Beauty Salon by Mario Bellatin translated by Kurt Hollander
This book will make you uncomfortable. I squirmed a few times. It’s the story of a gay man who turns his beauty salon into a hospice. In an unknown time that resembles the present, at an unknown place that feels like the poorer section of a large city, a plague hits. Those who succumb die relatively quickly. The narrator tells us that without the beauty salon, “the majority of the people here are strangers who have nowhere else to die.” Incredibly noble action, feels like Mother Theresa, so why my discomfort?
Given the swine flu pandemic, the book hits a little close to home. I’m not one to cater to hysteria, but I have noticed that several times a day I’m washing my hands as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday.” It isn’t just the death, it’s the loneliness. The men in the beauty salon are utterly alone. Once admitted to the Terminal there is no leaving and no visiting. Families are only allowed to bring bed clothes, money, and candy. The narrator even tries to bar God. Most of the men are the last one living of their friends and family, as is the narrator himself:
If I had died earlier my sickness might have been sweeter, with friends attentive to my complaints standing by the foot of my bed. Now I have to take care of myself, to silently suffer my decay, surrounded by faces I always see as if for the first time. Some nights I get scared. I’m afraid of what will happen when the disease reaches its full splendor. Despite all the guests I have watched die, despite the fact that death has long believed it has the liberty to do as it pleases in the beauty salon, I realize that now that it’s coming for me I don’t know what will happen.
The narrator’s pre-plague lifestyle was hard for me to read. I’m ambivalent about his sexuality, but picturing myself as the client of a hairdresser in drag felt edgy. The book gave me all the information I need about the promiscuous lifestyle of bath houses and male prostitution. Nothing was graphic, and quite frankly I wouldn’t even know how to picture what was alluded to, it just all felt very empty, distressingly empty.
The hardest part–how well the book lives into its opening quote from Kawabata Yasumari, “Anything inhumane becomes human over time.” The book is another example of how humans can get used to anything. People are dying the streets and the neighbors around the beauty salon riot to have the people removed, NIMBYism at its finest. To function, the narrator becomes robotic, “my movements had become so mechanical I could carry out my labors perfectly guided only by the force of habit,” seeming not to see, feel or hear anything. He chastises himself for caring for any particular ”client.” To survive he sets down iron-clad rules: No women, no children, no men in the first stages of the disease, no doctors, no medicine, no hope. The beauty salon’s sole purpose is to provide a place to die; living goes on elsewhere.
Bellatin creates a bleak world in Beauty Salon, but in that world he planted one rose, a narrator who for all of his attributes that made me squirm, truly sacrifices everything to care for dying men. The incongruity made me uncomfortably thoughtful.