My New Scriptures, The New Scriptures
After what I have just confessed to you, I must explain that I am convinced that the desire to which I aspire above all others is to have a saluki dog, the only breed accepted as sacred in Islam. The dog that is not a dog but a Gift of God. Is the Quran not foreign to us? you must wonder. It surely is to you. You, an immigrant like so many others, who bring along not only their misfortunes but also their beliefs. After having been part of murderous armies, I am sure you believe nothing Muslim forms part of our culture, nor, obviously, the theology of the pre-Columbian gods, whose manifestations appear to me every day in the streets surrounding the beauty salon turned deathhouse I set up soon after I came to Mexico. You’re sure of that, that neither the Muslim nor the pre-Columbian is ours, despite the fact that you now live in a continent populated by dead people. In a space with no defined fate. In this place of cadavers where I ended up not only settling in for good, but also even starting up a salon where people come in hopes of looking more beautiful. I could tell you, I’m sure it’s what you’d like to hear, I’m convinced of that, that you believe in nothing that doesn’t come from the Bible. It must be because I’ve known you since the days when we were different. But maybe you’re right, and in the end, none of the Holy Scriptures belong to us, none of the Holy Scriptures by which a good measure of humanity is governed. And so we must be humble, hang our heads and accept that we live in a continent where the Word no longer exists, nor the Tutelary Books, nor the Codices, nor the intricate and impregnable atavistic scriptures of the civilizations of the South, the quipu, nor the new interpretations, often realized by the innumerable evangelists who knock again and again on the door of the beauty salon turned deathhouse that I watch over. Nothing to lend meaning to the infinite number of absurd deaths that surround us, the living living on the dead, the dead on the living, the dead burying their own dead, the dead digging up their dead. God willing, I wish with all my heart, someday I will be able to get a saluki, like I told you, the sacred dog of Islam. I worry as much about the way to get it as I do about whether or not I am in the right condition to raise it. These are delicate dogs that need plenty of space to run and develop adequately. I don’t think the place of dead people where I live, where no one believes in a single Sacred Scripture anymore, is the proper place to watch it grow. Does it seem appropriate to you for me to tell a dog I’m not only an author of books, but also a bearer of New Scriptures? I’m sure Shaykha Fariha will appear in these lands, dressed in sumptuous garments. Glass beads will hang from her body. She will recite to me, as she sees me assume the humble attitude at the center of prayer, the premonition that the next Ramadan will bring me a saluki. The Old and New Scriptures tend to be found in the most unexpected places, she would say before she moves away. When I got up this morning, I started feeding the residents of the salon, the sick people I keep in this place that was once dedicated to beauty. This morning, almost everything appeared as if beyond the real to me. I thought perhaps Shaykha Fariha would do everything she could to get me a specimen from among her acquaintances. An animal that does not dig up the dead with its nails, as Muhammad sentenced upon granting it the condition of a divine gift. When the other dogs tried to profane his tomb, the Prophet’s companions destroyed them with the blades of their swords. All the hundreds of canines from nearby places lay inert and bleeding, forming immense mountains of dead bodies that had to be incinerated, buried in secret graves, anonymous. Dogs that were ordered disappeared, the ashes then supposedly to be cast into the waters of a river. Dog meat that was carried to the crematory ovens of the military barracks. Dogs killed like dogs. By a higher order, not written in any sacred book, since the Present-Day Scripture has ceased to exist. The dead forming a single mass. Today, like the New Scriptures of which I mean to tell you, salukis are almost impossible to get. The bones of the secret dead are still present around me. They move through any Scripture, sacred or not. Classic or contemporary. To get a saluki, one generally must undertake long journeys. But the true miracle is not represented in the arrival of the dog that is not a dog, but rather in the appearance of a scripture all its own. With a gift seemingly enjoyed by the nomads of the desert when they listen to their dogs, when they hear their dead. More than once, the Prophet Muhammad himself declared that a Bedouin without a good saluki by his side, a type of writing, might consider himself a dead man. The next Ramadan, I had to forget my frequent worries. Not pay too much mind to the guests, the sick people about to die whom I keep in the salon. All the time, in my memory, I see the years when we were soldiers. The streets sprinkled with cadavers after the final bombings that finished off our city. Forgetting our fingers smashed on the surface of an anvil in the hopes of passing ourselves off as victims and, thus, successfully fleeing to these American lands, heavy with violence, which they assigned us as a permanent place of residence. Leaving behind the horror signified by never seeing each other again. Not noticing the hundreds of dead that surround me, not only the bodies on the path to disappearance of the guests I keep under my care, but also those who live in the secret graves that never stop disappearing. It seems to be the necessary time for the appearance, out of nowhere, of a series of letters that form phrases that give the answers present in the Holy Books. In the Nahuatl codices, in the quipus, in certain passages of the Popol Vuh. No present-day language seems to be prepared to express the misfortune of which we are victims. Words are now unable to account for what is happening around us. Of explaining our inner horror at the moment we face the hundreds of anonymous cadavers with whom we must live. Where are the Dead we know? Where are the ones we don’t know? Letters that appeared from out of nowhere led me to write my first book. The same letters that begin the description of a space where fish appear trapped in an aquarium. Suspended in an artificial habitat that has little to do with the place where the fishtank rests. Working creatively in front of these dying fish was perhaps one of the ways I found to escape the guilt I feel as much for writing as for not writing. Even though you know that’s impossible. It can’t be real that someone like the two of us, who hardly knows how to read and write, could experience a guilt like that. You’re well aware that we have received no education. They taught us no more than basic letters and a few passages from the Bible there, in that regiment of murderers to which we belonged. Because that was our battalion: a regiment of wrongdoers. Only now do I realize. Back then we thought we were saving the honor of a Nation. I clearly remember certain nights in my bed, in Mexico City, wrapped up in an eiderdown, experiencing the deceitful sensation of being protected as much from my own writing as from the constant images of the systematic killings of dogs, from outlines of mosques from East as well as West, from children murdering other children in the small towns of the Andes, from the Mexican tableland, on the black coasts of the Pacific, that appear to me constantly. Experiencing scenes in which the pre-Columbian Gods devour other Gods, other human beings. I suppose you can’t believe that I represent the New Scriptures either. That I say the New Scripture is me. Someone who tries, and the fish in the aquariums I care for know this just as well as the dogs that have followed me all my life, to set themselves up as the possessor of this gift. Letters that can define me as an author and as a person immersed in tragedy. I know you’re aware that everything I’m telling you is a lie. That I don’t believe in the Sacred Books, not those of the West nor those that belong to the lands where we live. That I am not a writer, something impossible for me to consider myself, principally because I have never received any education. I am, it’s true, a stylist who decorated a salon in a poor area with an infinity of colorful fish. I write only to forget, so as not to remember the years we lived, one beside the other, suffering the most terrible wartime defeat. I live in the hopes that, out of spontaneous generation, the famous New Scripture will spring forth at the most unexpected moment. It would be, perhaps, similar to a dog bigger than a horse. Almost like a camel from the desert. Or maybe it would appear as the opposite, miniscule like a colorful fish. Those fish I know well, that know how to write and make stories of a disturbing beauty. There exists no conventional way to express what appears as a monster, a shadow in life: writing that is realized over the course of existence. I have never known the exact moment at which the eagerness to write, blind, foolish, without a defined meaning beyond that of practicing writing for the simple fact of realizing it, turned into what some call the literary, what in some way allows someone who writes to be classified, archived, understood within a certain order, which ends up burying them in a false certainty. What’s certain is that, as I told you, I have no memory with regards to my own work. Much less with any defined concept. I believe, rather, that scriptures must exist in order to be instantly forgotten. That, the forgetting, is perhaps their reason for being. To put in practice the Scriptural Seal of No Memory. In this exercise of forgetting I would like to place the soldier I fed behind your back, the colorful fish, the boat full of immigrants that transported us to these lands. Brother in arms, the only way I have to think what the New Scriptures might mean is taking my own work, of which I remember almost nothing, as a point of reference. Have I mentioned it before, in some space? Remind me, even now when I know you’re engrossed at the side of a young disciple, while you wait for the water to boil for tea. It’s the exact moment when a little Muslim Latin American boy tells about a dream. The dream where he goes to receive a saluki dog from the shaykha. Also, although he hasn’t mentioned it to you at the time, a transparent fish tank. The book of the dead. Secret tributes. Absurd conversations with Saint Juan Carlos Onetti, Saint Felisberto Hernández, Saint Marosa di Giorgio. On top of it all piles the trip with Saint Fogwill to Montevideo, the epigraph of my first book, the idea of a city trapped in its own time, the reality depicted by José María Arguedas. A monster that can only be endured if not remembered intensely or if allowed to rest in a sort of aqueous existence. Now the fingers on our hands are smashed. Me in Mexico and you in Argentina, our mission to have everything ready on Thursdays for the arrival of the faithful of the mystic order of which we form part. Although, as you must also know, I have the duty of writing. Repudiation, ignorance, and necessity are all we have left after casting aside the Sacred Books. Constants, extremes, reflections whose opposites tend to show themselves simultaneously. I imagine you arriving punctually at the mosque. That’s why I understand that it’s hard for you to understand when I tell you my way of working is not like that of the others. My writer’s study, where I have invented the existence of a salon decorated with fishes, becomes every so often a space where I put an empty exercise in practice. On a white surface, I place one word after another. I realize that little is said of our non-scriptures, neither new nor classic. It is easy not to mention the silences. The only important falling-silent seems to be the one that you and I hold on to for all these years, when we don’t communicate in the least. When we were pulled apart at a port, after the fall of our leader, toward different fates. All the time I mistrust words. Of critics, of mentions, of prizes, of distinctions, of doctorates. Of the existence of canines that can reach the height of a camel. Nor do I trust in the words of my brothers of the mystic order when they declare that they live in heaven on earth. The Muslim is only a path down which the Sufi must walk, not the goal he must reach. A little like words and scriptures, a vehicle and not an end in and of themselves. We are all Muslims, some mystics say. The Sufi seeks the mystic in the everyday. In the concrete. His search must go, by necessity, beyond all limits. There are no more Holy books. No Torahs, no Bibles, no Qurans, no Codices, no Popol Vuh, no strange tied cords, quipus, with knots as a means of communication. Something like what happens with the scriptures of all times. Scriptural Seals of No Memory. Inscribed on clay tablets or on the dark surfaces of the caves. Their worst enemies are the very ones that writing wields. The saint Mansur Al-Hallaj was tortured to death for declaring, “I Am the Truth, I Am God.” Just as a writer of our times would be executed if he dared to say something similar. And since you’re far away, let me tell you, surrounded here by dozens of cadavers, that there is no goal. Sorry, there is: to make a book. Everything else is nothing more than an imposture. The description of the salukis, of the fishes. The stories, the characters, the repetitions. All a falsehood, a pretext, the whisper of Saint Rulfo, the surprise of Saint Elizondo, the silences of San Puig, an excuse to keep doing the only thing that should be practiced without interruption: writing. It is also possible that every gilded fish that swims so majestically is the representation of the word itself. A word that could never be complete while we bear the weight of the dogs who wander, looking around the world for burials. An unnamable scripture, intangible, fleeting, transparent, like the passage of time in the eyes of a dervish in the midst of his whirling trance. The True Scripture Is Me, this can be said by anyone who decides all of a sudden to take up pencil and paper with the intention of putting down a stroke, a letter, a flourish, something that accounts for their action. For a movement that is none other but simply that of leaving, printed on the surface, their passage through the world or their charred being inside the ovens of some army barracks.
Translated by Arthur Dixon
Mario Bellatin is celebrated as a leading voice in Spanish fiction for his experimental and fragmented writing, which artfully intertwines reality and creation. His work is known in many parts of the world, with translations into English, German, French and Malayalam. His books in translation include Chinese Checkers, trans. Cooper Renner (Ravenna Press, 2007), Beauty Salon, trans. Kurt Hollander (City Lights Publishers, 2009), Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction, trans. David Shook (Phoneme Media, 2013), Jacob the Mutant, trans. Jacob Steinberg (Phoneme Media, 2015), and The Uruguayan Book of the Dead, trans. David Shook (Phoneme Media, 2019).
Arthur Malcolm Dixon is co-founder, lead translator, and Managing Editor of Latin American Literature Today. He has translated the novels Immigration: The Contest by Carlos Gámez Pérez and There Are Not So Many Stars by Isaí Moreno (Katakana Editores), as well as the verse collection Intensive Care by Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza (Alliteratïon). He also works as a community interpreter in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a 2020-2021 Tulsa Artist Fellow.
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.