Writing off the page with Mario Bellatin

Mario Bellatin loves this story. I can tell because he has started repeating himself, going back over the details. It is the story of how he came to write Perros héroes: the loss of a faithful canine companion, the recommendation of a friend, the drive to the outskirts of town to meet with a respected breeder of Belgian Malinois Shepherds. The surprise at discovering that this man, who ran a kennel of nearly thirty dogs, was paralyzed from the neck down.

Bellatin is seen by many (including himself) as the high priest of a new kind of writing; his work is characterized by a bare, often unsettling, style and a refusal to be contained by the printed page. To this last point, he describes the spectacle he created for the book’s release in Mexico, which involved publicity for a theatrical adaptation that never made it to the stage (but was reviewed in the press, anyway, by a few overly ambitious and underinformed critics) and a triumphant “second run” that consisted of a reading of the text in a cathedral, overseen by a team of Belgian Malinois trained to stand perfectly still while looking perfectly menacing as they squared off against an increasingly disquieted audience.

Of course, the author is no stranger to this type of genre-bending performance. In 2003, he organized the “Congreso de dobles,” a literary conference in which the four invited panelists – with their consent and cooperation – were replaced on the stage by “doubles”: individuals trained by the writers themselves to respond to questions for them. Back in 2001, he founded the Escuela Dinámica de Escritores, a writing school in which the only rule is an injunction against writing. For Bellatin, the printed word is only the beginning of what it means to make literature and – more importantly – art.

Bellatin’s understanding of this relationship between art forms can be sensed in the growing presence of photographs in his writing. Interestingly, he talks about the inclusion of images in later editions of Perros héroes as a means of “proving” the veracity of his account. Unlike the images that accompany an earlier work, Jácobo el mutante (2002), which relate to the narrative in a strictly tangential and experiential way, Bellatin appends a “Dossier” to Perros héroes that seems in equal parts expository and evidentiary.

Cages, of course, abound as Bellatin evokes the limited horizon of “the immoble man” through taut vignettes and claustrophobia-inducing descriptions of his home and kennel. The man himself, along with his caretaker and assistant animal trainer (“No one knows,” the narrator muses, “if the medic-trainer was first a medic and then a trainer or viceversa, if he was a trainer and later a medic”), also figure prominently. Even the prose has a photographic quality to it: the vignettes focus in on one image and one image only; the author’s minimalist style lends the piece a journalistic quality and – as with a photograph – if we ever ask ourselves what is going on beyond the frame, what was left out to create the tableau before us, it is only in passing. Bellatin’s is a commanding voice, and he knows how to use it.

You may have noticed that I haven’t really explained the plot of the novella. That’s because I find it very hard to disentangle the story from its aspect as a cultural object, which seems to be the way Bellatin designed it. There is most certainly a plot, but – as is the case in much of the author’s recent work – it is often secondary to the broader questions raised by the work, which include the place of writing in social and cultural discourse, and the meaning of the cryptic analogy drawn by the author between his experience with the immobile man and the future of Latin America. Ultimately, this blending of anecdote and allegory (laid out in the subtitle of the work), coupled with the author’s history with apocrypha, challenges the reader to reconsider the opposition between fiction and more ‘objective’ forms of writing.

Perros héroes has been translated into English by Cooper Renner for Ravenna Press, in an edition that includes one of my favorite works, Damas Chinas (Chinese Checkers), the title of which evokes both the formulation of literature as a game and the elliptical narrative movement that drives this haunting work. Bellatin does not incorporate images into this work, but the vignettes are equally spare and focused. Intertwining the narrative of an upper-middle class doctor with a raging sex addiction, a daughter in a loveless marriage, and a son who assaults his own mother for drug money with that of a young boy trying to navigate a seemingly hopeless maze of bureaucracy, he constructs one of the most artfully balanced texts I have read in a long time. Tight as a drum.

In an interview with the poetry blog Molossus, Renner sums up his appreciation for the two works:

Chinese Checkers and Hero Dogs are so different. The methodical, discreet doctor ruminating, but not toward any apparent conclusion, on his own life and its apparent tragedies while entwining it with the odd tale of the boy and the old woman; the immobile man, who is an (unexplained) emblem of Latin America. What really moves these novellas forward, since they are clearly not plot-driven, is Bellatin’s skill with words, his refusal to be cheesy and Hollywood-ish, his determination to say well what he needs to say, rather than to follow the traditional, conventional paths to commercial success. I think it’s very well worth noting that each of these three novellas holds at its heart the clear elements of either a sensationalized thriller or a thoughtful, serious, literary novel—but in each case Bellatin refuses to take the easy way.

For anyone not yet familiar with the work of Mario Bellatin, I strongly recommend taking the plunge. He is one of the most successful(ly) experimental writers working today, and while he undoubtedly polarizes his readers, you will never be left without plenty to say. Of course, you will get more out of the novellas if you are familiar with Bellatin’s body of work as a whole (that is how he thinks of it, and it shows). The full Molossus interview, which also contains a translation of  an interview given by Bellatin for the Peruvian release of Perros héroes, is a great place to start, as is the New York Times piece on the author.

The above photos were culled – with gratitude – from the website of Interzona, the book’s publisher in Argentina.

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