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Mario Bellatin: Poeta ciego [Blind Poet]

If you have read other works by Bellatin, you know that you are in for something unusual. This is certainly the case with this book. The eponymous blind poet – he is never named – is taken in a by a family of fisherman. It is not clear whether he was found or abducted. Had they known he was blind they would not have taken him in but once he is there, he stays. Indeed, the whole story of his early years is said to be subject to doubt.

However, he soon shows himself to be very intelligent and people come and listen to him speak. He wrote his first poem when he was nine. Then he left forever. He travelled around the country, always trying to get to know the oldest person. He wrote poems and told the people that they should be displayed. Finally, after ten years, he reached the capital city.

He soon becomes famous and a childless rich couple claim he is their son and was snatched from them when he was a baby. They adopt him and make him their heir. He meets a young woman and they marry. She will be known as Doctor Virginia.

One day the parents are found in their bed, apparently sleeping but, in fact, dead. The whole affair was hushed up, a quick funeral took place and he became rich. He sold their property and bought other land outside the city. He also bought a house by the sea, which was to be called the Central House.

He and his wife set up a strange sect. There are two basic principles – Compulsory Celibacy and Absolute Austerity. Initially, as well as the poet and his wife, there are three other key characters. The first is the Teacher Boris who is the First Disciple. He had been a teacher and had firm ideas on teaching. He had tried using his methods in various places without much success and had finally ended up here. The second is the Foreigner Anna. As her name implies she had come from another country. Her father had joined a strange religious group but, on the day of his baptism, he disappeared, leaving Anna asleep at the abandoned railways station where the religious group met and shutting the doors and windows of the family home and turning on the gas. The third key character is the unnamed nurse.

Doctor Virgina has a habit of falling into a trance. When she does, the nurse looks after her and the blind poet. When Virginia recovers, she often seems to have a burst of energy. On one occasion, she recovers and hurries upstairs, where she finds the nurse, naked, on top of her husband. She grabs a hammer and kills him, before the nurse can grab hold of her and lock her away.

This takes place relatively early in the story but we learn much more of what the poet, his wife and the others did prior to the murder. While this may have been a quasi-religious sect, though with no obvious god, it is apparently based (according to Bellatin himself), at least in part on the Peruvian The Shining Path terrorist group. (Bellatin was living in Peru at the time.) The Blind Poet may well be based on Abimael Guzmán, founder and leader of the group, Doctor Virginia could be Elena Yparaguirre, Guzmán’s wife, Foreigner Anna could be Maritza Garrido-Lecca (link in Spanish) and Teacher Boris could be Saúl Mankevich, Garrido-Lecca’s husband. These are all speculation, of course and here are clear differences.

There seem to be two main periods. The first is the period with the Blind Poet and the period soon after his death. There seems to be rigorous discipline and, despite the celibacy, a lot of nudity, particularly female nudity. Indeed, to make money, they have a Palace of Naked Women, which men pay to go to. When she was compos mentis, Virginia, along with Boris, was influential. She used modern technology (computers, fax) and indeed became quite obsessed with it. She is initially marginalised after her murder of the poet but will eventually return.

There are, apart from the nudity, two key features to the group. The first is that it is very rule-bound. They have their own internal laws (as did Shining Path) and they have to be strictly observed. They have rituals and they even have a sacred book (written by the poet).Virginia’s behaviour is considered justified because the poet broke the rules. The other is violence. They continually use violence. We see this more in the second part, when the organisation is taken over by what are known as the New Disciples, who are essentially thirteen year olds and younger. They carry sticks and hit out at anyone, including their own. We see it, for example, when they attack Anna.

One interesting example of this violence is when Anna and Boris fall out and then try to make up. They go to a restaurant, where Anna throws a hot drink at Anna and Boris retaliates by trying to attack her with a piece of broken glass. Another example is a cat being impaled, probably by Virginia, because its sexual morals are the same as those of the poet. Disciples who do not follow the rules are eliminated.

The other feature is a mild obsession with skin blemishes. The Place of Naked Women features women with these blemishes and others have them and they become almost like stigmata.

The Shining Path were both unpleasant and strange and this story reflects that. Clearly Bellatin has no time either for the Shining Path nor this sect but, given his normal style of writing, he is not going to give a straightforward, realistic account of their activities nor is he going to write a conventional satire or criticism of them. This book, in short, is in his usual at times opaque but thoroughly original style. It is not easy reading but it is another fine work from Bellatin.

Publishing history

First published in 1998 by Tusquets, Lima
No English translaton
First published in German in 2002 as Der blinde Dichter by Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt
Translated by Carina von Enzenberg