December 2008

Jesse Tangen-Mills


Chinese Checkers: Three Fictions by Mario Bellatin, translated by Cooper Renner

When I first began reading Roberto Bolaño before he had been translated into English, I felt uncomfortably zealous: on one hand I wanted to keep him secret and on the other I couldn’t help but tell my friends. I have the same feeling about Mexican author Mario Bellatin; however, unlike Bolaño, we won’t have to wait for his death to read him in English, as Cooper Renner has already translated three of his novellas in one volume, Chinese Checkers: Three Fictions.

Ten years ago Bellatin attracted critical attention in Latin America with the publication of Flores, a novel told in 35 chapter-fragments that describe genetic experiments told from a disturbingly scientific distance (in one extreme case a nurse inoculates his own son with AIDS). The book received the acclaimed Xavier Villaurrutia prize in Mexico (previous winners include Juan Rulfo and Octavio Paz), and soon after he was awarded a Guggenheim grant. Since then Bellatin has written over a dozen strange books, from autobiography of a Japanese Hamlet to journalistic accounts of an annual party in Mexico City that takes place in decrepit buildings. He also opened his own school of writing (the Dynamic Writers School) that paradoxically proclaims that writing cannot be taught and goes as far as to prohibit students from writing. Chinese Checkers mirrors Bellatin’s intriguing and incongruent oeuvre: the novellas are neither his greatest hits, nor thematically linked. Their only shared attribute is brevity, a Bellatin trademark (the majority of his books falling under the two hundred page mark) along with a grotesque emphasis on the human body (Bellatin uses a prosthetic limb).

Chinese Checkers, the first of three novellas, is divided into two stories: that of a gynecologist’s murder of his own son, and a patient’s son’s childhood adventure. We begin with the gynecologist narrating his gradual disengagement with his wife, later his loss of interest in his profession and finally his son's death. While frequenting brothels that he sterilely describes as "discreet place, clean, with a young and friendly personnel," the gynecologist feels cured of his pains by probing the very thing he treats. As the narrative progresses, although not entirely linear, his son begins to act out, stealing money from his family, until finally he cracks and must be institutionalized. His father gives him an injection to calm him down and kills him, “To my surprise, my son began to respond in a way opposite to what I expected. He started to show signs of distress.”

The second story focuses on a boy’s search for a reimbursement by an unnamed company. The gynaecologist explains that the boy had told him about a trip to his uncle’s house where he is sent to collect money “for finding a fly in a soft drink bottle he had not yet opened.” For a day the boy wanders, and meets an old women with a crown, who complains that she has no one to with whom to play chinese checkers. After spending a day in what could either be an asylum, a nursing home, or a company, the boy finally receives the compensation money, and escapes to make it back to his uncle’s house before dawn.

The connection between the two stories is not clear, except perhaps for the title, here translated as Chinese Checkers, that in Spanish (damas chinas) implies a game of domination, in diagonal lines (his patient’s son), and vaguely, prostitutes.

Hero Dogs, published as a novella in Spanish, unravels in a Beckettian void, describing and re-describing the most mundane domestic events of an invalid, occasionally flirting with allegory (the story’s subtitle already indicates that his life reveals the future of Latin America) that leave the reader asking whether the cold anecdotes of the immobile man should be understood as dismal lyricism or pathetic comedy. The immobile man, once a patient in an insane asylum, spends his life training Belgian Malinois depending mostly on his trainer-nurse to discipline them, while his mother and sister on a different floor gather plastic bags that they spend days sorting. Like in Baudelaire’s prose poems, here mundane domestic items take on great importance. A map of the world marked with the cities where Belgian Malinois could be a satirical portrait of progress, or a simply another layer of absurdity.

I only question Ravenna Press’s decision to put pictures of a young handicapped man and dogs that don’t appear in the Spanish version, despite being provided by Bellatin himself, and thereby ground the abstract haunted immobile man of Hero Dogs in a specific time and place (Mexico sometime in the '80s, most likely).

The last piece My Skin, Luminous is the shortest and weakest work in the anthology. As part of an ancient tradition in India, a mother exposes her son’s genitals at the entrance of hot springs. Her father a Mussolini supporter, and a pig roaster, now in a wheel chair, manipulates the boy and his body, perhaps as payback for his father's absconding or to make him pay his debts incurred from his special schooling. The boy, who narrates the story, fears that his mother will one day cut him, then cover him with something that will cause infection, and let him die, as is the tradition. Questions such as why are we here and where are we, come to mind, along with, could it get any more bizarre? Like a bad contemporary art exposition, I found myself wondering whether I was supposed to be laughing at the daftness of the work, or recognizing the artist’s cojones in the plunge into unchartered territory. The juxtaposition of images, the glistening scrotum, roasted pig, along with the lamps covered in soap are beautifully bothersome; however, one does question whether or not this piece should have been published as novella in the first place, as the others. The fast-paced narrative of My Skin, Luminous reads like a short story.

Like Bolaño, Bellatin seems to take his cues from the Spanish-speaking literary world. If the Boom generation was inspired by Faulkner, the post-post-Boom writers are inspired somewhat by Becket, Pessoa, although for the most part Latin American writers like Jodorowsky, Pizarnik, Eilson, Piñera, Ribeyro, as well as some of the less accessible Boom writers like Jose Donoso. And yet this is part of Bellatin’s disappearing act; he’s not quite that either. Some of his works are clearly inspired by Tanizaki and Mishima, going as far as to even use Japanese names (El jardín de la señora Murakami, Shiki Nagaoka: Una nariz de ficción). Often, Bellatin’s work is exactly what you don’t expect it to be, just like the author, who at once on every page is visible, and yet with each line more obscure.

Then, there’s the translation to contend with. You could divide translation into two extremely opposite tradition: English and German. In the English tradition a good translation is smooth, as though it were originally written in English, assuming that ideas are universal. In the German tradition, in part inspired by Herder’s essentialist theories, a good translation preserves the flavor of the original, even at the cost of clarity. Cooper Renner, editor of the long running online journal elimae and poet, leans on the German tradition, but despite his “search for the truth” as explained in the forward, the translation often errs. Bellatin’s prose is plain, almost bereft of style (although that in and of it itself is a style), choosing false cognates and copying syntax render his prose inaccessibly awkward. Lines like, “Despite the sordidness of the incident, it occurred to me that there had been something luminous in the woman’s attempt to disguise the situation” or “I resolved that farther along, when the situation was truly insupportable, I would take action” aren’t merely inaccurate, they’re distractingly discombobulated.

And due to Bellatin’s sparse prose, translating him is more similar to translating poetry. Requiring le mot juste, rather than a word that sounds something like the original (in the line above Cooper translates insoportable as insupportable, a word that in English I don’t think I’ve ever heard outside of computer speak).

With the upcoming translation of Bellatin’s more internationally known Beauty Salon (it was a finalist for the Médicis Prize in France) from City Lights Books, this author will hopefully soon be receiving more of the attention he deserves. In literature unlike plastic arts there is no reward for spotting new talent, except perhaps a good translation; unfortunately, sometimes not even new talent is afforded that.   

Chinese Checkers: Three Fictions by Mario Bellatin, translated by Cooper Renner
Ravenna Press
ISBN: 0977616290
139 Pages