Alice Whitmore – Tattered Stories: Mario Bellatin’s ‘The Large Glass’

EARLIER THIS MONTH MEXICO CITY LIT PUBLISHED AN EXCLUSIVE EXTRACT FROM MARIO BELLATIN’S THE LARGE GLASS: THREE AUTOBIOGRAPHIES, AVAILABLE FOR THE FIRST TIME IN ENGLISH IN DAVID SHOOK’S TRANSLATION, PUBLISHED BY PHONEME MEDIA. HERE ALICE WHITMORE CONSIDERS THE UNSETTLING IMPACT OF BELLATIN’S DECONSTRUCTION OF THE ABSURD AND HUBRISTIC PROJECT OF THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY. AUTHOR PHOTO BY GERSHON KREIMER.

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Tattered Stories: Mario Bellatin’s ‘The Large Glass’

“Every Mario Bellatin book is like a toy,” Francisco Goldman once wrote, “dark, radiant and bristling, like a Marcel Duchamp construction in words.” This assessment could hardly be more suited to Bellatin’s latest work. The Large Glass is an unsettling trio of autobiographies that, in Bellatin’s singularly peculiar fashion, slowly takes the shape of a life, forming something that looks by turns like a true reflection and the bizarre machinery of a fever dream.

Named for Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre (also known, in English, as The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even), The Large Glass treads a fine line between play and truth, retreating, at times, into a meta-literary meditation on the very concept of autobiography. The work’s translator, David Shook, notes that, just like Duchamp’s sculpture, Bellatin’s text “deconstructs the very form it embraces, revealing the artifice of the autobiographical genre.” These are autobiographies (plural) that, in true Bellatin style, boldly ignore the parameters of the autobiographical mode. They mingle flights of fiction with unlikely snippets of dream and memory, always ensuring that the shared edges of these forms are smudged and blurred, often beyond recognition. Indeed, the book’s several narrators are remarkably unreliable – “I think I’m something of a liar,” one of them notes repeatedly – and their stories are peppered with all-too-human imperfections: embellishments, contradictions, misremembered conversations, incomplete recollections. Diana Palaversich’s observation rings true here: “With Bellatin you are never on solid ground.”

Shook’s translation, at times painstakingly literal, teases a harsh poetry from Bellatin’s words, and the reader is soon immersed in the book’s strangely constructed world. The first section is narrated in short numbered fragments, a series of startling poems that dart between the internal and external worlds of the narrator; pieces of a puzzle, a handful of childhood memories cobbled together in a carefully haphazard manner that, like our own recollections, always fall shy of coherency. Despite their tone of youthful innocence, the numbered confessions document dark moments of abuse – emotional, physical and sexual – at the hands of the narrator’s mother. In this fractured world, however, nothing is straightforward; woven with the rest, we find empathetic allusions to the poverty and despair that plague his abuser. We also catch glimpses of a greater context: the ailing fascist grandfather; the absent father; the complicit headmaster; a traumatic eviction, related with childlike objectivism (“It was strange to observe the beds, the dressers, and the chairs placed in the middle of the sidewalk”); ominous hints of deformity and mental illness.

Central here, and to the book as a whole, are depictions of the perversion and fetishisation of youth, as several characters (or perhaps several forms of the same character, which shift in age and gender) experience the objectification and abuse that so often accompany vulnerability. The other face of this obsession is the fear and disgust of physical decline: “Until now,” our first young narrator notes, “everyone seems to consider it impossible that my luminous skin might at some moment decay.” In the midst of all this we sense the pervading presence of Sufism, the spiritual pillar to which these tattered stories are tethered.

It is Bellatin’s cleverly bared dishonesty, however, that really sets him apart. We witness several compelling transfigurations of identity in The Large Glass. The collection’s third and final autobiography is the culmination of this, narrated from the perspective of what can only be interpreted as a female Mario. Everything about our being-in-the-world, Bellatin suggests, is unstable – everything is mutable, uncertain, susceptible to re-examination through the lens of reflection and memory.

At the book’s conclusion, the author (whoever he may be) turns to us and comments, with apparent candour, on the three stories we have just read. Is this, finally, the palimpsestic honesty we have suspected all the while? Or is it yet another fabrication?