The most striking thing to me about this book is the voice, which is completely detached from any external reality. This is of course notable, since the book is narrated by a person who presides over terminally ill people in their final days on Earth.
Reading Beauty Salon, it takes a little while to get over the implicit assumption that the Terminal (as the Beauty Salon is now called) is some kind of a medical care facility or even a hospice. It’s really neither, as the narrator doesn’t see his role as extending even so far as giving comfort to the dying. It’s just a place to die, a way for people to forgo the indignity of dying on the street like animals.
This is where the detached tone becomes interesting. Because the narrator is surrounded by the dying all day, and because he is linked to them by homosexuality (and later by being afflicted with the disease itself), one would assume that he would naturally want to empathize with them, or at least he would be drawn in by empathy. But no. In fact it is the opposite: it becomes evident that the narrator’s philosophy toward death prevents him from any sort of attachment with the dying:
One I take them [the sick] in I make sure to bring them all to the same point in terms of their state of mind. After a few days of living together I manage to impose the appropriate atmosphere. I don’t really know how to describe this state, although it’s something like a total lethargy in which even the possibility of them inquiring about their own health no longer exists. This is the ideal state in which to work. In this way it’s possible to avoid becoming involved with any particular individual. It’s easier to handle the workload and the chores get done without interference.
I find that “total lethargy” downright frightening, even for a terminally ill person, although Bellatín’s prose is such that these sorts of statements come off as very downplayed. Seeing how Bellatín develops his narrator’s sensibility toward death through the feel of the prose and the narrator’s approach to the Terminal is, I would argue, the primary interest in this book. The voice is very particular, very developed. It is an utterly detached voice, and the narrator’s resolute detachment—belied at times by a certain creeping fascination with death itself—is extremely well-honed; there were only a few points in this translation that struck me as off-key. Reading Beauty Salon one is very much in the presence of a man who knows what he believes and tries to consciously put that forth to the reader, and trying to work out just what this is—and why he believe this—constitutes the book’s primary interest. (That is all to say, this is a book that does not have much of a plot—a book that does not need much of a plot—and those for whom plot is the sine qua non should look elsewhere.)
And then there are the fish! I would guess that at least half of Beauty Salon is given over to the narrator’s thoughts on the fish he keeps, or has kept, in various aquariums in the Terminal. Obviously there are some very superficial comparisons to be made here—some of the fish get sick and die, the aquarium is a closed, befogged environment, etc—although Bellatín is clearly not putting these forth as the most profound associations we should be drawing here. These links can be made as a sort of introductory approach to the relationship between the Terminal and the aquariums, but the full nature of this relationship between the two is very much more complex.
On one level it’s simply intriguing that the narrator is so piqued by these fish. He keeps going on about them, yet he remains so detached from the human beings dying all around him. One begins to think that the latter is a self-defense mechanism, since the narrator associates with these people but also makes it clear that he gave up their lifestyle because it was leading him to ruin. (Also, notably, at one point the narrator references hours and hours “in hospital waiting rooms” while his deceased mother underwent “innumerable tests.” It seems the topic of the terminally ill and their care is something with deep roots for him.)
On another level, it’s notable that the fish are distinguished by their characteristics (some are cheap and durable, others are pretty but fragile, some are murderous and exotic, others eat waste), whereas the humans are barely differentiated. In illness they have become the same, that is the narrator’s stated goal. The sick and dying are merely escorted to the grave, while the fish are cared for in ways particular to their special needs. The narrator needs them for some reason, although this reason—clearly related to the ideal of beauty as the narrator sees it—is hard to define. Again one is intrigued by the narrator, who can clearly be so methodical and full of care when he wants, but chooses not to exercise this care for his fellow humans.
The deep-lying strand that unites the two is the narrator’s highly developed and somewhat vague concept of beauty. Throughout Beauty Salon wafts the story of a young man who dies in the narrator’s care. He is notable as the only guest the narrator becomes emotionally invested in, the only one who is given an actual grave after dying (the rest of the guests are placed into a mass grave), and the only one with whom the narrator has carnal relations (which, seemingly, infect the narrator). At one point the narrator puts an aquarium with black tetras near his bed to cheer him up but then quickly recants:
From one minute to the next I completely lost interest in him. That’s why, at a certain moment, I took the aquarium away from the side of his bed and treated him as distantly as I do all the guests. Almost immediately afterward the disease flared up violently. he died soon after. . . .
Strangely enough three fish died at the same time as the boy. While it is true that by that time the fist had lost some of their former splendor, there were still a good number of them left. . . . Right after he died, I found three black tetras lying stiff on the bottom of the fish tank. I tried not to think about anything while I fished them out. Black tetras need a water heater, and I had one plugged in all the time. At that time I still followed the steps necessary to maintain an aquarium. Which is why I consider it more than just a coincidence that the three fish perished on the very night the boy died. The next day I unplugged the water heater. Two days later I checked to make sure that none of the black tetras had survived in the cold water.
The exactly relationship between the salon the the fish tanks remains open, as does the relationship between the salon, the tanks, beauty, and death; what is clear is that both the salon and the tanks at times stand in for places of rejuvenation, and as places of inescapable death, (of a “curse”). Through both flows the mix of beauty, death, and eroticism that is at the heart of this slim work.
The book ends with the narrator plotting the final steps he will take before he succumbs to the disease. He will push all the death out of his salon, fill it again with the instruments of beauty, fill the aquariums with beautiful fish. And then, he reasons, once he dies, a sort of rival terminal care group will take over and do what they consider the work of mercy and what he considers an abhorrent perversion: they will care for the dying. In the narrator’s view they will war against nature and stretch out the patients’ deaths as long as possible. Whereas the narrator sought to make his salon neutral ground, a place where death simply worked its will on humanity, the beauty salon will become a place “dedicated to dying.” And then the narrator’s words are finally revealed as the thoughts of a dying man, and thus perhaps the narrator’s ethic of illness as simple deterioration is disproven: he has, after all, done the most thorough thinking of his life while in the grips of death.
Beauty Salon is a carefully crafted work that clearly embodies a potent mix of ideas, although shrinks from pinning them down. Although one might consider the illness a metaphor for AIDS—and thus somewhat dated—it is really much better seen a metaphor for sickness in its many senses, and for what sickness does to humanity. Regardless, the book’s rather stringent call to simply let the dying die, and its conception of what care for the terminally ill does to humanity, certainly remains controversial and fresh. Moreover, the relationships worked out here and the narrator’s voice transcend any particular place and time. It is a slight work, one that would perhaps have been better packaged with another work of Bellatín’s (especially since readers of this work will surely want to sample some of Bellatín’s 20-some other works), although in this case slight cannot mean, like the short stories of Kafka, simplistic or unworthy. Beauty Salon is, like the fish tanks described within, a small, closed environment, although the paths that can be taken through it are many.
A few interesting links:
- Readers of Moleskine Literario voted to make Bellatín the author they wished could have been placed among the so-called Bogota39 (at 49 he was too old to be included). The the author of the blog, novelist and critic Iván Thays, enthusiastically agreed.
- An essay (in English) contrasting Jose Saramago’s Blindness with Beauty Salon
- An interview with Bellatín