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Mario Bellatin: Salón de belleza (Beauty Salon)
Having more or less avoided pandemic works during the covid pandemic, it was probably about time to read a pandemic novel, However, this is not a pandemic novel but, rather, a pandemic story. However, it is by the great Mario Bellatin, has now been twice translated into English and is very good, so here it is.
It is set in an unnamed city and, as the title tells us, revolves around a beauty salon. The unnamed narrator has saved some money and has opened a beauty salon in an unfashionable part of the city. He has two staff and all three are gay and, while working, wear women’s clothes. Though the salon does cater for both sexes, the only human males who are ever there, are the three hairdressers. All the clients are women, mainly old women, depleted by life.
Apart from his business, he has two interests. He loves going out twice a week with his two staff. They go into town and go to the steam baths and go elsewhere, essentially to pick up other men for sex. The three men sleep together in one bed in a hut behind the salon.
His other interest is fish. He has several aquariums with various fish and we get considerable detail as to what they do (and don’t do), the different species and their behaviours and what he and the other fish do when a fish dies or gives birth. This obsession will last throughout the book and, indeed, will seem to be as important to him as anything else.
We know from the beginning that there is going to be a pandemic. It seems to be less of a covid-type pandemic and more of an AIDS-like pandemic. It seems to affect, as far as we can see, men more than women and the victims we see often seem to be gay. Many of the victims are killed by roving gangs and they are often refused admittance to hospitals, so he feels he has a responsibility to help.
Initially, they had taken in the occasional victim of gang attacks and now he takes in one person at the request of one of his staff but demand soon grows.
He now abandons the hairdressing business and turns the premises into a hospice/mortuary. He takes in only men and only men that are clearly very ill. Those who come and who say that they feel ill but do not look ill are rejected and told to come back when they are worse. Moreover, no-one else is allowed in – no family, no boyfriends, no medical personnel. He is soon on his own, as the other two staff members soon die. People – particularly boyfriends – come round but are refused entry. He is somewhat upset that no-one comes looking for him.
He provides his patients with a bed and a bowl of soup a day – they do not seem to want more – and he does all the work. Financially, he does well, thanks to donations, inheritances and family support.
He does have problems, not least because the locals are not happy and think it is spreading the plague in their district. Indeed, he is attacked but he gets help from the police, partially because of the relatives of his patients, and he strengthens the building.
All the while, looking after the patients and dealing with various problems, he remains obsessed with his fish. He keeps buying them – obviously society has not collapsed – and keeps studying them and their behaviour.
The disease seems to be quite quick in taking its victims, provided it does not start in the stomach. In that case it can last a long time and be very unpleasant. When he starts showing signs, he realises that it is time to start planning what he is going to do and he considers various options.
This could have been a straightforward story about a pandemic but it is made somewhat different by the narrator’s obsession with his fish, which seems to be his main interest. He does not seem to be close to any humans. No boyfriends come looking for him. We learn of no relatives. He seems fairly indifferent when his two staff die. Even his own likely imminent death does not seem to bother him too much. As we see in other Bellatin’s stories, neither what happens nor the ending can be said to be conventional or, indeed, to be conclusive.
First published in 1994 by Campodónico
First English publication in 2008 by City Lights Books
Translated by Kurt Hollander (City Lights), David Shook (Deep Vellum)