As the disease ravages the city, leaving its victims to die alone in a society than shuns them, at risk of attack from the predatory Goat Killer Gang, the Terminal offers precious refuge. Curiously—and this is what makes the novella so compelling—the narrator is more concerned with describing the tropical fish he houses in the elaborate aquariums of the hospice-turned-salon than he is with the hospice itself or those he cares for within it. This obsession is a significant part of the structure of the novel: the narrator reluctantly provides information about the daily events of the Terminal in asides that distract him, to his annoyance, from the aquarium, but which he still feels compelled to offer. What we do hear much about is the rareness and uniqueness of the fish; the narrator is fascinated by the dynamics within the tank, especially those between sick and healthy fish. The sick human bodies the narrator tends to, however, are merely bodies—not rare, not unique, and of little interest to him.
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Yet, it is the poor, the discarded, those on the fringes of society—be it by choice or cast off for being deemed as an illness to society—that must suffer and die in pitiful conditions and solitude, often forgotten by those around them or ignored by the multitude of marching feet that pound the pavement just away beyond where they lie dying in a gutter. Beauty Salon is like an elaborate tango between life and destruction, elegantly dancing back and forth across the plotline as if it were a dance floor and flourishing each step with his mutli-layered symbolism.
This tiny novella is so carefully crafted and emits a poetic radiance through its swirling, short sentence structure. His nightlife is full of dangers from others, such as a gang that attacks men like him who dress as women and these victims that survive the sporadic violence are subjected to further suffering as they are subsequently shunned by the general population.
The narrator is at home with the underbelly of society, with the dregs and the outcasts, and feels he must offer aid where nobody else will. Many of the first who come to die in The Terminal are rejected by society and denied medical assistance from religious organizations simply for being whom they are, and barred from hospitals for not meeting the proper economic status.
Nothing is ever named, not the narrator, those awaiting the end in The Terminal, or even the plague, which only intensifies the essence of being an outcast, denied even a name in the eyes of the ideals of society.
Although the plague is never named, there is a strong implication of being the AIDs epidemic. Central to the story are the fish raised by the narrator in the beauty salon, and one of their many purposes to the narrative is to exemplify the nature of the plague as in his depiction of the vicious axolotl fish.
I once put in a couple of garbage fish while the axolotls were sleeping I stayed for a few moments to watch their reaction. Nothing much happened during the first half hour.
The garbage fish got to work, and with their big mouths stuck to the glass they started to eat the impurities in the fish tank…. As soon as I left the tank, though, the axolotls attacked and devoured the garbage fish.
I returned a few minutes later to discover the carnage. While the garbage fish try to keep the tank clean, similar to the white blood cells, the axototls destroy them and condemn the tank to a slow death.
There is a sense of hopelessness that permeates Beauty Salon as the narrator recognizes that no amount of care can ever cure the infected and that all he can do is ease their suffering as their body deteriorates towards an inevitable death.
He remains indifferent to them, careful not to get attached, painfully resigned to their expiration date. He allows no sense of hope, discourages encouragement when symptoms temporarily subside, and bans any religious prayer or icons. He belongs to a community outcast by religious institutions, and the totality of destruction wrought upon those touched by the plague could easily lead one to feel they are outcast by a creator.
There is little light to cling to in the story, and the little there is dims with each turning page as the reader witnesses the narrators dive into sorrow and solitude, resigned to his own painful demise. Perhaps this is the feeling my mother had when, after years of being examined in hospitals, she was told that she had a malignant tumor…She sent me a letter I never answered.
The fish are rather pivotal to the story, reflecting all aspects of humanity in the novella. The narrator first keeps only guppies, a fish he is told are very resilient and require little care—resiliency being a desirable trait in the eyes of someone who leads a exhausting and dangerous life. As the salon begins to fill with the effluvium of the dying, the fish become his last grip on the old world, being an extension of his attempts to adorn himself in beauty and life.
It is when the reader begins to view the fish as people themselves when the real dark beauty of the novella surfaces. We all float along at the whim of a world we cannot understand or control, like the fish subjected to the neglect of their weary owner. They suffer from poor living conditions and fungus claims the lives of many, much like the plague. When he puts the fish on the nightstand of a dying young man, they give him comfort, like the comfort the dying find being able to spend their last days in the company of their peers.
However, eventually nobody even mentions the fish. They lurk behind cloudy green glass, forgotten by those who should care for them and watch over them. This is the sort of book that makes you want to run out and hug everyone you know and live your life as a better person, the sort of book that makes you thankfully cling to your health in the present and makes your heart ache for those less fortunate than you as you contemplate ways you could ease the ocean of suffering in the world, even if only by one tiny drop.
Gritty, emotionally impacting, and downright heartbreaking, this novella makes me hope that the English reading world will soon be treated to more translations of this author that has made quite a mark on the Mexican literary scene. But in my work the rules of the game are always obvious, the guts are exposed, and you can see what is being cooked up.
SALON DE BELLEZA