Beauty Salon by Mario Bellatín is a very brief book about a man who takes care of people wasting away from an unnamed disease in his beauty salon. Now known as the Terminal, the salon was once the narrator’s pride. It was a dazzling space where he and his two close friends would cut women’s hair and perform other beauty treatments. He describes being thrown out of his family home for being gay and how he built his beauty salon into a successful business. At night he and his co-workers would dress in women’s clothes and live a wild life until dawn.
As a disease ravages the land, the narrator begins taking in the sick who are near death to tend to them in their last moments. He converts the beauty salon to a hospice. He only takes male patients and takes care of them himself, cleaning and feeding them as they die. His co-workers are dead from the disease and he is the only one left to care for the sick.
Much of the book—more like a short story in length—concerns the narrator’s aquariums and fish. Initially he buys the aquariums to create more beauty in his salon. He imagines his customers soothed and entranced by the colorful fish and the crystal water. When the salon becomes a place for the dying, the aquariums fall into neglect. The fish contract a fungus that clouds around them. When they die the other fish eat them at the bottom of the tank.
The narrator’s relationship with his fish is transformed over time as the beauty salon becomes a place of illness. Where once the aquariums were enhancements of beauty, they now reflect the decay of his patients. The narrator relates to the fish and they’re lack of memory and distance from the world. On the surface he seems to have no problem with their dying or having to flush them down the toilet. He can even empty the tank with the live fish inside and watch them die. But overall, he cares for them and tries to maintain their lives.
The fish reflect his own response as the caretaker of the dying. While his tone is dispassionate, he still stays to tend to the patients. He concerns himself with their being alone, and strives to care for them the best he can. When he too contracts the disease, the fish’s decay mirrors the type of place his salon has become, and now his own mortality. In the end, before he dies, he imagines transforming the salon back to its former glory. He would take in no more sick men, and once his current patients die off, he would buy beautiful fixtures and brand new, beautiful aquariums. He would no longer be alone, but in a place that reminds him of his glory days when he lived the high life with his friends.
I found the little book affecting, even with its distant tone. It is clear the story sees the patients compassionately but also practically. The theme of being alone—the fish when the other fish are hard to maintain and die, and the people—is the main one in the book. How care can be done as a somewhat disconnected witness, yet with the determination to give the dying a good end. The narrator gives himself the same care as he dies. I liked this book; it lingered in my mind. And it certainly brought to mind both the AIDS crisis and the current moment we are in, with hundreds of thousands of dead who died in isolation.