Mario Bellatín’s Beauty Salon opens with what becomes one of the novella’s primary images: an aquarium, filthy and the fish dead or dying. The narrator, the unnamed proprietor of the titular business, divides his attentions between his dying fish and his customers, who are also in the throes of sickness. An unnamed plague attacks the unnamed town and Bellatín’s narrator, a distant and unsentimental gay man, spends his days caring for sick men in his former shop (he allows no women or children), now called the Terminal.
Once Bellatín establishes the anonymity of this world, a nameless place populated by nameless victims of a nameless plague, the story becomes a postmodern parable where no religion and no self are the only absolutes. The narrator works tirelessly with the sick and dying men, eventually becoming infected, forgoing his health for the sake of his self-imposed duty. He refuses religion and medicine (excluding herbal remedies), instead he allows his identity to be subsumed by the establishment he creates: a place to die shielded from the institutions of faith and health. It is a sanctuary where absolution comes in the form of death. He is blunt about his detachment from the customers he tends to, with the exception of one young man. It is during this scene, recounting the sick man’s ravaged frame, his “jutting ribs, his dry skin…his crazed eyes,” the narrator comes closest to open emotion. Soon, however, he loses interest in the boy and retreats back into the role of the benumbed caregiver.
Bellatín is far too crafty a writer for the disease to be a simple metaphor for the early history of AIDS. He is notorious for confounding critics in his native Mexico and is known for his genre bending prose (“To me literature is a game, a search for ways to break through borders,” he told the New York Times). The author offers up the infection as another fish, this time a red herring. He uses the concept to mock the innate desire for an event, rather than the constant that is the human condition, to be the source of what ails us. The boils on the narrator’s face, the wasted bodies of the dying, are more likely symbols for a post-identity world, than a viral epidemic. Near the end of the novella, Bellatín’s beauty shop owner confesses:
“I don’t think I ever took the time to think so much before. I used to be guided by impulse…I always think before I do anything and then I analyze the possible consequences.”
This is a deathbed epiphany, one that catches the narrator in a stream of quiet revelations. In Bellatín’s world, inaction is tantamount to death and ruminations on thought are the precursors to the end. The novella, short even for its form at 63 pages, is a brief look inside an aquarium with human inhabitants, a trick that Bellatín pulls off with austere beauty.