The experimental Mexican author Mario Bellatin is not concerned for your comfort. He doesn’t care if you get lost. His narration will jump from one scene to the next and if you trip on the lip of a conjunction or fall behind as he darts around the corner of a participle, that’s on you.
In Bellatin’s preface to his novella Flowers, which won Mexico’s prestigious Xavier Villarrutia Award upon its publication, he hints at what’s in store:
There is an ancient Sumerian technique, which is, for many people, the origin of still life. It allows for the construction of complicated narrative structures based upon the sum of certain objects that together form a whole. It’s in this way that I’ve tried to relate this tale; structured a bit like the epic poem of Gilgamesh. The idea is that every chapter can be read separately, as if it dealt with the contemplation of a flower.
From there a narration unfolds in a bewildering series of jumps and vignettes. The protagonist, a writer, pops in and out of the narrative feeling isolated in his city and his work. His missing leg, caused by in-utero exposure to thalidomide, makes him self-conscious and without his prosthetic he feels naked and vulnerable. Reading Flowers means barely glimpsing a half-visible story through the frame of a few paragraphs, through the name of a blossom.
I encourage you to read, trip on the lip of the conjunctions, lose your guide around sharp participles, run headlong down blind pronouns. Your narrator might not care if you get lost, but then again: it’s always the journey, not necessarily the destination.
The warehouses managed by the butchers’ guild were constructed close to the city’s piers. Here and there are small abandoned locales that at one time served as food stands for the workers. Almost all of them have expansive basements, where on certain days, Altars are held. They have established a peculiar phone tree that only the regular participants can access to know when they’re going to hold the next Altar. Even so, the details are only revealed mere hours before the start of the session. It might be a sadomasochistic encounter performed any number of ways. Occasionally animals have a part in the event. It’s customary to pick fatted pigs or Great Danes. At other times the Altar is dedicated to “Adults Who Were Mistreated in Childhood.” In these cases men and women appear onstage dressed as children pretending to be beaten by their parents or teachers. Almost all of the Altars begin at two o’clock in the morning, except for the ones reserved for the “Youths Who Love the Elderly,” because the old men contracted for these events complain about sicknesses caused by being out on the streets at all hours of the night. The attendees can usually go up on stage, except of course, for when the Kuhn twins are performing. Because of the nature of the development of the brothers’ routine, the spectators need to keep a safe distance. The events last about an hour and, for fear of the authorities, almost everyone disappears as soon as the act is over. Even so, apart from what happens onstage, nothing truly important happens among the spectators. That passivity appears to bother the writer, who, on this occasion, is wearing shorts and has fitted himself with a leg decorated with fake stones. In spite of all his efforts, no one seems to consider the possibilities, whether sadistic or masochistic, that this false member is capable of offering. The writer waits until the last attendee has left. He waits until the fat man with the exposed chest who offers free massages has no more clients. He has wanted to ask for a turn many times. He would like to start with a massage for relaxation and not with one of those therapies that they are always requesting of the masseur; the ones that are applied around the erogenous zones. It’s worth mentioning that this man carries out his treatments in the most professional manner possible. They never stop being work sessions. But what most impresses the writer is the thoroughness with which he disinfects his hands and arms before and after each client. Next to the massage table is a little wooden stand where he places all the oils necessary for him to complete his work most effectively, along with his personal disinfectants. In one corner he has a small flowerpot with three plastic orchids inside. The flowers are black, speckled with yellow. Once he puts on his long pants and the heavy coat that he hung up in the closet, the writer leaves the shop. He hails a cab to the red light district and the establishments with “XXX” in their windows. He’s sure nothing will happen there, either. The most likely scenario is that he’ll find some other lonely person on the other side of the transparent dividers that separate one cabin from the next. Later he’ll walk to the pier that stretches into the river, and maybe there he’ll establish some kind of nocturnal contact.
The autumnal lover, a character that will soon appear in this story—we will become aware of his existence in the chapter on hyacinths—thinks that heaven is inhabited only by decrepit old people who are happy to show off their sexual kindnesses if you only ask.
The writer lives in the city center, but he wants to move. In addition to the discomfort that the noise of the city causes, he has trouble paying the rent. The money that the mayor’s office pays for the investigation about the different ways that people have sex in the city isn’t enough.¹ He’ll have to count only on his savings for the next few months. For that reason, he begins wandering streets in the suburbs looking for a new place. He wants to live far from the racket. Still, he isn’t willing to cross the bridges over the rivers that delineate the city limits. He thinks that going any further out would affect his activities far too much, especially those that had to do with the investigative piece that he had to turn in a few months later. He was writing about groups that lived in the area known as Hell’s Kitchen. In addition to the classic establishments dedicated to the drag queens and the bars where women play pool all day, the writer had discovered a group of women who, dressed as men, get together every night in a place with golden doors called Okoge. At the entrance there is a pair of posters where you can see stonemasons hard at work. These women are attracted to men who like other men. Almost none of them is able to find one of these guys, even though they know that in other societies this type of relationship comes with a very complex erotic charge. Running out of time to find a place to live, the writer calls one of the few people he talks to regularly. The writer has taken to calling him the Autumnal Lover because of his tendency to fraternize awkwardly with the world of the elderly.
¹ A national program that, among other things, sought to benefit a certain number of writers. It consisted of trying to determine how many varieties of sex could be found in different groups of citizens and thereby study the best way to establish offices for helping every one of them.
When the writer asks for help finding a place to live, the Autumnal Lover tells him that an old aunt of his that is looking to rent a shed behind her house. The aunt lives in a row of houses with nice back yards, which are visible from the train when it raises its rails above the city. From the train’s windows you can see the roofs of the houses in all their detail. The writer met the Autumnal Lover one night when they were both standing outside the X-rated clubs without daring to enter any of them. Maybe they struck up a conversation because they found themselves in the same circumstances. The writer mentioned that he was a writer and, almost immediately, he tried to talk about the book he was working on. Some men came out of the club. They left without looking at them. The writer said that it was a novel where each character wanted to find an individual sexuality and religion. The Autumnal Lover told him that there was a time that he liked to go out dressed like a woman. He stopped when he was stabbed by an old man in an elevator in an ancient building. After spending a few weeks the hospital, he stayed cooped up in his apartment until the wounds healed completely. During his seclusion, on more than on occasion he would prepare teas of flowers that he had planted in the flowerpots in his kitchen. The drinks gave him great dreams. Before it was time to close the club, the writer and the Autumnal Lover went to sit on the benches of a park surrounded by fir trees. They stayed there until daybreak. The Autumnal Lover went on to say that in the months after the stabbing he decided to dress like an old woman. His outfit consisted of a white blouse with a bow, a jacket, and a straight skirt that covered his knees. It looked like it consisted of three pieces, but it was really a dress sewn that way so that it could be put on and removed more easily. He also used a white wig covered by a tulle hat. He never wore underwear. He started to frequent bars for sadomasochists where he usually became the center of attention. When they adopted it as part of their nightly rituals, the participants didn’t mistreat the Autumnal Lover with their baseball bats, they mistreated the old woman that he had become. As the light began to reveal more of the park’s detail, the Autumnal Lover said that he considered that time to be one of the most intense of his life. He had always enjoyed the company of the elderly. He had felt that way since he was a child. On the weekends he’d ask his parents to let him accompany them on their trips to the retirement home where his grandmother lived. They only took him once. That time he saw his grandmother sitting in a room with other elderly people who were staring at each other without any apparent motive. It embarrassed him to admit it, but it was then that he experienced the first sexual arousal that he could remember.
I think I’m not conscious, or rather, that my unconscious lacks the necessary consciousness of my lack of my lower extremity. For example, in the forty years that I’ve been alive, that peculiarity has never appeared in dreams or altered states. On the contrary, while I dream I participate in athletic competitions, I take part in dance recitals, and I’ve scaled more than one mountain. Maybe the recurrence of these activities that I can’t participate in is the key to starting the therapeutic process.
Taken from The Diary of a Common Man by Tanizaki Yunchiro.