Sunday, December 18, 2011

Beauty Salon

I read Mario Bellatín’s incredibly short Beauty Salon (trans. Kurt Hollander) a few months ago now—the semester really got away from me, and I haven’t had much of a chance to read the things that I want or write about them until now. Bellatín has been on my list since Beauty Salon was published in English, and I’m not sure I liked it as much as I thought I would. However, I half-think this is because the story is sold as a novella rather than a short story in a larger collection. It comes in at 63 pages and a relatively small number of words per page--there are short stories that are longer than this. Perhaps this seems trivial, but I do think there is something about a short story that is different from a novella or novel, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it turned out that Bellatín is publishing this in the form that he is due to publishers’ beliefs about the value of short stories.

Beauty Salon is narrated by a former salon proprietor who has turned his business into a refuge for those dying from a mysterious disease, one that necessarily echoes AIDS in its progression but also due to the story’s setting in a queer community. And yet it cannot be reduced to AIDS either: the narrator intimates a street gang is responsible for infecting at least some people with the disease. As the narrator tends the dying, he also tends his once-thriving collection of aquariums. The story takes as an epigraph “Anything inhumane becomes humane over time,” and as it unfolds it focuses more and more on how the narrator, unable to do anything to really help these people, ends up making a habit of certain cruelties in order to make the situation bearable for himself--even as he awaits the onset of disease in his own body. Relatively early on he becomes attached to one of the patients until, he claims, he “lost interest” watched the young man die as indifferently as the rest. But the lost interest seems more self-protection than anything else.

All of these concerns pack anger and regret under a style that masquerades as spare and disaffected: a critique of a culture that has allowed this decimation of an underclass, but a critique that also points back to how managing the fallout makes the narrator, as a member of that underclass, complicit with the damage. Yet, dynamic as all of this is, the story feels at last more like a short story or peek into a larger narrative than a novella in its own right, and thus packaged for different expectations than it meets. Perhaps this is because simple waiting is so central to the narrative--to have any more of a sense of beginning and ending would betray something fundamental--that the story either would have to be very short, like this, or very long, one of those behemoth novels where the point is that nothing happens to change the situation.

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