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Though Mario Bellatin’s novella Beauty Salon takes place in an unnamed city where the inhabitants are suffering from an unnamed disease, it is commonly interpreted as an allegory for AIDS. The novella was originally published in 1999. During the time period, Mexico was undergoing the full weight of the AIDS pandemic. According the Castro and Leyvas’ essay, at this time there were about 116,000 to 174,000 reported cases of AIDS in Mexico. (138) The disease along with the social stigma it brought about was a major social problem. Bellatin’s novella addresses this social problem by providing an allegory that helps readers to understand the mindset of those suffering from the disease. The novella touches on the social stigma associated with the disease which correlates to the social stigma faced by those suffering from AIDS.
In Bellatin’s novella, the narrator is a cross-dressing gay man that turns his beauty salon into the Terminal, a place for those who are dying to go, during the height of a terrible plague of disease. “In the Terminal they were guaranteed a bed, a bowl of soup and the company of other dying people.” (Bellatin 38) The narrator is apathetic throughout the novella often discussing his hobby of caring for fish rather than the suffering people surrounding him. The fish serve as an additional allegory for those facing the disease. When the beauty salon flourished, the fish paralleled the beauty of the salon. However, when the salon is transformed into the Terminal the narrator often neglects the fish. The narrator struggles with his own feelings with death in conjunction with the fish. At times, the narrator neglects the fish and allows them to die. This can be interpreted as a sort of power that the narrator possesses. In controlling the lives of the fish, the narrator is able to achieve some sort of control over death. This is important as he has no control over those dying from the disease and his own imminent death. The narrator refers to the dying as his “guests” and does not allow them many comforts or the ability to interact with the outside world. He also does not allow any medicine or other attempts at a cure. The people he takes in go to the Terminal solely to die.
There is no cure for the disease just as there is no cure for AIDS. Readers learn that at one time the narrator did try to help his first patient with medical treatment. However, it was a pointless journey. “After subjecting the first “guest” to the agony of useless palliatives, he decides to bar medicine from the premises.” (Hollander) This correlates to the train of thinking many expressed due to the AIDS crisis. In the documentary “How To Survive A Plague”, the group Act Up is shown fighting to gain legalization for medications related to the treatment of AIDS in the United States. However, at many times during the documentary the hopelessness related to the cause is expressed. No matter how many medications were tested it seemed especially during this time period that AIDS was simply a death sentence. There were also many stigmas associated with those diagnosed with HIV/AIDS that made the fight to gain access to medication even harder. (France)
In the novella, like in real life, there was a major stigma around the disease. The narrator and guests in the novella are dying from this disease as well as dealing with a society already against them. At times, the physical suffering from the disease even seems overpowered by the mental suffering imposed by a heartless society. As the disease primarily affected gay men it became associated with living an immoral lifestyle. Though this was not the cause of the disease, it led to the unfair treatment of an already marginalized group. In the novella, this can be seen as the Terminal becomes a resource for those who would otherwise be left to die in the street. The narrator even mentions attempts made to destroy the Terminal. “The neighbors tried to burn down the beauty salon, claiming that the place was a breeding ground for infection and that the plague had spread to their homes.” (Bellatin 24) This is very reminiscent of how the United States government reacted to the AIDS crisis. Since in real life and in the novella, the disease affected a group of people believed to be immoral to begin with thus their lives were not given value. While the stigma led to closer knit gay communities similar to that of the Terminal, the majority of the public failed to treat those suffering with basic human respect let alone to attempt to help them. Many also failed to realize that disease could affect anyone.
In the novella, women and children are turned away from the Terminal. Though they are also suffering from the disease, the narrator does not want them there. The narrator explains his reasoning stating “The beauty salon had once been dedicated to beautifying women and I wasn’t willing to sacrifice so many years of work. Which is why I never accepted anyone that wasn’t a man regardless of how much they pleaded.” (Bellatin, 24) However, it can also be inferred that since women were not part of the gay community, even though they shared a common suffering, they could not be welcomed in the same way as gay men. This exclusion though possibly justifiable led to a feeling of further marginalization for women suffering from the disease. A similar marginalization for women existed in real life as explained in Castro and Leyva’s essay, “there are a host of gender expectations and conditioning that influence this group’s vulnerability to the disease.” (145) Particularly in Mexican culture, women are expected to remain virgins until marriage while it is “approved” that men partake in sexual conduct with multiple partners. (Castro 146) This led to a strong stigma around women suffering from AIDS as the simple fact that they were suffering from the disease led to the perception of their promiscuity. Women like those in the novel were also excluded from many AIDS related communities as the communities were typically connected to gay identity.
“The term AIDS appears nowhere in the text, but few will not read this as emblematic of the predicament of poor, gay AIDS patients who can’t overcome social stigma, even in their own minds.” (Hollander) The novella even references several effects of the unnamed disease similar to the effects of AIDS. One effect of the disease is marks on the face similar to lesions associated with AIDS. The narrator describes these marks as one of the first symptoms of the disease stating “There were a couple of pustules on my right cheek. I didn’t need to check my glands to see if they were swollen. I had enough experience to immediately recognize the slightest symptoms.” (Bellatin 41-42) The reference to side effects of the disease furthers the connection to AIDS in the mind of readers.
Bellatin, succeeds in telling the story of AIDS and many who suffer from it without ever addressing AIDS itself. In the novella, “social injustices are presented in a deadpan voice, increasing their potency: the dying patients who have nowhere to go, the mother’s rejection of her son’s homosexuality, the beautiful boy caught up in drug commerce, the attempts at burning down the Terminal, motivated by misunderstanding and fear.” (Febles) The story contains truth of the terror of the disease intertwined with dark humor. The narrator though apathetic at times has lost everyone he cares about to this disease and yet continues to go on helping his “guests” to die with dignity. Although much of the story can be related to AIDS, Bellatin creates a story that could easily apply to any major disease and thus is near timeless. As long as there are diseases and social stigmas, Beauty Salon will continue to carry a powerful message.
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