Norman Lock Reviews Chinese Checkers


Norman Lock Reviews Chinese Checkers, A Trio of Fictions with Photographs

by Mexican Writer Mario Bellatin

Translated into English by Cooper Renner, with an Introduction by Ken Sparling

Published by Ravenna Press, Edmonds , Washington



1. “Chinese Checkers” (1994)


“No symbols where none intended,” Beckett admonishes all who would hope to wrest from a fictional text a meaning laid down, deliberately or not, in its images. Written by Mexican author Mario Bellatin and transparently rendered into English by Cooper Renner, “Chinese Checkers” seems to be a story whose mysterious unfolding might be illuminated by a study of its symbols. There appear to be several of significance in this, the eponymous fiction of a collection appearing for the first time in English, from Ravenna Press. My use of the conditional accords well with Beckett’s injunction, which allows symbols but does not insist on them, and the story’s narrator, whose strategy is one of disengagement. Before considering the narrator, let us regard the title Bellatin chose to give his story in the light of a possible meaning for his text, never forgetting Beckett’s caution.


More than checkers, chess, or other games played on a board with movable pieces – Chinese checkers is the solitary pursuit of an end, which is to advance one’s own pieces across a field mined with the enemy’s – or enemies’, for Chinese checkers can be played by six. Unlike similarly constituted games, winning is not achieved by the elimination of an opponent’s pieces but by shepherding all one’s own safely across the field. The haven to which one strives to bring his pieces home is a mirror image of his starting point. Hunting down one’s opponent, as well as strategy, is not at issue where chance and self-consciousness are the determinants of success. As a metaphor for a fiction, Chinese checkers suggests a viewpoint notable for an almost solipsistic regard of one’s self, which registers alien movements within the field of vision with dispassion. The player is self-absorbed and intent on self-aggrandizement (accumulating pieces in the zone opposite), and – in his unwavering gaze into the “mirror” across the field – narcissistic. While this interpretation may be mine alone, it fits the case of Bellatin’s two-part story. Chinese checkers is mentioned in the text only once: a mother whose negligence results in the drowning of her two-year-old daughter plays it obsessively; it is, therefore, connected textually to the insanity resulting from her guilt. Told by an old woman to a boy, the incident is later related by him to the narrator, who – in the story’s second part – relates it to us, or to an unidentified listener. Bellatin’s device throughout “Chinese Checkers” is to make the man’s narration seem a confession. (The man speaks of his narration as a “testimony [13].”) To this end, the man employs the terms “I remember,” “I think,” and “I believe” as prefix to the sentence’s substantive content. This strategy has the effect of implying an immediate auditor and of weakening the sentence syntactically – reinforcing our opinion of the man as remote and evasive.  


On reflection, one is tempted to propose the game of Chinese checkers as a symbol for madness. With the exception of the boy, all the story’s characters are askew, to borrow Ken Sparling’s terminology from his foreword to the volume. The game, then, can be considered a symbol rich in overtones of derangement resulting from neglect by others, a nearly aseptic disengagement from others, a disturbing emotional neutrality, or illness. Impassivity is overwhelmingly evident in the man and to a lesser extent in other characters (again, with the exception of the boy, who is their foil). 


Chinese checkers fits the Postmodern notion of writing as game and apocrypha. (By the latter, I mean its “falseness” as a legend to a map of a real world.) The game is neither Chinese nor checkers. According to Renner, Bellatin has said: “Odio narrar.” (“I hate to narrate, or to tell stories.”) This admission from the artist underscores the sense of his fiction’s artificiality – its existence as invention; literature is a game and, like all games, duplicates, to the degree that its author wishes, conditions of reality without aspiring to it. Like the game, it may also be pointless. One may write stories in the same way one plays Chinese checkers: to pass the time or, helplessly, because one must. A final observation concerning the game is pertinent: Chinese checkers allows for multiple players (and viewpoints), as I already have noted. Although solitary, each player moves according the dictates of desire and with minimal engagement. (Players do not take or capture their opponents, but jump over them.) The game’s procedure is, in musical or narrative terms, polyphonic. Just so is Bellatin’s story, with its portmanteau of narratives and a central consciousness that describes its own actions without judgment or comment – a character that moves by indirection, with no other reason to move than to go forward and remain free of emotional attachments.


I was injecting the drug into him. I had to hold it forcefully. Shortly thereafter he went into convulsions. I moved back a short distance and watched how my son’s body was shaking in a rhythmic way. My first reaction was to wrap the syringe and the empty vials in paper. Then I put them away in my bag (31). 


Coming late in part 1 during the man’s narration of his own story (as opposed to the boy’s he will relate in part 2), his response to his son’s death – by a drug he himself administered – is characteristic. He withdraws and witnesses, occupying himself with professional concerns. (His interest in medicine is perfunctory. “I noticed, with a sort of panic, that I had begun to practice medicine in an almost mechanical manner [7].”) His disinterested, acutely self-conscious state is conveyed by Bellatin, and Renner, in a cool and analytic succession of sentences. The circumstances of the delinquent young man’s death are left equivocal. We cannot know whether or not the father (narrator) meant to administer a lethal dosage. Following immediately the son’s destruction of valuable decorations (a fact the man chooses to observe without comment or emotional reaction) and his injection of “a larger dose than usual” – we can suspect the man of having murdered his son for expediency. Our suspicion is likely to be confirmed by his having remarked on the previous page:


Officially, my son’s demise was considered the result of an inability to tolerate the substance which he had administered to himself. In other words, it was labeled as an overdose (30). 


If we assess this problematic action using the Chinese checkers metaphor, however, I am inclined to the opinion that he allowed his son to die rather than murdered him: like the game’s player, the man will “jump” a person standing in the way rather than “take” him. To have arrived at this conclusion is to demonstrate the value of a controlling symbol to suggest meaning – and the danger, should the critic prove overly ingenious. 


What is interesting from the viewpoint of narrative strategy is where Bellatin has chosen to place this confession: it occurs before the man’s relation of his son’s death, casually, while describing a visit from his son-in-law. The sentence following his explanation of his son’s overdose jars by its incongruity: “My son-in-law’s intellect seems to have developed solely for money-making.” Inappropriate response is characteristic of the man; so, too, is absence of remorse. Bellatin causes him to recall three instances in which patients died as a result of negligent diagnosis or preparation:


I remember that at the same time I began to doubt my vocation there was a series of deaths in cases under my care. Of course there was no direct relation. Although, to be sure, there was some degree of negligence on my part.…  Another case even more clearly could not be held against me.…  It is evident that I bore a major responsibility in no case. But inside I felt a certain guilt. As if the energy generated by my state of mind attracted evil toward the women who frequented my practice. It soothes my conscience somewhat to think of the miraculous cure of the same woman whose son spoke to me that day in the office. That occurrence helps me balance out, in some fashion, the ledger of my professional obligations (13). 


To the list of those who would die under his care can be added his son: “Perhaps I did not pay attention to the symptoms…. Bruises on his body…. a wound to the forehead, a scratch … noticeable limp (5).” Bellatin shows us the man’s transaction with “evil” (an unusual word in what appears to be a realistic fiction proceeding along psychological lines): he moves between denial and partial acceptance of his professional responsibility, not to mention a moral one, until – fraudulent transaction completed – he balances his ethical accounts. The miraculous cure refers to the unaccountable disappearance of the cancer of which the boy’s mother is dying (the same boy whose story the man narrates – almost as if it were his own – in the story’s second part). As her doctor, the man takes no credit for her cure, characterizing it as miraculous (another instance of atypical diction. There is one other: he speaks of men in jail and the clients of brothels as “servants of a dark place [17]”). Strangely, the man experiences the identical sensation when he thinks of the woman’s recovery as he does when approaching a prostitute on the street or in the brothels he frequents.  


I use this term [miraculous] for recoveries which escape the normal flow of things.... The comparison seems rather unlikely, but the sensation is like that produced when I meet a woman of the streets (15). 


To escape the normal flow of things is what he wishes but can effect only superficially; for example, with the adoption of a youthful wardrobe and hairstyle when he thinks “about the possibility of taking on behaviors outside [his] routine (18).” 


The narrator is inclined to flee “a situation which [he can] not control (25).” (Avoidance response is also practiced by a Chinese checker player, who jumps over the opposition instead of confronting it.) At the conclusion of the fiction’s first part, his wife has gone to a shop to replace décor destroyed by the son prior to his death. She calls him to help with the “negotiations.” He resolves a difficulty and then declines her invitation to lunch, deciding instead to visit a brothel. To himself or to an auditor, he explains his choice by remarking that, when on the telephone with his wife, he recalled the woman cured of cancer and also her son, “the boy with a somewhat abnormal head (33).” His aversion to abnormality may remind the reader of the story’s fourth sentence: “I feel that touching their bodies [those of his women patients] only for medical reasons deforms … my desires (3).” We know already that, for him, the woman (her inexplicable cure) and brothels are related ideas – perhaps because of this deforming of desire. In this final passage of part 1, Bellatin suggests, with symbolic economy, a web of conscious and subconscious associations: women – cancer – miraculous cure – boy – deformity – wife –their dead son – sex. The anxiety they provoke in the man causes him to flee to a brothel. (In actuality, it may be the thought of the boy’s story that drives him there. Throughout part 1, it is felt as a powerfully attractive absence, like a black hole.) Within the nexus, the boy disturbs him most. He and his head (which is not misshapen but without the “customary roundness [9]”) are an idée fixe. The narrator’s identification with the boy, which Bellatin wishes us to make (both characters wear sky-blue footwear), is difficult to explain but central to an understanding of the fiction. We must look to its second part for a possible explanation. Bellatin creates one other web of associations in his text: the white furnishings of the shop where the man and his wife meet seem linked to an earlier incident: the white trousers marked by a spot of blood from a procedure performed on a woman shortly before a christening ceremony they attend. Another guest mistakes the blood as his own. The reader senses a disquieting relationship of disease, blood, sex, birth, ritual, mutilation, and self-mutilation. 


Before taking up the boy’s story, which as I said has been felt as an absence, let us consider the sofa in the narrator’s practice, where man and boy sit during the mother’s chemotherapy. During one treatment, the man is told the story he will relate in part 2. 

[the boy’s sky-blue sneakers] left tracks on the black surface of the sofa. I do not know if those tracks had begun to acquire some significance in my head, but I decided to get rid of the sofa a week after proclaiming the boy’s mother cured (22). 

While he can offer no adequate explanation for wanting to be rid of the sofa, the wish to do so must be an attempt to destroy a link to the boy, his story and deformity, and to the woman – not to her disease but to her cure, the thought inciting in him the same reaction as a prostitute does. Yet the man would like to give the sofa to the madam of a brothel. I explain his wish as an attempt to remove the anxiety caused primarily by the boy’s story to the safety and release he finds among anonymous sexual encounters. (Bellatin deals with subtleties of the mind; to attribute a single cause to any act is a simplification.) The attempt is unsuccessful for the man is impelled to narrate the boy’s story in part 2.

The story the boy tells is that of his search for his father, although the father is replaced (by psychoanalytic substitution) by an authority of a delivery service who will agree to pay him restitution for a letter intended for his father. The letter is delivered to his brother-in-law’s house where the boy spends weekends so that his father can be alone with his dying wife. The messenger informs the boy that a refund is due him because the letter has only now been delivered after being lost for a year. Where it has been and how it should have come to be delivered to the uncle’s house cannot be explained. The boy assumes responsibility for securing payment on his father’s behalf and travels to the city, where the company’s offices are located. As in a dream or a Kafka fiction, his quest is frustrated by circumstances – most trivial, one sinister.

The latter is an old woman, whom he meets in the company’s offices. Unwashed, wearing a metal crown and a fox skin, with a chauffeur-driven limousine, menacing “assistants,” and a conservatory of plants grown under lights – she suggests a malign character in a fairy tale. She will pay the boy the refund the company has repudiated, if he will accompany her home. At dinner, she tells him about a cruise she took with her husband, during which some cows being transported fell overboard. They were left to drown – a tragedy arousing pity only in her and her husband. Earlier, in the company’s offices, she told the boy the story of the drowned girl. But by the time of her husband’s death, she was unable to feel sorrow: “his death had caused her neither true sadness, nor the recurrence of her feelings when the girl drowned in the sea (47).” Here, Bellatin returns to his fiction’s principal theme: indifference. Only the boy remains whole – sane, unskewed, compassionate. “The boy confessed to me [the narrator] that he climbed the stairs, thinking about what it would mean to a loving father to lose a child (43).” He has in mind the drowned child, but he may also be thinking of his own father, who has been entirely absent from his story. On the old woman’s orders, the assistants lock the boy in a child’s room, confirming her role as witch (or if the reader prefers realism to fairy tale) a mad woman. (She is also likened by the boy to the Virgin Mary, perhaps because of the former’s miraculous power over death and role as agent of a deliverer – both of which the boy desires.) The dolls he finds imply the drowned girl, as if the old woman sought, in her madness, to transform him into her. The boy escapes from the house and – on his way home to his uncle’s – is overtaken by the assistants, who give him the restitution he has been seeking for his father. Having “redeemed” his father at the risk of his own life (or identity), the boy is, in turn, rescued by his father from his uncle’s indifference inside his walled house. Reunited with his father, the boy is able – one suspects, at last – to breach the wall that has separated them:

When his father came that afternoon to pick him up, the boy handed him the scribbled-upon envelope…. They went silently out to the street.…  After they had gone about a block, the boy started talking (52-3).

The reconciliation and redemption the boy and father share are – in my opinion – the reason for the man’s obsession with the story and his compulsion to narrate it – or testify to it. In the boy’s quest undertaken for his father’s sake, both father and son may have been saved. The man (narrator) is beyond all hope of rescue. Or perhaps it is not the wish to be saved but only his bafflement that such rescue is possible that make him assimilate the boy’s story. Bellatin isn’t saying.


2. “Hero Dogs: A Look at the Future of Latin America Envisioned as an Immobile Man and His 30 Belgian Malinois Shepherds” (2000)

  In the collection’s second fiction, Bellatin reduces the theme of atrophied human nature and skewed relationships, explored in “Chinese Checkers,” to absurdity. In a nearly affectless prose unrelieved by symbol, metaphor, or ornament, the third-person narrator details the life of a paralytic recluse, a Beckettian protagonist of indeterminate age, whose single purpose is the care and training of thirty dogs “able to kill anyone with a single bite to the juggler (57).” Despite his immobility, the unnamed man has earned an international reputation for training Belgian Malinois Shepherd dogs and is sought out as a specialist. He is able to communicate with his dogs by audible and nearly inaudible sounds. With “slow and distorted (77)” speech, communication with his own kind is less successful. A nurse/trainer, the most recent in a long line of functionaries, attends him and the dogs; the number of his predecessors cannot be ascertained, nor the reason for his devotion. Sharing the house with them are the immobile man’s mother and sister, who “dedicate themselves to a strange labor concerned with the classification of empty plastic bags (63).” The man much prefers his dogs to his human companions and, if forced to choose between his house and Anubus, his favorite dog, would lie with it at the side of the highway. The immobile man also keeps in his room a hawk and a cage of Australian parakeets.

While he once would accompany his dogs and one of the nurse/trainers to show the Malinois, he no longer does so; indeed, he appears not to leave his room and has no other contact than with the nurse/trainer and visitors who comes to consult him on the breed. On a wall is a “large map of Latin America where red circles mark the cities in which the rearing of Belgian Malinois is most advanced. The presence of the map leads only certain visitors to think about the future of the continent (71).” His other interest is in maintaining “a color print that shows more than a dozen space ships traversing inter-stellar space (72).” Inside them, he pastes pictures of Malinois Shepherds cut by the nurse-trainer from magazines. Using the telephone, whose receiver each morning the nurse/trainer straps to the immobile man’s head, he “attempts to ascertain [from the Reference Center ] how many Belgian Malinois could fit – in reality, not in his poster-universe – in a space ship (73).” Unable to make himself understood, he never receives an answer to the question. 

Downstairs in the kitchen, the two women pursue their own pointless activity, for which they are paid. Equally ignorant of its purpose, the nurse-trainer assists in the empty bags’ classification despite the immobile man’s displeasure when he does so. To placate him, the nurse-trainer will “share the immobile man’s bed, especially when a deep ache tears at one of his legs (73).” He is careful to obtain the women’s permission. Having long since finished the required practicum of his profession, the nurse/trainer nonetheless remains with the immobile man, for a reason Bellatin’s narrator does not reveal nor can the reader deduce. He remains in spite of abuse, such as the immobile man’s “testing” of Anubis, who – on command – is brought to the point of “attack[ing the nurse/trainer] with indescribable ferocity (75)” only to be called off by a complex noise made by the immobile man. Perversely, the “nurse-trainer seems to enjoy the satisfaction which the immobile man gains from the testing of Anubis (75).” (In ancient Egyptian mythology, Anubis was the son of Osiris, a jackal-headed god who conducted the dead to judgment. The allusion and irony are the single exception in a deliberately flattened and colorless prose.) The character of the bond between the two men is not explained, just as the reasons for much of what happens inside the house are not revealed. (Little enough does happen.)

No one knows how, from a paralysis so absolute, the immobile man has been able to train his dogs in tests which demand such animation. The nurse-trainer seems to have an answer. Never, however, would he dare to express it in public (68).

Neither the mother nor the sister has ever told the nurse/trainer the purpose those bags fulfill in their lives. The nurse trainer seems, however, capable of sensing it (98).

The sole incident to occur in sixty-two paragraph-length sections detailing a largely featureless landscape is a visit from a Malinois instructor’s apprentice, who wants to buy one of the dogs. During it, the immobile man “sacrifices” his falcon to Shakura, the oldest of his dogs, who then defies the immobile man’s “irresistible mastery (75)” by leaping “unexpectedly onto the leg of the instructor’s apprentice. The immobile man then berated the nurse-trainer as he had never done before. He immediately threw the innocent instructor’s apprentice out of the house (95).”

Bellatin constructs his narrative with the same unconcern for chronology as is the case in “Chinese Checkers”: events are related in a desultory way and without affective priority. Unlike the earlier of the fictions, however, “Hero Dogs” lacks – by Bellatin’s design – psychological density. The emotional levels are more or less even throughout the story. With the exception of the immobile man, permitted on occasion to rage or to laugh, none of the characters registers anything stronger than a mild bewilderment or fleeting fear. Bellatin’s fictive universe, like Beckett’s, is closed and oppressively small. Its space is the immobile man’s poster-universe, where photographically reduced dogs inhabit cut-out pictures of space ships, or “the blanket printed with the solar system (115),” which conceals the parakeets from the dogs and hawk. The immobile man’s is a world enlivened by incomprehensible activity and cruelty. Seldom referring to anything outside itself, it is a house where sister and mother do not visit or speak to the son, lying on a road between the city and access to a larger world – the airport. His is a life whose history – and that of his family – he has invented, colored by abandonment, separation, internment, attempted infanticide, and repudiation. If Bellatin’s text bears a relation to the future of Latin America , as its subtitle claims, his expectations for his continent are bleak. The text’s conclusion is inconclusive, as the last lines show:  “From the window of the second floor, the nurse-trainer watched the two women drawing away [to escape the immobile man’s cruelty]. In such moments he was never sure if they would return. But think about it: the immobile man continues smiling with no change at all (118).” The anxiety of the two women is our own; the stasis, Latin America ’s future – perhaps the world’s.

Sometimes the immobile man tells the nurse-trainer stories concerning the thirty Belgian Malinois Shepherds he keeps at the house, and about the raptor which had to be covered with a wooden box every time the dogs entered the room. On occasion, he even speaks of the Australian parakeets. While he structures those tales – in a slow, confused way – he forgets that his mother and sister work on the lower floor with the bags which they are always late in delivering (113).

In this passage, Bellatin allows the possibility that “Hero Dogs,” the story we are reading, is being narrated – and written – by the immobile man himself. (This possibility is, of course, a fictive one of Bellatin’s within his fiction concerning the immobile man.) Bellatin’s subversion here of traditional narrative pace and organization of material does not refute it. We have also earlier been informed by the third-person narrator that the history of the immobile man and his family is the man’s own invention; indeed, what we have read is only “one of the versions which the immobile man repeats most often (108).” By implication, we are to assume that other untold and unwritten stories exist. If it is true that the man is writing the story, then his paralysis is either partial or metaphorical; and he can operate a typewriter. In fact, the immobile man is caused by Bellatin twice to ask for the “device” of his profession:

That same afternoon, the immobile man asked for the first time in his life, for a typewriter…. Just like the other boy [who wrote a text also called “Hero Dogs”], he wanted to write a series of stories. He had already imagined the stories while he looked at the pictures [of dogs] that they cut out for him every day. He asked again for the typewriter when he was released from the institution (112).

Among the strange noises he made, trying to avoid his dismissal [from the institution where, in his invented history, he lived for twenty years], was something having to do with a typewriter (82). … Just like the other boy, he wanted to write a series of stories (83).

There also exists the possibility that the immobile man cannot type and is not creating the stories comprising “Hero Dogs,” for the institution where, he tells us, he asked for the typewriter is of his own invention. 

In this uncertain light, Bellatin’s “Hero Dogs” may be seen as an allegory for a writer’s compulsion to communicate the circumstances of a reduced and enclosed world – of a person so withdrawn as to be bereft of ordinary means of contact such as speech, the telephone, and travel. It may be seen as a celebration, however joyless, of the writer’s ability to connect with an audience. One cannot but wonder what kinship Bellatin may have felt toward the immobile man – what degree of impotence and purposelessness at the time of writing “Hero Dogs.” Whether or not, Bellatin can be identified with his protagonist (and possible fictive representative), he has created in “Hero Dogs” a story within a story, continuing his fascination for portmanteau narrative.

Renner’s controlled, expository prose conveys the austerity and flatness of the Spanish original. Bellatin accompanies this fiction with photographs, which, in spite of being poor black-and-white prints, undermine the vacancy and emotional poverty which his story insists on. The photographs’ physical specificity and ordinariness contravene the fiction’s two-dimensional, claustrophobic, and monstrous world. To my mind, the fiction would be served better without them.


image from Hero Dogs by Mario Bellatin


3. “My Skin Luminous” (2006)

In the collection’s final, enigmatic text, Bellatin departs Latin America for Deli “in the neighborhood of the tomb of the holy Sufi Nizamudin,” a fourteenth-century mystic. While the story’s ethos and characters are alien, the setting – outside of the public baths – is not, nor does its purported Subcontinent location contribute to our understanding of the tale. Bellatin may have established this fiction near the Muslim saint’s tomb arbitrarily to distance the narrative. The fiction also feels remote in time, although by its mid-point we become aware, abruptly, that it is contemporary – a disquieting realization in light of its content. My concern to locate “My Skin Luminous” in space and time is probably pointless, for the story is not an instance of symbolic realism like “Chinese Checkers” or an allegory of the impotent imagination like “Hero Dogs.” It is, instead, a parable. As such, it occupies its own locus; its action transpiring at the present moment outside our own houses as readily as the Deli of five centuries ago or of today. By their behavior, the characters lie well beyond all realms and times except those of the imagination. And yet, enacting rites of desire and cruelty, they are plausible as human representatives, though perhaps of a vanished civilization.

As in the other two fictions, the characters are without proper names, although we learn toward the end of “My Skin Luminous” that the mother is named for Mussolini’s daughter (improbable for an Indian woman). Her son is the protagonist. Bellatin does not particularize them, but their characterizations are elaborate, if fantastic in the manner of mythology. Beyond the mother and son principals, there are featureless women in the baths, a school administrator, the woman’s dead father, and the boy’s vanished father. At the urging of the mother, who acts as an impresario, the boy displays his testicles at the public baths, to women, who pay her with a currency of seemingly valueless objects for the privilege. 

The women would poke into their belongings and arrange, by means of the exchange as particular as my body itself, to contemplate me as long as they considered necessary (122). 

The purpose of their contemplation is left unsaid. There is no evidence to suppose their interest is sexual, but neither is there evidence to the contrary. With the exception of the boy, aroused to the point of an erection by the sight of his mother’s lips garishly adorned with pencil (the word another instance of an authorial strategy of estrangement), sexual response is not mentioned. As in “Hero Dogs,” little happens in “My Skin Luminous.” (In the title, Bellatin inverts the words’ natural ordering in what may be another effort to distance the reader from his story; the inversion also suggests a flouting of law and convention.)

I am bold enough to say that that scene, of my mother painting her lips, was a display sufficiently foreign to the customs of the region…. It seemed, to me, so far beyond our normal practices that I could not contain myself…. Even the obese women seemed disposed to break the rules and were preparing to make their way into the section where the thermal waters were. Such a thing had never happened before (122).

The story begins in the public baths, where the boy is taken by his mother to display his testicles, i.e. the scrotum. Bellatin’s insistence on testicles rather than on the penis as the object of his mother’s attention (and, by extension, that of the other women) suggests that their regard is not sexual nor is it ritualistic: the scrotum is not associated with the phallus revered by primitive cultures as a symbol of potency and fertility. (The text occasionally uses “genitals,” which implies procreative power; but I am tempted to believe the word an artifact of the translator’s.) According to the boy, the mother’s admiration is for the “pouch in which my testicles abide (134).” (Her most valuable object is a leather pouch, whose contents, if any, are unspecified. It can be appreciated only as a substitute for the boy’s scrotum, although Bellatin does not invest it with any fetishistic or sacred value.) To be precise, it is the “youth (133)” of the boy’s pouch or scrotum, which preoccupies the mother; and the boy’s concern is always to examine whether or not any “withering” has occurred. Indeed, he views his scrotum as a stay against time and disintegration:

Discerning the marks which time produces in those textures [on the surfaces of the baths] is perhaps one of the most important lessons to be learned about these public baths.  Only my testicles, always disposed for exhibition, seem to escape this type of constant decay (123).

If a purpose can be deduced from the inordinate value the women place in the testicles (of which the boy’s are exemplary, perhaps because of a luminosity “more astounding than the genitals themselves [127]), it is their apparent resistance to decay. (Nevertheless, their condition is a cause of anxiety in the boy.) While Bellatin does not identify the society as matriarchal, it appears to be so; and the women may regard the testicles as a stabilizing force within the culture, as opposed to a procreative one. Authority appears to reside in them. The institutionalized power of mothers over their sons is made overt in this passage:

“People remember a great deal about the women who display the genitals but nothing about the sons put on exhibition [says the mother].” Then I [the boy] knew the boys were killed mercilessly…. Long ago the law laid out the procedure by which those boys had to die (124).

More likely than not, the boy’s anxious concern for his testicles’ youthful appearance lies in his knowledge of other boys marked like him with a special destiny. (One of these victims was an ancestor.) A boy may lose his testicles as if through a “sickness which propitiates the envy of the others, that between one moment and the next they begin to dry up until the inflated sack that contained them is no more than a lean, dangling tripe that drops from the body (124).” Should this occur, the mothers “flee immediately” because – one assumes – the basis of their authority no longer exists. 

There is another explanation for the privileged place the boy’s testicles occupy in this society of women (in which men are felt only as absences, like the boy’s father and grandfather): that the culture pursues empty or moribund forms (symbolized by the scrotum and the mother’s purse). This allegiance explains the asexual quality of the women’s regard for the boy’s genitals and their slaughter of the boys when their testicles “decay.” The women worship death and fear it, both. At the fiction’s conclusion, the boy foresees his inevitable end:

As surely as that ancestor of mine experienced it, the one whose own mother killed him before she fled to the mountains, I begin to feel the subtle lengthening of my scrotum. It seems to follow an invisible path toward the earth [i.e. death]. Although it happens with the requisite watchfulness to ensure that the decay takes place as a great secret. When I least expect it, it [my testicles] will become nothing more than a useless scrap. When that point arrives, I know that my mother will not hesitate even an instant. She will cut it off with a single slash (137-8).

The boy’s presentiment is not the anxiety of castration, which is never intimated by Bellatin in the text. He foretells, instead, his own ritual murder, for his mother does not stop, in his forecast, at his own mutilation. More disturbing is the non-sequitur that follows his presentiment in which he recalls for us the mother’s role in her father’s swine cookery (a place with its own set of mythological associations): “My mother was in charge of adorning the cuts people left for cooking…. She placed on the cuts small ear-rings, diadems or metal hoops (138).” These objects remind us of those she takes in payment for displaying her son’s testicles. Her preoccupation – in her past as well as now – is artistic. But what disturbs us is the identification of her art with mutilation and death. Her artistic inclination and its association with death (implicit in the absence of her husband) is affirmed by the boy’s memory of him:

The beauty of his [the father’s] white shirts especially caught my attention. In some fashion my mother succeeded, years later, in bringing that brilliance over into the clothing she designed to hold my testicles (132-3).

Against a strict matriarchal tradition governing both mothers and sons lies the possibility of its violation, by art. The boy’s mother operates outside her role when she uses one of the make-up pencils given her in exchange for the sight of the boy’s testicles, whose power over women is demonstrated. Her “decorated” lips incite the obese women to “break the rules” by leaving their zone for one prohibited them. And “maybe she [the mother] succeeds at coming in [to the school where the boy lives] by shamelessly displaying her decorated lips. I imagine that she moves them in such a fashion that there is no choice but [for the school’s guardians] to stand aside (129).” Like the boy’s, the source of the mother’s authority is the ability to make a public display. (Her decorated lips may be a substitute for the pudendum; the boy is sexually aroused by them. But the text neither supports nor refutes this possibility.) The culture’s matriarchal organization is also suggested by the garment the woman designs to contain her son’s testicles: “In designing it she has followed a series of patterns of ancient date (123).” Patterns used in the restraint of the male organ, the antiquity of their origins – these intimate an investiture of power in the mother – not in every mother, but in the rare mother “who has dedicated herself to the display of her son’s genitals (123).” In following those patterns, the woman is an artist, just as she is in the adornment of the mutilated swine and the decoration of her lips. In the latter instance, her art flouts matriarchal conventions, inciting the obese women to leave their customary places in the bath, rather than reinforcing them as it does in regard of the patterns. The jeopardy in which this violation places her may be a reason for her inevitable need to destroy the boy, who is – in a real sense – her creation and art. 

Both son and mother achieve elevated social status – entailing the risk of death for him and exile for her – by pursuing activities that make them unique. Her decorated lips make her unique among women – in her own right rather than as an impresario: “She was distinguished from other women … by the color of her lips (128).” The boy envies her as a competitor for public attention: “I could not stand for my mother’s mouth to become more of a spectacle than that my testicles are able to offer (122).” They are both artists at the center of whose lives is absence (of fathers and a generative power). I am suggesting that Bellatin advocates not a patriarchal society but an art allied to living forms. We also feel the absence of these forms in “Hero Dogs” and “Chinese Checkers, which can be interpreted as fictions about narrative art and the degeneration of forms, including that of the living being. The body and its degeneration is central to all three fictions.  

As we have seen in “Chinese Checkers,” interpreting Bellatin requires temerity. But I am drawn irresistibly by the activities of his two principals in “My Skin Luminous” to the notion that his parable is that of the artist: the rewards, risks, and shame of a life dedicated to public exhibition. (One recalls that the boy makes art in his Special School with a shining powder reminiscent of his own luminous skin.) Art may be a buttress against decay; it may possess the power to astound, to arrest, and to destroy convention. But physical or psychic death awaits the artist who follows moribund forms. Luminosity and adornment invite envy; to be visible is to be, at once, celebrity and target. 

Whether or not Bellatin would concur in this reading of his work and – if he should concur in it – to what degree he identifies himself with the boy, his mother, or both, we cannot know. But this reader finds in the stories translated and collected by Renner an acknowledgment of the hazards of a writer’s life as disconcerting as any offered by Beckett: the writer’s compulsion to narrate (“Chinese Checkers”), his powerlessness and reclusiveness (“Hero Dogs”), and the grave dangers to which he is liable from a fickle public demanding absolute nakedness and “shameless display” (“My Skin Luminous”). They rest on my interpretations of complex works of fiction, for which I feel almost licensed by Ken Sparling, who writes in his intelligent foreword: “Are we, readers of this English translation of a Spanish translation of the thoughts of a character in a book, translators ourselves (vii)?” Yes. How can it be otherwise?

–– Norman Lock

Chinese Checkers is available from Ravenna Press.