Among the Latin American avant-garde to arrive recently into English, one of the strangest, most compelling voices must be that of Mexican-born, Peruvian-raised Mario Bellatin. Compared early in his career to absurdist philosopher Albert Camus and surrealist filmmaker David Lynch, Bellatin’s lucid, hallucinatory prose deals in benevolent mutants, grotesque epidemics, and every grade of gonzo weirdness. Until this year, English-language readers had been able to enjoy three collections of Bellatin’s acclaimed fiction: Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction (2013), Beauty Parlor (2009), and Chinese Checkers (2007).
In February, Chicago-based independent publisher 7Vientos released Bellatin’s latest book to be translated stateside, Flowers and Mishima’s Illustrated Biography, a pair of slim little novellas, clocking in at just under 100 pages. It’s a fitting addition to 7Vientos’ expanding catalog, which includes the story collections And the Hippies Came, by underrated Puerto Rican writer Manuel Abreu Adorno, and Saturnalia, by Dominican-born author and performance artist Rey Andújar. As with previous titles, 7Vientos released Bellatin’s work in a “flip edition,” printing the full text in both English and the original Spanish.
The first novella, Flowers, tracks an array of odd characters, all affected in some way by thalidomide, a drug commonly prescribed for morning sickness, later linked to thousands of cases of congenital malformation. At the book’s center slinks Herr Doktor Olaf Zumfelde and his accomplice, Henriette Wolf, agents of the Grünewald corporation, a shady German pharmaceutical. A loosely-knit plot to uncover the truth about thalidomide’s anatomical effects unfolds amid the bright petals and twisted appendages.
Each chapter in Flowers takes its title from a botanical species (Italian Arum, Evergreens, Hyacinths, etc.) and consists of single paragraphs that range in length from several sentences to a few pages. These installments stand alone as independent vignettes, but the book works best as a series of disturbing allegories. In “Orchids,” thespians dressed as children get whipped by their teachers. In “Lilies,” limbless orphans find themselves surrendered to the whims of an adoption agency. In “Geraniums,” Germans give birth to kids with flippers and preserve fetuses in formaldehyde. Bellatin builds these monstrosities around a cast of dozens, which includes Alba the Poet and the gerontophiliac Autumnal Lover, even a writer named Mario Bellatin, complete with prosthesis (the character, however, possesses an artificial leg, rather than an arm).
While Bellatin’s not the first author to insert a self-reflexive surrogate into his fiction (predecessors include the likes of Kurt Vonnegut, Édouard Levé, and David Foster Wallace, among others), he succeeds in blurring the narrow line between our factual universe and the disjointed pastiche of Flowers. In part, the book’s success derives from Bellatin’s pointed commentary on the uncomfortable complicity between political, medical, and literary industries. These meta-fictional elements also provide an important link between the two books, conjoined wisely by 7Vientos.
The second novella, Mishima’s Illustrated Biography, refers to the real-life nom de plume of Kimitake Hiraoka, a Japanese writer who committed ritual seppku, along with Masakatsu Morita, after a failed coup d’état in 1970. The historical circumstances surrounding Mishima and Morita’s political activity, and the former’s subsequent suicide, do not concern the present novella; Bellatin picks up with Mishima’s head lopped off, creating a fictional future for the much-lauded author. The bizarre sequence of events that results begins with the decapitated man in his mid-forties, wandering rural Japan, donning military fatigues and snapping photographs he’ll never see developed.
At first, Bellatin’s Mishima tries to pass off the fact of his missing head as a birth defect, the result of his mother’s ill-advised thalidomide ingestion. This theme echoes the itching question so central to Flowers, but here the malformation yields absurd, hilarious sentences, such as: “Some years after his death, approximately two or three, Mishima wound up with a ticket to travel to Europe.” Posthumous life carries on for the decollated protagonist, albeit with certain alterations to his lifestyle. As a result of his growing notoriety, Mishima enjoys ludicrous sponsorship deals, like the “Mitsubishi SUV given to him by some media outlet or other in exchange for an exclusive word about his suicide.” Imagine watching a televised interview with a suicidal writer after the fact (Levé and Wallace make fine candidates). Bellatin delivers an entertaining, troubling account of such a scenario.
For all its smart, screwy farce, Mishima’s Illustrated Biography ends with a sense of uncertainty, attuned to the unsettling experiences of literal disembodiment. Eventually, Mishima attends a staged adaptation of a book he had published before his death, which allows him to “experience his own work for the first time.” This odd paradox causes the novelist a form of reverse déjà vu, as if only a revival of his original work enables new, deeper appreciation. This observation, together with Bellatin’s untiring gift for the uncanny, makes a strong case for Bellatin’s inclusion in the serious pantheon of Spanish-language literature. And, since every act of translation is an act of adaptive creation, it’s perhaps a strong argument to read Fowers and Mishima’s Illustrated Biography in both languages, conveniently arranged by 7Vientos.