Beauty Salon Paperback – Jul 1 2009
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The narrator is a man who saved his street-earned money and builds a beauty salon. There it is easy to see that he wants to create a place of beauty and serenity. He loves his aquariums, and talks about how he learned about the different kinds of fish and their needs. I think that, like living underwater in an aquarium, he hopes that his beauty salon will mute the real world.
But an unnamed plague is in his city. It is clearly HIV/AIDS, although it is never mentioned by name. The narrator turns his beauty salon into the Terminal -- selling everything in the place (the hair dryers, the mirrors, the chairs) and buys beds, supplies, and creates a place for men suffering from the disease to die. It is not a place for treatment, or for maudlin talk with loved ones (who are banned, at any rate, from coming in). But a place to come when the only other place open to you to die in is the street.
This book is deeply moving. I understand that the original writing was gorgeous. Certainly Mr. Hollander's translation is unforgettable. This isn't the sort of sad story where I want to cry; this story just left me aghast at the human condition. It seems like some things are so bad that even the angels can only watch mutely, with no clear understanding of what is happening.
Having said all that, don't be put off from reading this work. This writer is a wonderful talent.
Beauty Salon is narrated in a direct way by a salon owner who has transformed his shop into a Terminal, a place where the dying are tended to in their final days. While the city, epidemic, and time of the novel are left vague, it feels distinctly temporary and familiar. In many ways the epidemic is reminiscent of the experiences of earlier HIV/AIDS patients, being rejected by hospitals, treated like lepers, and left to their friends and communities to take care of them when even their families at times reject them. In fact, the narrator is a transvestite who only takes in men as part of his rigid system of rules for the Terminal. Detaching himself from the suffering around him, the narrator embraces taking care of the fish in aquariums that he has set up in the shop. For him, the fish provide a deeper connection to the world around him than the patients he has taken in and works to stay estranged from.
Bellatin's style is clear, subtle and direct. The richness of his prose is not immediately apparent in the simplicity of the sentences. Eventually though the book won me over and surprised me with its intelligence and immediacy. Since the setting and circumstances are not fully revealed, Beauty Shop remains allegorical. The story feels timeless in its exploration of a man focused on the creation of beauty who finds himself surrounding by ugliness and suffering.
I have to confess that when I heard this book described as an allegory, I feared it would feel remote, cold, and uninviting. I was excited to find my assumption was dead wrong - this book draws you in, strikes you viscerally, and feels vitally familiar.
He is a competent but remote caregiver, both to his guests and the tropical fish that were once the highlight of the salon. The dying are not permitted any comforts other than candy, and one young man is savagely beaten by the owner after he tries to run away. Only one young man elicits any sympathy from him, but only fleetingly.
Later, the narrator develops telltale signs of the illness, and realizes that he is beyond hope. Only then does he reflect on his life and those of his guests, as he wonders if anyone will take care of them in their last days.
Beauty Salon was a very short but superb and unforgettable novella from an author largely unknown outside of Mexico who hopefully will gain greater exposure after this work.