By Adrienne Biggs
“Most fish have no idea of what’s happening outside their tanks.”
Beauty Salon by Mexican novelist Mario Bellatin is a very disturbing book. Although pithy in size (a mere 63 pages), its subject matter is decidedly not: a mysterious and deadly plague has descended upon an unnamed city, whose infected inhabitants come to the Terminal, a former beauty salon, “where people who have nowhere to die end their days”. The proprietor, a male transvestite who remains unnamed, ruminates on the transient nature of beauty with repeated references to his collection of colorful, exotic fish which swim obliviously in several aquariums, providing much-needed distraction for the guests, and himself.
The protagonist admits, “the aquariums make me feel as if there’s still something fresh in the beauty salon”. An expert in death, and therefore in life, he admits, “With just a quick glance I can predict how much time each one has left to live” and describes the state of most of his guests as “something like a total lethargy in which even the possibility of their inquiring about their own health no longer exists.” His detached, nonchalant attitude—“I can almost never identify the guests…they are nothing more to me than bodies on the verge of disappearing”–devolves as he wrestles with “who will take charge of the beauty salon when the disease spreads inside me.” He considers his work “a duty I can’t avoid.”
Lines blur between his interactions with the guests and commentary regarding the fish: “regardless of the small amount of time I dedicate to raising them they still somehow cling to life…the luckiest among them only really suffer for about fifteen days, but there are others that cling to life just like the last batch of guppies. They want to live even when there is no way that they will ever see their situation improve…” The naivete and beauty of the fish become an allegory for the fleeting youth of the patrons.
The rules of the Terminal are inflexible. Women and early-stage sufferers, as well as doctors and medicine are prohibited at the Terminal; also banned are herbal and spiritual healers, moral support from friends and family, and “crucifixes, religious images and prayers of any kind”. Outsiders can donate only money, candy and bedclothes. The proprietor admits, “I feel a somewhat sad joy when I realize that for the first time ever I’ve imposed a certain kind of order upon my life, even if the way I have achieved it does seem a bit gloomy”. While never named, it is impossible not to think of the AIDS epidemic, or to compare the overall tone to Albert Camus’ The Plague.
Not surprisingly, he battles indecision, impatience, and depression during the course of his work. He also hints at feelings of shame and unresolved family dynamics, saying “My mother never forgave me for not turning out to be the straight son she had wanted.” The owner of a hotel and men’s club appears as a mentor, whose one fundamental rule was that “I should never forget that youth is fleeting and that I should take advantage of my young age as much as possible.” This mentor educated our protagonist in his finances as well, and before he was even twenty-two years old he had raised enough capital to invest in the beauty salon, “a place that was designed strictly for beauty”.
But “As the business became established I felt increasingly empty. That’s when I began to live what you could call a dissipated life…the overdose of street activity began to erode my spiritual core.” He begins to feel an inner transformation as the beauty salon morphs into the Terminal. When he notices “the marks of the disease….pustules on my right cheek…I felt like a fish covered in fungus from whom even its natural predators will flee”. His secret life “ended right there” and he “stuffed the dresses, the feathers and the sequins into the backyard toilet and I made a large fire with them…my intention was to fall into the fire, to be engulfed in flames and disappear before the slow agony took hold of my body.” At the same time, again using the fish as metaphor, he notes “how the fish attached by fungus became sacred and untouchable…the sick fish were always respected.”
Over time, his forays into the underground night-life of cruising and bath houses subsides—“My new condition allowed me to definitively retire from public life”—and when he starts to take care of guests he “became, among other things, somewhat more responsible. I wasn’t so young anymore.” His loneliness is palpable as he finds himself with “no one I can write. There’s not even anyone out there who doesn’t want to write to me.” He admits, “I don’t know what will happen when I die…but it really worries me.”
Upon the threshold, his ability to relinquish control of himself and the Terminal leads to acceptance of his fate and a realization that he has brought a new kind of beauty into the world. He seems grateful to the Terminal for giving him a good life, and offering him an honorable place to expire with dignity and grace.
I am strangely appreciative of having been assigned this book for review. Originally published in 1999 but recently translated from the Spanish by Kurt Hollander, I feel this disquieting novella is destined to haunt—and ultimately inspire—any reader who dares allow himself to reflect upon its deeper lessons.
By Mario Bellatin
City Lights Publishers (2009)