more great books I know nothing about. But I only read in English. Yet you’ve been reading more and more in Spanish. How did that come about, and how did that lead you to translating Bellatin?
Going into Spanish was almost unconscious for me, I think. Because I was working in El Paso, surrounded by Spanish, it probably just kind of started seeping in: if not the language itself, the desire to use it. This links into the issue of not having enough good material to read in two ways: first, because there are plenty of Spanish language books not available in English translation; and second, because switching into Spanish required a great deal more concentration from me and therefore changed the way I read. The forms in which Spanish sentences operate were still often “foreign” to me, and there were still lots of words I didn’t know. There are STILL lots of words I don’t know. And I stumbled across writers whose works were not easily, or at all, available in English. I have read four, I think, of Manuel Rivas’s books, only two of which have been translated into English, most notably The Carpenter’s Pencil. I found Ignacio Padilla’s Las antipodas y el siglo in a bookstore in Dallas and got very excited by the Borgesian nature of those stories. I went on to his novels Amphitryon and Espiral de artillería, a short section of which I have translated and published in Anemone Sidecar.
Bellatin is an author I also stumbled across in the bookstore. Perros héroes is the work I found first, and of course my version of it appears in Chinese Checkers. I believe I read Jacobo el mutante next, then Salón de belleza. I initially contacted his agent about doing a two-in-one collection of Perros héroes and Salón de belleza, but they [Bellatin and his agent] weren’t willing to release the latter, which has been published internationally, because the edition Ravenna Press and I were proposing was a fairly small first edition. They proposed pairing Perros héroes with Damas chinas, to which I readily agreed. Bellatin e-mailed me revised texts of the two, which he had prepared for a Spanish collected edition, and I got to work. A while later, he sent me the text of a new work, which had not yet appeared in Spanish, though it may have by now, which he suggested would make a nice third for the book. The text was, of course, Mi piel, luminosa (My Skin Luminous).
Did you ever think you might be wrecking Bellatin by taking him out of Spanish? Are there aspects of his prose that don’t cross borders well?
I got really worried, sort of panicked, when it was time for the book to be released, thinking I might have done a terrible job, might have misrepresented Bellatin, and so forth. He had already told me that he and some of his friends liked the translation, but I worried that maybe their grasp of English wasn’t strong enough and maybe my translation had horrible flaws they couldn’t see.
And who knows? Maybe I have misreprented Bellatin. I hope not, but how do I know? I come to Spanish as a foreigner; it’s not suffused in my cells. It’s acquired. I gather, from the few responses I’ve gotten from fellow writers, that “my” Bellatin is at least an acceptable work in English, though that again doesn’t address the issue of its faithfulness to the Spanish. I did have to make the kind of choice you and I have already discussed—sticking with the more accurate “immobile” man [in Hero Dogs] instead of an equivalent that would feel more normal in English, such as “paralyzed” or “quadraplegic,” which would connote more or less what Bellatin seemed to me to be doing in Spanish. And I did, at one point or another, decide not to get too colloquial, a decision that may have been wrong, to be sure, since Spanish by its very nature looks more formal, at least to me, than English does. But Bellatin’s work simply felt more reserved that the sort of talky prose that features in most contemporary English fictional prose.
I don’t know how much of a connection there may be, psychologically, between Bellatin’s work and my own mind. The central idea of My Skin Luminous—the mother’s exposure of the boy/youth’s genitals—is, I think, immediately fascinating to any male, in some way perhaps a fascination of the abomination, to use Conrad’s term. It’s so outré. Could that really happen? Could there really be a culture which has this practice? I think this is a hook that men could hardly resist. What would it mean to be that boy? But Bellatin doesn’t pursue any of the sensational aspects of the situation in the way that most US writers would, I think. The exposure is part of the boy’s life, but not all of it; it’s part of Bellatin’s tale, but not all of it. I imagine an American agency saying, “But where is the drama? Where is the big scene? Shouldn’t he kill his mother at some point? Wouldn’t this trauma make him a psychopath?”
But Chinese Checkers and Hero Dogs are so different. The methodical, discreet doctor ruminating, but not toward any apparent conclusion, on his own life and its apparent tragedies while entwining it with the odd tale of the boy and the old woman; the immobile man, who is an (unexplained) emblem of Latin America. What really moves these novellas forward, since they are clearly not plot-driven, is Bellatin’s skill with words, his refusal to be cheesy and Hollywood-ish, his determination to say well what he needs to say, rather than to follow the traditional, conventional paths to commercial success. I think it’s very well worth noting that each of these three novellas holds at its heart the clear elements of either a sensationalized thriller or a thoughtful, serious, literary novel—but in each case Bellatin refuses to take the easy way.
Cooper Renner is an artist, editor, poet (as Cooper Esteban), translator, and writer. He edits elimae.
Angela Woodward is the author of The Human Mind (Ravenna Press, 2007) and the forthcoming The End of the Fire Cult (Ravenna Press, 2010). See also her review of Jaime Luis Huenun’s Port Trakl in the June 2008 issue of Tarpaulin Sky.