The One Hundred Thousand Novels of Mario Bellatin

A one-armed writer who once threw his prosthetic into the Ganges to float away with the corpses, a Sufi dervish frozen forever in an ecstatic gyre, a Mexican-Peruvian-Italian author of one hundred thousand novels: Mario Bellatin, who will one day, but not yet, be widely translated into English.

If Mario Bellatin the man were the same person as Mario Bellatin the character who narrates his novels in the first person, this would be a clinical interview, not an interview for the cultural section of a newspaper. According to the characteristics the writer bestows upon himself in his latest book — The Uruguayan Book of the Dead, published by Sexto Piso — we would now be face-to-face with a lunatic, twisted by an “evil, blighted, miserable” family. A family in which his mother gathered ants in the morning for her children’s breakfast, in which deformities abounded: for example, a sister with something that resembled an elephant’s trunk where her mouth should have been, and a grandfather a diabetic with an amputated arm and leg who sometimes spoke one-on-one with the picture of Mussolini prominently displayed in the family home. Mario Bellatin would be a serial thief of Inoxcrom fountain pens who is afflicted with graphophobia and, just a few steps from the sofa where this interview is being conducted in his spartan home in Mexico City, a skeleton named Agapito would be buried beneath the cement floor in the kitchen.

“Don’t write that I come from a facchista family,” he says, pronouncing ‘fascist’ like he must have learned from his real-world family, which is of Italian origin.

“But that’s what it says in the book.”

“The book says that? A fascist family, and that the grandfather was cut to pieces and all that? It’s really heavy, huh? Some of it is lies. It’s the truth, but it’s a lie.”

Mario Bellatin likes to blur the line between his literary universe and his daily life. His appearance — his uniform, has he calls it — has elements of a fictitious character: his bald head, his black tunic combined with black pants and large black boots that look more apt for a punk in 1970s London than a 52-year-old Mexican writer. And wrapped up in his tunic is his truncated arm, a birth defect that he used to complete with a metallic claw that gave him the air of a monk crossed with a cyborg. It might be true, or a lie repeated twice, but according to the story The Big Window (Anagrama, 2006) and The Uruguayan Book of the Dead, Bellatin ended up throwing his prosthetic limb in among the floating cadavers of the Ganges River on a trip to India.

When asked about the veracity of these oddities that make up his character in his books, Bellatin usually responds with an understanding but indifferent “it doesn’t matter.” He explains that all the self-referential and recurring elements in his stories, like illness, physical deformities and the presence of death — which he wrote about in a short novel in 1994 called Beauty Salon, a parable about the spread of HIV during that time — are a pretext to draw the reader into a different world.

“I want to be able to move through a parallel reality to our daily life,” he says, “The reader leaves the real world and goes into this universe that is not this washed out and boring everyday world.”

Bellatin gets up off the sofa and comes back with a workbook for students, that he was commissioned to do; called The Two Fridas, it is a biography of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. He opens it and points to a picture.

“Do you think this is the real Frida Kahlo or not?” he asks.

The woman in the picture, with her beads, colorful clothing, bow in her hair and those eyebrows that meet in the middle, looks a lot like Frida Kahlo.

“It’s not. And you know it’s not, right?” The woman in the picture is a vendor from a rural village. Bellatin went to photograph her for the project and she only had a vague notion of who Kahlo was. “But it’s Frida Kahlo, right?” the writer asks again.

“This is all true. This woman exists. I didn’t dress her up. I didn’t pay her. This woman is the real Frida Kahlo. She’s the woman Frida Kahlo always wanted to be and couldn’t be. She’s the original. Frida Kahlo represented herself as a vendor from a rural village who was born after Frida Kahlo died.”

The writer maintains the painter was an impostor, and because of his creative interpretation he felt authorized to make this scholarly text that may have confused some few students.

“Have you seen her pictures? They were all staged, all perfect. In everything she did, there was nothing of the daily routine. Everything was packed inside paraphernalia, and I made paraphernalia out of the paraphernalia. I think if a 17-year-old kid in school thinks the woman in the picture is the real Frida Kahlo, it makes no difference at all. She invented everything, so I’ll invent everything too.”

It is after noon and Bellatin has had nothing but a coffee, which he has left half finished, but he speaks with energy, mixing humor with concepts that are sometimes abstract. His dog, Perezvon, a black and white border collie who wears a collar with his name engraved in it, plays in the living room as his owner expounds on some of his ideas.

“Get out, dog,” he says.

Another dog named Mona, property of Bellatin’s personal assistant, walks around the apparntment, apparently hyperactive. The writer says Mona was thrown from a window downtown as a puppy. Canines are another common element in his surreal plots, and they will now be the protagonists of a documentary he just filmed in Los Angeles ‘about a group of obese people who race greyhounds that they keep locked up the rest of the day’.

Bellatin’s artistic activity goes beyond writing. Besides the film, he is currently finishing an opera he filmed with the composer Marcela Rodriguez in Juarez, the deadliest place in Mexico. He says the work talks about violence but there’s not a drop of blood spilled. It’s based on “Black Ball“, his story about a Japanese entomologist who eats himself. For the chorus, he chose boys and girls from Juarez ‘in a situation of extreme vulnerability’. According to him, the opera includes projected images of the border wall separating the United States and Mexico, the new urban development in the area — “with abandoned houses without doors or windows and flop houses” — and of the ‘human misery’ of the female factory workers, or maquiladoras, as these women are known in Latin America. Meanwhile, the chorus intones words that Bellatin recites rhythmically: “Un-til-he’s-had-e-nough / Con-sumed-by-him-self / Swal-lowed-by-him-self”.

Black Ball” is part of the material Bellatin will show in July at the Documenta art show, held every five years in Kassel, Germany. He sees the musical as questioning the social role of the author. Bellatin is against the “binary” system of the author as an individual with two options: to use his work as a way to denounce injustice or to be a pure entity who creates with his back to the world.

“I agree that literature is a mechanism for change, but not in the sense of immediate circumstances, as if the text were an instrument that can’t sustain itself on its own, without its context.”

As Bellatin tells it, from the beginning of his career, his heterodoxy ran headlong into the existing compartmentalizations and categorizations of Latin American literature: the separation of writers into a group of ‘international writers’ like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes, and another current, a local one based on social commitments.

“For the things I tried to do, they always used poisonous terms like Kafkaesque,” he remembers, “And I, because I was 18-years-old, thought: ‘Holy shit, Kafkaesque’. But really what they were saying to me was: ‘Good boy, now if you want to be a writer, do something indigenous or something urban that talks about what it needs to talk about: the dictator, magical realism and the exoticism of Latin America’.”

His career developed outside the normal structure of literature, an orientation he took with him to the Dynamic Writers School of Mexico City, which he founded in early 2000 and directed until it closed three years ago, although he is thinking of reopening it in September. The first rule for the aspiring writers in the school was that they were forbidden to write. He did something similar when he started writing. He studied philosophy in Lima, Peru, where he lived for four years, and then in the mid 1980s he went to film school in San Antonio de los Banos, in Cuba. During both periods, he simply dedicated himself to observation, with the purpose of preparing himself for writing. He finally returned to Mexico, the country he never wanted to leave, and completed his triple back flip with a twist: he became a devotee in a Sufi community, a mystical branch of Islam.

After some three hours of conversation about lies, about truth, about art and of Japanese entomologists who eat themselves, Bellatin, exhausted and famished, makes a not entirely successful effort to explain his relationship with Sufism to a journalist with a diminished ability to understand.

“Sufism taught me that everything is a totality,” the writer begins, “that all is one, that there is no advance, but circularity, parallelisms,” he continues, ending finally with: “The living and the dead live in simultaneous times, all the time, in the instant.” He stops a moment and apologizes for being a bit ‘brainless’ from fatigue and wraps it up with a few words that do not quite fit together in the brain of his interlocutor either: “And that instant is what the whirling dervish is seeking too.”

Bellatin considers himself a Sufi and practices an austere aesthetic. The furniture in his home is so simple the house almost seems abandoned, or inhabited by a ghost, which the writer says he sometimes feels like. He always wears his black uniform and drives a black car with a stick shift and no power steering: impressive for a man with one arm. The main decorative focus in the house is a tiny painting of a dervish — a Sufi dancer — frozen in an instant of the perpetual spin that makes up the ritual dance of the religion.

That wall, like all the walls in the living room and the study, will soon be covered with enormous bookshelves from which he will distribute “The One Hundred Thousand Books of Mario Bellatin“, another work he will present in Documenta. It’s project that sits somewhere in between literature and conceptual art, in which he plans to publish 100 short books, printing 1,000 of each one. He will sell them on his own, without going through bookstores, exchanging directly with readers “for a cigarette or 1,000 pesos, depending on how I feel”. He has already published six, and calculates that with everything he has written in his career, he has enough for 52.

“Starting now, I want to start writing to make it 100. But if I die before I finish, it does not matter. If there are 100,000 books here or no books at all, the important thing is their existence depends on desire, and nothing objective or external from you can get in the way of that desire.”

Like the dervish who spins eternally, the only desire of the brother of the elephant girl, the fountain pen thief, the son of the woman who cooks ants, and Perezvon’s owner, is that Mario Bellatin always keeps writing.

Pablo de Llano Translated from Spanish by Brian Hagenbuch for International Boulevard