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Wednesday 6 July 2016

The Large Glass - Mario Bellatin (translated by David Shook)

Mario Bellatin, artist, film-maker, a member of the Honorary Advisory Committee at dOCUMENTA 13 (more on that later), Guggenheim Grant recipient in 2002, and of course writer, is never far from publicity. Having been born with  a deformity, he wears a “variety of striking, artist designed prostheses in lieu of his missing right forearm”, including a giant can opener, and recently demanded that Planeta “unpublish” his novel “Salón de Belleza” (the English language translation appearing as “Beauty Salon” translated by Kurt Hollander). This novel appeared on the recent Publisher’s Weekly list of “ten essential Spanish-language books”, compiled by Daniel Saldaña Paris but now appears to be out of print and therefore no longer available in English!!!

Described by Daniel Saldaña Paris as “one of the most interesting writers working in Latin America right now. His writing is an offshoot of contemporary art, but also a marvel of the imagination and an inexhaustible wellspring of eccentricities.” Graciela Mochkofsky in The New Yorker (December 2015) saying; “In Bellatin’s stories, the line between reality and fiction is blurry; the author himself frequently appears as a character. His books are fragmentary, their atmospheres bizarre, even disturbing. They are full of mutations, fluid sexual identities, mysterious diseases, deformities.” Larry Rohter on 9 August 2009 in the New York Times saying; “In a score of novellas written since 1985 he has not only toyed with the expectations of readers and critics but also bent language, plot and structure to suit his own mysterious purposes, in ways often as unsettling as they are baffling.”

Add the dOCUMENTA 13 guest membership on the Honorary Advisory Committee and we have a very interesting character indeed. Every five years in Kassel, Germany, the documenta exhibition of modern and contemporary art takes place. The concept came to life in 1955 as an attempt to bring post-war Germany up to speed with modern art, after the banishment and repression of the cultural fringe during the Second World War. In 2012 dOCUMENTA 13 had Carolyn Christov-Bajargiev as the artistic director and curator and was based on the theme “Collapse and Recovery”. Enrique Vila-Matas in his work “The Illogic of Kassel”  was a guest writer-in-residence at dOCUMENTA 13, appearing in a Chinese restaurant so customers and staff could watch them “write”, observe them “creating”.

Mario Bellatin’s most recent release to appear in English is the autobiographical “The Large Glass”, three works appearing under the one title, so named after Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), housed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Very much like Duchamp’s sculpture, described in the Philadelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections; it “has gradually become the subject of a vast scholarly literature and the object of pilgrimages for countless visitors drawn to its witty, intelligent, and vastly liberating redefinition of what a work of art can be”, Bellatin’s book also pushes the boundaries, redefining what autobiography can be.

Courtesy of Making Sense of Marcel Duchamp, here is a precis of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass); the work depicts abstract forces, not worldly objects and it portrays a sequence of interactions not a static tableau. The abstract forces are ones that shape human erotic activity – the realm of ego, desire. It is a comical look at the uncertainties of human romantic aspirations. It shows a sequence of interactions, suspended in time, hence the subtitle “a delay in glass”. Duchamp wrote notes to accompany “The Large Glass”, they were meant to complement the visual experience, but they “are the stuff of sublime nonsense, driven by free association and wordplay, and resolutely anti-rational”. It is worthwhile reading the full text at the Making Sense of Marcel Duchamp website, as the alignment to Mario Bellatin’s work is unquestioned.” Sublime nonsense”, “a comical look at the uncertainties of human romantic aspirations”, “art can engage the imagination and the intellect, not just the eyes”….Or for a more detailed explanation you could visit the page where an alignment of Duchamp’s artwork to the novel “Days and Nights” by Alfred Jarry (a French symbolist or absurdist writer) is discussed. Reading a few quotes of Jarry’s work, I’m thinking a new book is to be added to the “to be read” pile!!!

Mario Bellatin’s “The Large Glass” opens with “My Skin, Luminous” a section of 363 numbered sentences, mainly dedicated to his youth in a mental institution and his visits to the public baths with his mother so she could gather the gifts showered upon her for showing off his extraordinary testicles. A few short examples;

117 – The gifts began to appear as soon as my mother took off my pants.
134 – Those are some of the few memories that I have of my school years.
135 – Although it is strange, to an extent, to consider events that have occurred as memories.
181 – From time to time they are joined by lovers that have been suddenly abandoned or those afflicted by transmissible diseases – who generally take refuge next to some sewer.

The imagery in a number of these short sentences is startling, and although they may appear obscure, even random, there is a semblance of order as Bellatin’s tale of childhood is revealed. Are these notes following Duchamp’s theme and his release of The Green Box scraps and notes that accompanied his sculpture?

The second section “The Sheikha’s True Illness”, loosely follows Bellatin’s publication of an article titled “The Sheikha’s Illness” in Playboy magazine. Bellatin is a Sufi and his religious influences dabble along the edges here, along with hairless, toothless dogs on death row, protagonists who are the protagonists is his previously published work which he doesn’t like but the protagonists do, a Sheikah with fancy shoes and a hospital bed in a garden. That’s just a taste of what you’re in for here. A crazy melting pot of memories, anecdotes and experiences, all contributing to the character who is Mario Bellatin.

The final section of Bellatin’s autobiography is titled “A Character In Modern Appearance” and follows a forty-something year old woman (who is the narrator, therefore Bellatin), his stunning German girlfriend, a 1970’s Renault, living at home with her parents, grandparents and siblings, a home which has been demolished by a north-south highway, breeding rabbits and rats and acting as a marionette to fend off the landlords.

One of the main characteristics of my personality is lying all the time. I think that this, somehow, makes me amusing to others. I know that the stories that the puppets interpret always have a lie at their center. Maybe that’s why I have assimilated aspects of my performances into my daily life. I lie, for example, about my age. I love to say I am forty-six when in fact I am just forty-five years old. I always lie to the store’s salesman, as many know that I tend to buy sweets for my nephews with money stolen from my father’s wallet. I lie about my hobbies. It is not true that I had a trigonometry book under my arm when my grandfather crossed the railroad tracks. That is false. I am actually interested in writing books. Making them, inventing them, writing them. I know that I can hardly write my name. Instead of a J I always put a Y. Nonetheless, almost no one knows it, but I made a book about dogs.

To say that this book is a bizarre form of autobiography would be to sell it short, our avant-garde (surely he would hate that) writer is pushing the boundaries of what is autobiography, if not fiction, a collection of memories. As the translator David Shook notes, in a very short section titled “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even” (the long title of Duchamps sculpture):

Between Bellatin’s original composition, made entirely of his words, and this translation, made entirely of mine, lies a process that ultimately results in a text that is both entirely its own and entirely a reflection of the ideal text it came from, something, in my own experience, no matter how technically or scientifically approached, cannot be categorized as other than a mystical experience.

If you fancy your fiction a little off centre, if you want to delve into the world of a writer who once presented an invented Japanese novelist at a literary convention, the invention being cited as a deep influence on his work, the resultant presentation being so convincing he wrote a whole fake biography about the imaginary writer (“Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction”), and if you like your reading to challenge you, to force you to think of genres as being interchangeable, then Mario Bellatin is probably a writer you would enjoy. If you like the standard narrative style, I’m thinking you best look elsewhere.

As a suggestion a little research into Marcel Duchamp’s sculpture The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), may assist with some of the references. A writer who is crossing boundaries with his art, challenging the status-quo, someone who would certainly excite with each new work or stunt, whether they all meet their mark is still to be known, this work certainly does.

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1streading said...

Didn't realise the link with Vila-Matas - good to know as I've The Illogic of Kassel to read this month.
Glad you enjoyed it and thanks for all the research!

jeffcoll said...

Just read the toutfait linked article , thanks for posting that . Duchamp I haven't come across but read lots of Jarry in my younger days and still browse him occasionally, fantastic work.

jeffcoll said...

Just read the toutfait linked article , thanks for posting that . Duchamp I haven't come across but read lots of Jarry in my younger days and still browse him occasionally, fantastic work.