The Dostoevsky Theorem
Mario Bellatin’s work brings us, as readers, to a dead end. It is a body of work with many doors: we can enter through a Japanese story, a false biography, or the story of a hospice, that is, a place where those who are in the final stage of an incurable plague or who have been brutally beaten go to die in company. As happens with those that enter that space, we know that, once inside, we are not going to leave. Upon finishing one book, we find ourselves compelled to read another and then we understand that the only option is to stay there to live, because there is something living in that writing that has told us the most terrible things as if they were normal. Let us enter, then, through the Kawabata epigraph that opens Beauty Salon: “Anything inhumane becomes human over time.” This is the nucleus of a decentered writing: if normal time makes humans accept anything, one must write as if time remains suspended, one must waste life’s time.
Mario Bellatin’s writing achieves just that and it is nothing like the series you can stream. It is more like those strange films that make us wonder why we are watching them. Far from any pretension to novelty, this writing generally tells a perfectly understandable story with a language that is modeled after language without the characteristics of a translator. The reading is only disturbed by that which happens: the presence of a bird of prey in a cage located in the bathroom of an immobile man or the talk given by Mishima after his death. Unlike the fiction that dominates the entertainment industry in which people suffer, overcome it, and act in an increasingly ferocious reality in which donning apparently inhuman attitudes becomes a necessity, in Bellatin’s fictions the characters act on impulses and personal beliefs, following rituals that are necessary for them, and nothing alleviates the horror of good intentions, such as those that pursue the female animal protectors that feed a pack of wild dogs prone to attacking to kill the patients of a psychiatric institution. It is not something that is born and develops during the novel; it is something that already exists at the beginning of the story and that is neither resolved nor made worse. In those environments, nevertheless, there are characters that naturally unfold and accept what, given that the narrative imposes its own rules, becomes unacceptable for the readers.
We arrive, thus, at that which is surprising in this work, that is, the game it proposes, because some part of the game’s order has to be present for us to keep reading, something familiar that comes from childhood like that space that opens up when the invented rules of “and if we realize that” replace the other rules of a perceived world that bores us and open that time that converts a nap into anything else. To realize immediately transforms one thing into another without looking back: during the time of the game “the floor is lava,” it is not as if it were lava, whether we like it or not it is lava and for it to go back to being a floor you have to close the book, stop the game. It is not a metaphor but a transformation. The same thing happens with Bellatin’s books and, perhaps because of that, all the references that seem to point beyond literature are contradicted: Japan is not Japan, but neither is it Mexico; Mishima committed seppuku and also wrote Beauty Salon; the blind and deaf brothers find themselves locked in a mental institution without suffering from madness at all and at the same time they find themselves on a boat viciously being attacked by pirates. It is worth saying: that which happens there is exactly what happens inside the game that is real.
Furthermore, that reality does not cease to exist when we close the book because it was not resolved in the fictional world. Upon closing the book, we are left before a void, and it is then that we notice that the whole time we were alone before that which was narrated. The function of the narrator, or even more the author-function, was occupied with taking away the floor where our way of being in the world sits, plank by plank, as if it were a cartoon. Nevertheless, let us not forget this, that all of Bellatin’s literature is generously open to the reader: one of his characteristics is that the subtraction operation to which he subjects all his texts never affect the ability to follow the plot, as strange as it may be. The text may even be a succession of fragments with no apparent relation, and, in that case, we are sure that each abandoned story will be picked back up with the necessary signs so that we can recover, so that the scaffoldings are not the ones that have been pulled down. The shock that one of Bellatin’s text produces is not related to the discovery of something new, strange, and then monstrous, but to incidences with which we coexist on a daily basis but that, subject to custom, we seem to forget. In that way, and in virtue of his way of narrating, we could not be moved before a child prepared to deliver his dead body to his parents, or be outraged or exercise any kind of comforting feeling that would make us feel like good people; rather we remain in suspense, like the figures at the beginning of Jacob the Mutant. This mode of suspending judgement, just as with the quotidian time or the metaphoric relationship with reality, is the most serious ethical stake of Mario Bellatin’s writing, as he knows that just as a poet should remember that his poetry is responsible for the triviality of life, the man of that life should remember that his lack of rigorousness and seriousness in his existential problems is responsible for the sterility of art. This thesis belongs to Bakhtin and his evidence is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s body of work; he is an author that our writer read meticulously throughout his adolescence, those years in which childhood stays behind as a way of life and becomes a way of seeing.
We find ourselves, then, with a tool for thinking through that narrative voice that the critics have coincided in signaling as disaffected, insensitive, and even mineral. That disaffection is a precaution, an effort to neither sympathize nor allow the reader to sympathize with the characters or with the writer who presents them. In particular, it is not easy to locate a solitary voice in his intonation, whether the character is carrying out actions that could be considered heroic, like caring for the sick, or reproachable, like drowning children in a fountain. Remember that the action that appears in The Szechuan School of Human Pain is carried out by the worst disciple of this institution who has as his objective “to take advantage of the representation of the moods” and that it would have worked in “a popular republic, that, as noted, made the individual pain of citizens a collective tragedy.” The deaths of the drowned children before bird men that motionlessly contemplate them are not capricious: it is the destiny of every third son (ideally there would be only one, the second should be castrated, and the third brought to the town square) and they follow a precise ritual that is completed with exercises such as carrying out a small genuflection, spreading their arms in a cross, and holding their breath. Being moved before the destiny of these boys is not on the executioner’s horizon, he who never presents himself as an executioner. These horrible deaths, boys that resist being drowned, are part of a bureaucratic rationality, and we only learn of their existence because they take advantage of a show that is carried out in the central square at the hour of the greatest public turnout. These scenes—nothing says they are real, we have been warned that they are part of ethnic theater—are interspersed with others that are recognizable in daily life, like that of a daughter washing her dying father’s feet, or that of a father that suffers from his son’s ineptitude at school and as a consequence brutally punishes him.
The Dostoevsky problem—how to write in such a way that existence ceases to be trivialized—crisscrosses Bellatin’s work and polemically constructs his mode of literary existence. There was a time when writers worked to denounce pain as if it were a form of action that made them noble beings; the readers could identify and sympathize not only with the characters but fundamentally with the authors. That time has passed: in the literature that Bellatin proposes there is no room for compassion, but neither is his a literature of cynicism that proposes consumer enjoyment above contradictions like the character in a movie that conserves works of art in a space of contemplation that turns its back on the state of the world. One conviction is not exchanged for another; the de-writing that Bellatin operates through tone and the innumerable elisions that his texts contain tends to construct a space of creative freedom for the reader at the same time that it reminds them that freedom is a conflict zone where everyone is obligated to make a decision. That is how we, the readers, enter into the theorem: a game, an apparently dead-end street, a possibility of creation.
Translated by Sarah Booker
Graciela Goldchluk is Professor of Hispanic Philology at the Universidad Nacional de La Plata, Argentina. Her research focuses on Latin American literary archives and contemporary manuscripts. Among other fonds, she has curated and organised those of writers Manuel Puig and Mario Bellatin.
Sarah Booker is a doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill with a focus on contemporary Latin American narrative and translation studies. She is a literary translator working from Spanish to English and has translated, among others, Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Iliac Crest (2017, Feminist Press; 2018, And Other Stories) and Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country (2020, Feminist Press) and Mónica Ojeda’s Jawbone (forthcoming with Coffee House Press). Her translations have also been published in journals such as The Paris Review, Asymptote, Latin American Literature Today, 3:am magazine, Nashville Review, MAKE, and Translation Review.
In our thirteenth issue, we feature two innovative, hard-to-define figures of Latin American letters: from the present, Mexican writer Mario Bellatin, and from the past, Chilean writer Juan Emar. Together with these authors, we highlight Latin American theatre for the first time with a script by Ramón Griffero, Nahuatl-language poetry by Martín Tonalmeyotl, plus interviews, book reviews, exclusive previews, and more from writers including Rosario Castellanos, César Aira, and Salgado Maranhão.