DEGENERATION IN THE FICTION OF MARIO BELLATIN
A Review of Chinese Checkers, A Trio of Fictions with Photographs
by Mexican Writer Mario Bellatin.
Translated into English by Cooper Renner, with an Introduction by Ken Sparling.
Published by Ravenna Press, Edmonds, Washington (May 2006, $16)
“No symbols where none intended,” Beckett admonishes all who would hope to wrest from a fictional text a meaning laid down, deliberately or not, in its images. Written by Mexican author Mario Bellatin and transparently rendered into English by Cooper Renner, “Chinese Checkers,” the first of the fictions collected and translated here, seems to be a story whose mysterious unfolding might be illuminated by a study of its symbols.
Chinese checkers is the solitary pursuit of an end, which is to advance one’s own pieces across a field mined with the enemy’s – or enemies’, for Chinese checkers can be played by six. Winning is not achieved by the elimination of an opponent’s pieces but by shepherding all one’s own safely across the field. The haven to which one strives to bring his pieces home is a mirror image of his starting point. As a metaphor for a fiction, Chinese checkers suggests a viewpoint notable for an almost solipsistic regard of one’s self, which registers alien movements within the field of vision with dispassion. While this interpretation may be mine alone, it fits the case of Bellatin’s two-part story.
According to Renner, Bellatin has said: “Odio narrar.” (“I hate to narrate”, or “to tell stories.”) This admission from the artist underscores the sense of his fiction’s artificiality – its existence as invention; literature is a game and, like all games, duplicates, to the degree that its author wishes, conditions of reality without aspiring to it. Like the game, it may also be pointless. The game’s procedure is, in musical or narrative terms, polyphonic. Just so is Bellatin’s story, with its portmanteau of narratives and a central consciousness that describes its own actions without judgment or comment – a character that moves by indirection, with no other reason to move than to go forward and remain free of emotional attachments.
I was injecting the drug into him. I had to hold it forcefully. Shortly thereafter he went into convulsions. I moved back a short distance and watched how my son’s body was shaking in a rhythmic way. My first reaction was to wrap the syringe and the empty vials in paper. Then I put them away in my bag. (31)
Coming late in part 1 during the man’s narration of his own story (as opposed to the boy’s he will relate in part 2), his response to his son’s death – by a drug he himself administered – is characteristic. He withdraws and witnesses, occupying himself with professional concerns. His disinterested, acutely self-conscious state is conveyed by Bellatin, and Renner, in a cool and analytic succession of sentences. The circumstances of the delinquent young man’s death are left equivocal. We cannot know whether or not the father (narrator) meant to administer a lethal dosage. Following immediately the son’s destruction of valuable decorations (a fact the man chooses to observe without comment or emotional reaction) and his injection of “a larger dose than usual” – we can suspect the man of having murdered his son for expediency. Our suspicion is likely to be confirmed by his having remarked on the previous page:
Officially, my son’s demise was considered the result of an inability to tolerate the substance which he had administered to himself. In other words, it was labeled as an overdose. (30)
If we use the Chinese checkers metaphor, however, I am inclined to the opinion that he allowed his son to die rather than murdered him: like the game’s player, the man will “jump” a person standing in the way rather than “take” him. To have arrived at this conclusion is to demonstrate the value of a controlling symbol to suggest meaning – and the danger, should the critic prove overly ingenious.
What is interesting from the viewpoint of narrative strategy is where Bellatin has chosen to place this confession: it occurs before the man’s relation of his son’s death, casually, while describing a visit from his son-in-law. The sentence following his explanation of his son’s overdose jars by its incongruity: “My son-in-law’s intellect seems to have developed solely for money-making.” Inappropriate response is characteristic of the man; so, too, is absence of remorse. Bellatin causes him to recall three instances in which patients died as a result of negligent diagnosis or preparation and, perhaps, to excuse them with:
It soothes my conscience somewhat to think of the miraculous cure of the same woman whose son spoke to me that day in the office. That occurrence helps me balance out, in some fashion, the ledger of my professional obligations. (13)
The miraculous cure refers to the unaccountable disappearance of the cancer of which the boy’s mother is dying (the same boy whose story the man narrates – almost as if it were his own – in the story’s second part). As her doctor, the man takes no credit for her cure, characterizing it as miraculous (another instance of atypical diction. There is one other: he speaks of men in jail and the clients of brothels as “servants of a dark place" ). Strangely, the man experiences the identical sensation when he thinks of the woman’s recovery as he does when approaching a prostitute on the street or in the brothels he frequents.
I use this term [miraculous] for recoveries which escape the normal flow of things.... The comparison seems rather unlikely, but the sensation is like that produced when I meet a woman of the streets. (15)
To escape the normal flow of things is what he wishes but can effect only superficially; for example, with the adoption of a youthful wardrobe and hairstyle when he thinks “about the possibility of taking on behaviors outside [his] routine" (18).
The narrator is inclined to flee “a situation which [he can] not control" (25). (Avoidance response is also practiced by a Chinese checker player, who jumps over the opposition instead of confronting it.) At the conclusion of the fiction’s first part, his wife has gone to a shop to replace décor destroyed by the son prior to his death. She calls him to help with the “negotiations.” He resolves a difficulty and then declines her invitation to lunch, deciding instead to visit a brothel. To himself or to an auditor, he explains his choice by remarking that, when on the telephone with his wife, he recalled the woman cured of cancer and also her son, “the boy with a somewhat abnormal head" (33). In this final passage of part 1, Bellatin suggests, with symbolic economy, a web of conscious and subconscious associations: women – cancer – miraculous cure – boy – deformity – wife –their dead son – sex. The anxiety they provoke in the man causes him to flee to a brothel. (In actuality, it may be the thought of the boy’s story that drives him there. Throughout part 1, it is felt as a powerfully attractive absence, like a black hole.) Within the nexus, the boy disturbs him most. He and his head (which is not misshapen but without the “customary roundness ”) are an idée fixe. Bellatin creates one other web of associations in his text: the white furnishings of the shop where the man and his wife meet seem linked to an earlier incident: the white trousers marked by a spot of blood from a procedure performed on a woman shortly before a christening ceremony they attend. Another guest mistakes the blood as his own. The reader senses a disquieting relationship of disease, blood, sex, birth, ritual, mutilation, and self-mutilation.
The story the boy tells (in part 2) is that of his search for his father, although the father is replaced (by psychoanalytic substitution) by an authority of a delivery service who will agree to pay him restitution for a letter intended for his father. The boy assumes responsibility for securing payment on his father’s behalf and travels to the city, where the company’s offices are located. As in a dream or a Kafka fiction, his quest is frustrated by circumstances – most trivial, one sinister.
The latter is an old woman, whom he meets in the company’s offices. Unwashed, wearing a metal crown and a fox skin, with a chauffeur-driven limousine, menacing “assistants,” and a conservatory of plants grown under lights – she suggests a malign character in a fairy tale. She will pay the boy the refund the company has repudiated, if he will accompany her home. At dinner, she tells him about a cruise she took with her husband, during which some cows being transported fell overboard. They were left to drown – a tragedy arousing pity only in her and her husband. Earlier, in the company’s offices, she told the boy the story of the drowned girl. But by the time of her husband’s death, she was unable to feel sorrow: “his death had caused her neither true sadness, nor the recurrence of her feelings when the girl drowned in the sea" (47). Here, Bellatin returns to his fiction’s principal theme: indifference. Only the boy remains whole – sane, unskewed, compassionate. “The boy confessed to me [the narrator] that he climbed the stairs, thinking about what it would mean to a loving father to lose a child" (43). He has in mind the drowned child, but he may also be thinking of his own father, who has been entirely absent from his story. On the old woman’s orders, the assistants lock the boy in a child’s room, confirming her role as witch (or if the reader prefers realism to fairy tale) a mad woman. (She is also likened by the boy to the Virgin Mary, perhaps because of the former’s miraculous power over death and role as agent of a deliverer – both of which the boy desires.) The dolls he finds imply the drowned girl, as if the old woman sought, in her madness, to transform him into her. The boy escapes from the house and – on his way home to his uncle’s – is overtaken by the assistants, who give him the restitution he has been seeking for his father. Having “redeemed” his father at the risk of his own life (or identity), the boy is, in turn, rescued by his father from his uncle’s indifference inside his walled house. Reunited with his father, the boy is able – one suspects, at last – to breach the wall that has separated them:
When his father came that afternoon to pick him up, the boy handed him the scribbled-upon envelope…. They went silently out to the street.… After they had gone about a block, the boy started talking. (52-3)
The reconciliation and redemption the boy and father share are – in my opinion – the reason for the man’s obsession with the story and his compulsion to narrate it – or testify to it. In the boy’s quest undertaken for his father’s sake, both father and son may have been saved. The man (narrator) is beyond all hope of rescue. Or perhaps it is not the wish to be saved but only his bafflement that such rescue is possible that make him assimilate the boy’s story. Bellatin isn’t saying.
In the collection’s second fiction, “Hero Dogs,” Bellatin reduces the theme of atrophied human nature and skewed relationships, explored in “Chinese Checkers,” to absurdity. In a nearly affectless prose unrelieved by symbol, metaphor, or ornament, the third-person narrator details the life of a paralytic recluse, a Beckettian protagonist of indeterminate age, whose single purpose is the care and training of thirty dogs “able to kill anyone with a single bite to the juggler" (57). Despite his immobility, the unnamed man has earned an international reputation for training Belgian Malinois Shepherd dogs and is sought out as a specialist. He is able to communicate with his dogs by audible and nearly inaudible sounds. With “slow and distorted" (77) speech, communication with his own kind is less successful. A nurse/trainer, the most recent in a long line of functionaries, attends him and the dogs; the number of his predecessors cannot be ascertained, nor the reason for his devotion. Sharing the house with them are the immobile man’s mother and sister, who “dedicate themselves to a strange labor concerned with the classification of empty plastic bags" (63). The man much prefers his dogs to his human companions.
Bellatin constructs his narrative with the same unconcern for chronology as is the case in “Chinese Checkers”: events are related in a desultory way and without affective priority. Unlike the earlier of the fictions, however, “Hero Dogs” lacks – by Bellatin’s design – psychological density. The emotional levels are more or less even throughout the story. With the exception of the immobile man, permitted on occasion to rage or to laugh, none of the characters registers anything stronger than a mild bewilderment or fleeting fear. Bellatin’s fictive universe, like Beckett’s, is closed and oppressively small, the immobile man’s world enlivened by incomprehensible activity and cruelty. Seldom referring to anything outside itself, it is a house where sister and mother do not visit or speak to the son, lying on a road between the city and access to a larger world – the airport. His is a life whose history – and that of his family – he has invented, colored by abandonment, separation, internment, attempted infanticide, and repudiation. If Bellatin’s text bears a relation to the future of Latin America, as its subtitle claims, his expectations for his continent are bleak.
In the collection’s final, enigmatic text, Bellatin departs Latin America for Deli “in the neighborhood of the tomb of the holy Sufi Nizamudin,” a fourteenth-century mystic. While the story’s ethos and characters are alien, the setting – outside of the public baths – is not, nor does its purported Subcontinent location contribute to our understanding of the tale. Bellatin may have established this fiction near the Muslim saint’s tomb arbitrarily to distance the narrative. The fiction also feels remote in time, although by its mid-point we become aware, abruptly, that it is contemporary – a disquieting realization in light of its content. Not an instance of symbolic realism like “Chinese Checkers” or an allegory of the impotent imagination like “Hero Dogs,” it is, instead, a parable. As such, it occupies its own locus; its action transpiring at the present moment outside our own houses as readily as the Deli of five centuries ago or of today. By their behavior, the characters lie well beyond all realms and times except those of the imagination. And yet, enacting rites of desire and cruelty, they are plausible as human representatives, though perhaps of a vanished civilization.
The story begins in the public baths, where the boy is taken by his mother to display his testicles, i.e. the scrotum, to other women. Bellatin’s insistence on testicles rather than on the penis as the object of his mother’s attention (and, by extension, that of the other women) suggests that their regard is not sexual nor is it ritualistic: the scrotum is not associated with the phallus revered by primitive cultures as a symbol of potency and fertility. According to the boy, the mother’s admiration is for the “pouch in which my testicles abide" (134). To be precise, it is the “youth" (133) of the boy’s pouch or scrotum, which preoccupies the mother; and the boy’s concern is always to examine whether or not any “withering” has occurred. Indeed, he views his scrotum as a stay against time and disintegration. While Bellatin does not identify the society as matriarchal, it appears to be so; and the women may regard the testicles as a stabilizing force within the culture, as opposed to a procreative one. Authority appears to reside in them. The institutionalized power of mothers over their sons is made overt in this passage:
“People remember a great deal about the women who display the genitals but nothing about the sons put on exhibition [says the mother].” Then I [the boy] knew the boys were killed mercilessly…. Long ago the law laid out the procedure by which those boys had to die. (124)
More likely than not, the boy’s anxious concern for his testicles’ youthful appearance lies in his knowledge of other boys marked like him with a special destiny. A boy may lose his testicles as if through a “sickness which propitiates the envy of the others, that between one moment and the next they begin to dry up until the inflated sack that contained them is no more than a lean, dangling tripe that drops from the body" (124). Should this occur, the mothers “flee immediately” because – one assumes – the basis of their authority no longer exists.
Against a strict matriarchal tradition governing both mothers and sons lies the possibility of its violation, by art. The boy’s mother operates outside her role when she uses one of the make-up pencils given her in exchange for the sight of the boy’s testicles, whose power over women is demonstrated. Her “decorated” lips incite the obese women to “break the rules” by leaving their zone for one prohibited them. Like the boy’s, the source of the mother’s authority is the ability to make a public display. The culture’s matriarchal organization is also suggested by the garment the woman designs to contain her son’s testicles: “In designing it she has followed a series of patterns of ancient date (123).” Patterns used in the restraint of the male organ, the antiquity of their origins – these intimate an investiture of power in the mother – not in every mother, but in the rare mother “who has dedicated herself to the display of her son’s genitals" (123). In following those patterns, the woman is an artist.
Both son and mother achieve elevated social status – entailing the risk of death for him and exile for her – by pursuing activities that make them unique. They are both artists at the center of whose lives is absence (of fathers and a generative power). I am suggesting that Bellatin advocates not a patriarchal society but an art allied to living forms. We also feel the absence of these forms in “Hero Dogs” and “Chinese Checkers, which can be interpreted as fictions about narrative art and the degeneration of forms, including that of the living being. The body and its degeneration is central to all three fictions.
As we have seen in “Chinese Checkers,” interpreting Bellatin requires temerity. But I am drawn irresistibly by the activities of his two principals in “My Skin Luminous” to the notion that his parable is that of the artist: the rewards, risks, and shame of a life dedicated to public exhibition. (The boy makes art in his Special School with a shining powder reminiscent of his own luminous skin.) Art may be a buttress against decay; it may possess the power to astound, to arrest, and to destroy convention. But physical or psychic death awaits the artist who follows moribund forms. Luminosity and adornment invite envy; to be visible is to be, at once, celebrity and target.
Whether or not Bellatin would concur in this reading of his work and – if he should concur in it – to what degree he identifies himself with the boy, his mother, or both, we cannot know. But this reader finds in the stories translated and collected by Renner an acknowledgment of the hazards of a writer’s life as disconcerting as any offered by Beckett: the writer’s compulsion to narrate (“Chinese Checkers”), his powerlessness and reclusiveness (“Hero Dogs”), and the grave dangers to which he is liable from a fickle public demanding absolute nakedness and “shameless display” (“My Skin Luminous”). They rest on my interpretations of complex works of fiction, for which I feel almost licensed by Ken Sparling, who writes in his intelligent foreword: “Are we, readers of this English translation of a Spanish translation of the thoughts of a character in a book, translators ourselves?" (vii) Yes. How can it be otherwise?
[The complete review of “Hero Dogs” and “My Skin Luminous” can be found in the book’s catalogue listing at ravennapress.com.]