The bleak, rapid-fire sentences of Mexican writer Mario Bellatín’s Beauty Salon give the spare novella an airless hyper-immediacy—and a terrible, unstoppable momentum. When a mysterious and incurable disease devastates an unnamed city, a lone transvestite hairdresser finds himself in the unlikely position of caregiver. Trading in his barber chairs and hair dryers for cots and a kerosene cooker, the nameless narrator converts his salon into the Terminal, a haven where shunned and afflicted young men gather to spend their final days.
The beauty salon–turned-lazaretto cleverly serves as an architectural vanitas, uniting beautification and decay under the same roof. Bellatín lays bare the capacity of illness to ravage the body and strip the individual of identity: “You might not believe me but I can almost never identify the guests. It’s come to a point where they’re all the same to me. At first I would get to know them, I even got close to some of them on occasion. Now, however, they are nothing more to me than bodies on the verge of disappearing.”
He also withholds information to great effect—the reader is given no sense of the plague’s magnitude or of the passage of time. (Years, we are told, but how many?) The only allusion to the disease’s transmission comes from an anecdote about a patient with whom the stylist was intimate. “Don’t think, however, that I was suicidal and that I gave myself to him completely. I took precautions,” he succinctly reports. The parallels between Bellatín’s epidemic and AIDS are never explicitly drawn. Yet the pall of condemnation that surrounds the disease—ailing victims are often forsaken by their families, and the Terminal is hounded by outraged neighbors and the Sisters of Charity—leaves little doubt.
In the face of this chaos, the narrator develops mechanisms to maintain his sanity. He imposes stringent order on his guests: doctors, medicine, religion, family, and friends are strictly prohibited. Guests are served one bowl of soup a day and coaxed toward a state of total lethargy, “in which even the possibility of their inquiring about their own health no longer exists.” The clarity and rigidity of the narrator’s rules stand out in sharp relief against the cloudy descriptions of the city, the plague, and its victims.
The stylist’s greatest solace comes from his aquarium, a vestige of the salon’s frivolous past. Breeding life in the midst of disintegration, the aquarium sustains the narrator, who relentlessly tries to divert the reader’s attention to the vibrant fish, away from the dying men. Most of his thoughts and emotions are refracted through the tank (he observes parallels between the fish’s behavior and that of humans and purchases fish in accordance with the extravagance or solemnity of his moods), and the deaths in his tank seem to affect him more than the loss of his guests.
Bellatín’s tale exists outside an ethical conversation. Rather than pose moralistic questions, he sets about elegantly illuminating the book’s epigraph, a quotation from the equally efficient Yasunari Kawabata: “Anything inhumane becomes human over time.” In a few haunting pages, Bellatín makes this piercingly clear.
Megan Doll is a writer and critic living in New York.