Jacob the Mutant by Mario Bellatin trans. Jacob Steinberg (Phoneme Media, April 2015) Reviewed by Heather Cleary

Jacob the Mutant
by Mario Bellatin
trans. Jacob Steinberg
(Phoneme Media, April 2015)

Reviewed by Heather Cleary

“It’s a complicated thing,” Mario Bellatin once said, “trying to interpret my novels. I think they often don’t allow interpretation. Though if there were something coherent to them, it might be in their form and not their content.” In the case of Bellatin’s unsettling, exhilarating aesthetic project, this insistence on form serves not only as a commentary on the changes his books have undergone as they are reissued and reimagined over time, but also as a reminder that—in a creative practice marked by the adoption of different personae along the literary spectrum, the invention of biographical subjects and bibliographical references, and other writerly games—the narrative itself is only part of the equation.

Known not only for the published work that earned him the prestigious José María Arguedas prize earlier this year, but also for public interventions like his Dynamic Writing School, the main directive of which is not to produce text, and a literary conference in which the invited speakers were replaced by trained stand-ins, Bellatin has been a major cultural figure in the Spanish-speaking world for some time now. It is only recently, though, that his work has reached critical mass in English: in addition to the critically acclaimed Beauty Salon (City Lights 2009), since 2013 Phoneme Media has published Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction, The Transparent Bird’s Gaze, and now Jacob the Mutant, with more releases planned for the coming year. This proliferation will finally offer readers a more complete glimpse into a complex body of work that, taken as a whole, pushes literature—sometimes rather forcefully—in the direction of conceptual art.

Jacobo el mutante was first published at a moment in which Bellatin’s experiments involved donning various masks to work between and whittle away at neatly delimited literary genres. He wrote El jardín de la señora Murakami (Mrs. Murakami’s Garden, 2000) in the guise of a translator, annotating his edition of the Japanese “original” with enigmatic, often contradictory footnotes and addenda. The following year, he published Shiki Nagaoka: una nariz de ficción, the apocryphal biography that famously arose from one journalist’s insistence that Bellatin name a literary influence during a press conference (irritated by the rote question, Bellatin invented an author on the spot; later, realizing that no one had caught on, he doubled down on the ruse and published a study of Shiki’s life and work, complete with photographic documentation). In the work here reviewed, Bellatin poses as a literary scholar who unearths a lost Joseph Roth manuscript.

The first section of Jacob the Mutant opens with a lengthy quotation from the text mentioned above, supposedly Roth’s unfinished novel The Border (an apt title given the role these demarcations play in assigning new and often precarious categories of being to those who cross them). As this first section progresses, the prose shifts constantly between this “found” material, a secondhand account of the recovered manuscript, and exegetic commentary on the text. Translator Jacob Steinberg does an excellent job of preserving the texture generated by the interaction of these distinct voices and the flirtations with academic discourse embedded throughout; he also does an admirable job of preserving the difference in tone and cadence between this text and the commentary that follows.

Jacob the Mutant , notwithstanding its buried mise en abyme about the act of writing, positions itself primarily as a work of literary historiography. The book’s opening pages establish this central conceit:

The Border was perhaps one of the least known works of the Austrian writer Joseph Roth. A complete translation has yet to surface, although fragments have shown up, like the lines offered above, in specialty magazines in Paris and on the West Coast of the States. The Stroemfeld publishing house in Frankfurt holds an old edition in its archives that is believed to be complete, while the independent publishing house Kiepenheuer & Witsch has another version that, many hold, is just composed of a series of fragments.

Spoiler alert: though Joseph Roth was indeed published by the two German houses mentioned above, and though he did, in fact, write a text called “Die Grenze” (The Border), the work appeared in 1919 and belonged to Roth’s journalistic production (not surprisingly, transmutation does not figure prominently in the original German text). With Jacob the Mutant, then, Bellatin offers us yet another case study in literary shape shifting—both his own and, retroactively, non-consensually, Roth’s.

Despite being described as unfinished, the “found” text on which Jacob the Mutant centers is anything but underdeveloped. The story follows Jacob Pliniak, at once a rabbi in a region where “families have begun to abandon their ancient beliefs” and the owner of a border town tavern that serves as “a cover for an escape route for scores of Jews fleeing the Russian pogroms.” His accomplice in this endeavor is a mysterious figure named Macaque who, “years later, in New York City, would become the stage actress Norah Kimberly.”

Jacob’s days are marked by a series of dramatic events, most of which are recounted second hand in Bellatin’s characteristic deadpan, deftly rendered by Steinberg. Our protagonist discovers that his wife is having an affair with the young man who helps her run their tavern at night; he struggles to instruct the town’s children in their religious tradition, despite the fact that the town seems to have severed its ties with the past; he finds himself in the United States and is reunited with his estranged wife. Oh, and then there’s the mutation to which the book’s title refers. One morning,

Jacob Pliniak submerges in the lake to carry out his ritual daily ablutions. Instants later he returns to the surface, having transformed into his own daughter. But not into the girl that we’ve know until now, but rather into an elderly woman, eighty years of age . . . It’s important to point out that in the Kabbalah these transformations that entail person, gender, and time are referred to as “Aphoristic Pools.”

The narrator quickly moves on as though the event were par for the course, leaving the reader not with a story of a transformation, but rather the idea of transformation itself. This idea is multiplied, exponentially: thus far, we have Roth’s text, transformed (or created from whole cloth) for use in a fiction penned by a writer posing as a literary historian, and in which the middle-aged male protagonist suddenly transmutes into an elderly woman on an unsuccessful crusade against the dance academies cropping up in her community.

The book, for its part—like many of Bellatin’s texts—is also an object in a state of flux. Jacobo el mutante was published in several distinct editions in Spanish before being reissued in 2014 as Jacobo reloaded. It is on this later version that Steinberg’s translation is based: though the title of the English work evokes the earlier editions, its paratext adheres to the other. In place of Ximena Berecochea’s lyrical, hermetic photographs, the reader is given a series of whimsical illustrations in the form of Zsu Szkurka’s “Explanatory Maps” to the text, along with something like an afterword, titled “Could There Have Been a Reason for Writing Jacob the Mutant?”

In this recent addition, Bellatin reformulates the narrative of Jacob Pliniak as part of his own history, expanding upon the earlier text and integrating it with memories of his grandfather—who also underwent “numerous transformations.” He in turn links these stories to his own conversion to Sufism. Asserting that he, “like the writer Joseph Roth—who, as is well known, is the true author of this book,” has undergone similar “mutations of a spiritual nature,” Bellatin draws a direct line between himself and Jacob through the recollection of one such transformation, in which “I found myself completely submerged in water.”

Over the course of his commentary, Bellatin brings up many of the themes found in the narrative it follows—the bonds of family; the competing imperatives of tradition and progress; the ephemeral nature of identity. The idea of transformation that has been so prominent throughout is presented here not only as something that happens to us, but also as something we do to others—in the way we remember them, the way we take up what they leave behind. The writing feels intimate, but in such a carefully constructed way that it defies the lull of sentimentality, urging the reader instead to reflect on the way the pieces of this unconventional, elusive, hypnotic book fit together. For those familiar with Bellatin’s work, these mystical and sometimes contradictory affirmations also demand to be considered in light of what the Argentine writer and critic Alan Pauls has called the “immense, oceanic” whole to which they belong.

Following a brief text titled “Affairs with Respect to Jacob the Mutant that It Would Be Good Not to Forget or Leave to Chance,” in which Bellatin presents the “Mariotic Theory” (“Something that occurs each time a minimal, isolated incident breaks with an established order, followed by the emergence of a chain of uncontrollable chaos”), followed by the third refrain of an enigmatic verbal snapshot titled “The Wait” and another of Zsu Szkurka’s maps, the volume enters its final movement: a translator’s afterword. In his note, Steinberg eschews the reflections on knotty passages and anecdotes about working with the author expected of the genre in favor of the somewhat salacious account of Rose Eigen, a woman born to Eastern European immigrants in New York City in 1907 who became estranged from her family when it was discovered that she was having an affair with the young superintendent of the building where she lived with her husband and son.

The note takes a mystical turn moments later, as Steinberg asserts:

It may be difficult to believe—decidedly more difficult for those uninitiated in the art of the transmigration of souls—but I, Jacob Steinberg, the English translator of Jacob the Mutant, am the reincarnation of that woman, Rose Eigen.
Perhaps I should also make note here that I am her great-grandson . . .
The avid reader must certainly already recognize certain similarities between my great-grandmother’s story and that of the book
Jacob the Mutant.

Just as Jacobo el mutante is presented as (yet another) translation of fragments of a lost text, Jacob the Mutant is a translation that brings the aesthetic proposal of Bellatin’s work to its logical extreme: Steinberg presents his intervention in the text as an extension, rather than an echo, of Bellatin’s writing. “In another of the epilogues that I wrote for this translation,” Steinberg continues,

(a text that, now that I am looking for it, I cannot find in any complete document; only fragments of it appear in various journals and folders), I said that the only mechanism for making sense of Jacob the Mutant was to give in to its perpetual state of transformation. To remain always a reader in continuous mutation.

When we talk about translation, too often we talk about what is lost. The brilliance of this translator’s afterword—which does not comment on Bellatin’s text but rather performs it anew, weaving Roth’s fragments together with Steinberg’s personal history, religion, and family tree—is that it establishes a parity between Bellatin’s productive appropriation of Roth’s narrative persona, and his own, of Bellatin. As a whole, then, that belongs to a greater whole, the recent publication of Jacob the Mutant not only offers the reader a memorable exploration of the compelling but futile drive to hold on to the familiar in a world marked by constant change; it also insists on the status of its translation as the rebirth of a work that, like its protagonist, will continue to take on new and ever vital forms.


Heather Cleary is a writer and translator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Two Lines, The Quarterly Conversation, and Words without Borders, and has been nominated for a Best Translated Book Award and ALTA's National Translation Award. She holds a Ph.D. in Latin American and Iberian Cultures from Columbia University and is a founding editor of the digital, bilingual Buenos Aires Review.