Beauty Salon, by Mexican novelist Mario Bellatín, originally published in Spanish in 1999 and now out from City Lights Books in a translation by Kurt Hollander, is short. A mere 63 pages, which is good, because its density requires multiple re-reads—and in that curious inversion of fiction, the less the author says, the more expansive the story’s meaning becomes.
The narrator begins with fish: “Now that the salon has become the Terminal, where people who have nowhere to die end their days, it’s been very hard on me to see the fish disappear.” The fish serve as the dominant symbol in this allegorical story, reflecting the fate of the plague-ridden “guests” whom the narrator allows to stay in his beauty salon during their final days. The demise of the guests themselves can be read as an allegory for the suffering wreaked by AIDS. Much of Beauty Salon is spent describing, in a disconcertingly phlegmatic tone, the narrator’s attempts to keep the fish alive, his care for his dying guests, and the nocturnal pleasures he seeks as a transvestite.
The fish, like the guests, are struggling to stay alive. The water levels drop, they become covered with fungus, and healthy fish begin preying on the sick ones. Bellatín’s prose gives the reader the sense that she, too, is stuck in one of these stifling aquariums, his generalizations making it difficult to see anything clearly, as if reading from behind algae-covered glass, gazing at the story’s world through a blur of water: “The tank is so cloudy that from the outside I can barely distinguish shapes moving around inside,” the narrator says. The beauty salon, too, is like a fish tank—crammed full of the dying, their own belongings (“money, clothes and candy. Everything else is forbidden”) stuffed into emptied aquariums. When the story moves outside, we end up in a claustrophobic Japanese bath—“At that moment I always felt like I was inside one of my aquariums… At that moment, the lack of any possible defense and the thickness of the clear walls of the aquarium became a palpable, all-encompassing reality”—or occasionally in the night air, as the narrator and his friends cruise for men.
Still, unlike the human world, the fish—guppies, axolotls, piranhas, tetras—are described in specifics, whereas the novel’s events are stripped down to nearly generic language:
They mentioned a certain health code. Fortunately, members of the organizations I had called arrived at that moment. They spoke with the police. One of them even went with the police captain to the station. With the help of other people who had arrived, including some people from a religious group, I tried to calm down the guests.
By removing the specifics of the language—no named city, no named characters, no named plague—Bellatín encourages us to read Beauty Salon as a parable. And at the center of the parable we find a commentary on society’s attitude toward death, especially toward those dying of a disease judged by some to be self-inflicted. But the narrator disdains a moralistic approach to the plague, and tries to prevent the Sisters of Charity from entering the beauty salon:
That is something I will not allow. I imagine how this place would be run by such people, with medicine everywhere, uselessly trying to save lives that were already on death’s list, prolonging suffering under the guise of Christian charity. The worst of it is how hard they would try to demonstrate what a noble sacrifice life is when dedicated to others.
Even though the narrator has spent the length of the tale dedicating his life, his shop, to caring for “wounded comrades who had nowhere to go,” he resists such nobility. He won’t let in women or children; at one point, he abandons his guests to a mob, beats a young man who tries to leave the salon, and makes loves to another. “I don’t know where we got the idea that helping sick people means keeping them away from the jaws of death at all costs,” he says. In their illness, the guests become untouchable—the mob that comes to burn the place down fears infection too much to go through with it; the guests’ stigma is also their shield, for “the sick fish were always respected.”
“A place that was designed strictly for beauty will now become a place dedicated to dying,” Bellatín writes. His book itself is a place—contained and at times claustrophobic—like the beauty salon refuge, like the suffocating aquariums. And in it, despite its spare style, lives a dense story that leaves a reader unsettled, and unsettlingly intrigued.