Flowers & Mishima's Illustrated Biography

By Mario Bellatin


7Vientos Press
February 2014

Reviewed by Angela Woodward


Mario Bellatin's newest work in English, the two-novella set Flowers and Mishima's Illustrated Biography, adds another quivering jello block to the disquieting monument of his literary oeuvre. Each of his few books available to English-language readers stare at us like fish eggs—shiny, hermetic, alien—giving us a glimpse of our own distorted reflections in their gummy surfaces. Bellatin's novellas look at us as we look into them; their strange movements and unfinished cadences offer the reader a bit of nausea and horror, while the enclosed worlds of the books seem on their own terms complete and content.

The first in this set, Flowers, claims to take its formal inspiration from an ancient Sumerian technique: "The idea is that every chapter can be read separately, as if it dealt with the contemplation of a flower." These short narratives—some a paragraph or two, some running to a couple pages—deal with disparate topics and lives. We have a couple in Missouri, as conventional and troubled as soap opera characters; a writer; a sheikh, a temple, and a dream world of ecstatic ritual; Alba the Poet, who adopts the Kuhn Twins, abandoned newborns who have "not a single arm or leg between them;" the Autumnal Lover, so called for his erotic attraction to the elderly; and the doctor who discovered that the drug thalidomide was responsible for the horrific birth defects that surfaced almost overnight across the world in the 1950s. This Doctor Zumfelde is in most cases upstaged by his assistant, Henriette Wolf. She sits with the naked patients who come for an examination before receiving compensation from the drug manufacturer for their affliction. Not all the deformed can trace the problem back to thalidomide, and Wolf regards with solemn skepticism these possibly duplicitous mutants.

Bellatin springs from one flower to the next—one chapter entitled "Geraniums," another "Gardenias," and so on—and though the narratives run on and extend from chapter to chapter, he makes few moves to intertwine them. He writes with complete assurance, simple declaratives, subject verb object, an essayistic, rational prose that attempts to show clearly and, to a certain extent, to explain, but not to reach our emotions or to entrance us with style. Though we smell each flower and linger over the pinks and purples of their petals, the overall effect is of coming too close to something rotting. Bellatin is a prankster, an enticer, who calmly says observe this, here it is. And if it's not a flower but a sex club devoted to rather troubling perversions (as in "Orchids" or "Dahlias") who's to say that our queasiness isn't just as valuable as a more pleasurable reaction? Everywhere in literature we can find beauty, or anger, or outrage, or sadness, but Bellatin's particular repulsiveness is like a rare spice.

Bellatin is the author of more than forty books, and he has been translated into fifteen languages. He has been honored with prizes in Mexico and in Europe, but this volume from Siete Vientos is one of only a handful to come out in the U.S. Ravenna Press published a collection of three novellas, Chinese Checkers, in 2006, and City Lights brought out the short, pungent Beauty Salon in 2009. It's sadly easy to imagine why he hasn't been picked up by any bigger presses, even though work in translation is much more welcome to transgress American expectations than anything by our native authors. Bellatin's work is deliberately off-putting. While Elfriede Jelinek, a recent Nobel winner, grinds our faces into peepshows and bondage fantasies, her work is almost innocent compared to what Bellatin has in mind for us. His fascination with the diseased and unwhole, with prosthetic legs and arms and their detachment and reattachment, does not titillate even with the perfume of the forbidden. Nor does he strive to instruct, or to bring us to profundity. His language is pure in its plainness, but not otherwise arresting. The novellas are short, and seem haphazardly structured, though great care has surely gone into creating this impression. Above all, Bellatin does not round things off with a neat ending, or even a sense of conclusion. We feel instead that we've turned our faces away, and when we look again, the book has drifted off, leaving behind an oily patch, an odor.

Having been unsettled by Flowers, I had to take a break before opening Mishima's Illustrated Biography. This novella, which chronicles the life of the Japanese novelist and right-winger Yukio Mishima after his ritual suicide and beheading, extends Bellatin's focus on partial bodies. The headless author roams Paris or remembers various uncles and aunts in an aimless fairy tale told with Bellatin's characteristic dry aplomb. Mysterious shadows emerge from a projector; a woman drops an egg; and a lumberjack's son transforms into a living "man-poem." The story is followed by illustrations, blurry and off-center snapshots of various people and objects mentioned in the text. Some of these may actually show Mishima, or Mishima's agent, or a neighborhood in Tokyo. Other photos looking every bit as factual are of invented characters or of objects that belong to the more fantastical parts of the story—a rice pot, a seashell, a hole, a dead fish. Mishima's Illustrated Biography is a bit more accessible than Flowers, and in places it overlaps with the earlier novella's narratives, offering an enlarged understanding of what came before. Here, Mishima pays a visit to a clinic, surely the same one that Zumfelde and Wolf ran in Flowers:

But his visit was a disaster. He couldn't even be seen personally by the specialist. He had to meet with the doctor's nurse, who only had to take one look at his truncated neck to tell that the cause wasn't a birth defect. Let alone one caused by something like thalidomide [. . .] She wrote the word "Beheaded" on a piece of paper that she then handed to him. She seemed upset. She said she was tired of all the foreigners who wasted both her time and the doctor's.

This paragraph is more openly wry than anything in Flowers, making the headless man into a cartoonish blunderer. Later on, as the headless man watches a play based on Mishima's book Beauty Salon, which is of course not by Mishima but by Bellatin, Mishima becomes a stand-in for Bellatin himself. Mishima/Bellatin explains that he "got the impression that the more sordid the representation of the actions onstage, the more clearly they were committed. Mishima realized that the mechanism might consist of using a terrible universe as a shield against what that very world produced." In this rumination by a figment watching a play of a novel within another novel, we might find as direct an artist's statement as we can get out of Bellatin. This tiny dose of reflection, though, serves to humanize Bellatin's whole enterprise. The sordidness is not entirely a cynical flip-off to the bourgeoisie but a flawed, indeed mangled, human's attempt to find wholeness. Here we find ourselves, too, without our heads or missing an arm—we're not as put together as we thought we were before we gazed upon these pages.