Bellatin

by craigepplin

In a couple weeks, I’ll be presenting a talk to my colleagues on the work of Mario Bellatin. Of all the nonhumans I’m writing about in this book, he’s the one whose work I’ve been acquainted with the longest. The first book I read was Flores, simply because it was the only one not checked out of the Penn library. Its chapters are short, each of them bearing the title of a different flower. The technique is allegedly based on an ancient Sumerian practice. This is probably false, but the point is not to tell of the work’s actual genesis, rather to invent a procedure by which the book can be written.

These techniques are everywhere in Bellatin’s work. Origin stories abound. The novels Salón de belleza and Perros héroes are mythical texts, the foundations of his narrative edifice. But the real beginning lies not in these or other written works, but rather in a technology: the typewriter. His strange book (but they are all strange) Underwood portátil. Modelo 1915 explains as much.

I’ll never know which might have been the motives that, from my earliest years, have moved me to remain seated for long hours in front of a typewriter, allowing the exercise of writing to construct realities that run parallel to daily life. In the beginning I believed that my pleasure, or rather my obsession lay in appreciating the appearance of words themselves. During that time I began to think that an authentic stenographer lived within me. (Obra reunida 502)

This little scene depicts a moment of writing in which the machine, and more specifically the body-machine assemblage, is a central actor. The exercise of pressing keys, indeed the obsession with pressing keys, comes first. “The sound that comes up from the keys has always pleased me,” Bellatin writes. “The smell of the ink on paper, and also the struggle that from time to time I’d wage with the tangled two-color ribbon of my portable underwood, 1915 model, with which I wrote my first texts.” Pleasure lies in watching the words appear on the page, in the sensory experience of their appearance. The mimetic representation of reality is secondary to the impetus of the physical act of writing. This is why what is written matters less than the act of writing itself. “On certain occasions I found myself using [my typewriter] to copy whole pages from the phonebook or fragments of books by my favorite writers” (503-04). Any text will do, in the end, for the origin and ends of writing lie in the physicality of its production.

This emphasis on the physical technique of writing connects Bellatin to other contemporary Latin American writers, first among them César Aira. The most famous essay by this Argentine novelist is “La nueva escritura,” where he exalts process and procedure over all else.

The great artists of the twentieth century aren’t those who made works, but rather those who invented procedures for works to make themselves–or not. What do we need works for? Who wants another novel, another painting, another symphony? As if there weren’t enough of them already!

Writers and other artists are at their best not when they are forging new paths in the domains of representation and form, but rather when they are tinkering with the mechanisms that generate representation and form. Aira’s manifesto describes his own work, but it applies equally to Bellatin’s case.

Bellatin, however, takes Aira a step or two further. He not only invents or copies procedures: he also emphasizes their material nature. Thus he creates an infrastructure for writing in his Escuela Dinámica de Escritores, a writing school where writing is forbidden; thus he constructs theatrical interfaces that supplement his written work; and thus also he publishes himself in a series called the 100 Books of Bellatin. He is acutely conscious of the material architecture that allows a given work to exist, the actor-network that generates the text that we hold in our hands.

I’ll be saying more, much more, about Bellatin on this blog in the future. Right now I’m off to the post office to pick up a package that just arrived: his newest book, an illustrated biography of the great Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima. A post on that book will most certainly be forthcoming.