Mario Bellatin on Art, Autobiography, and Experimentation


Mario Bellatin’s latest book, The Large Glass, is a head-spinning work, bringing together three different takes on autobiographical writing, each of which explores vastly different stylistic and thematic ground. Bellatin’s work is incredibly hard to pin down–a 2009 article in The New York Times referred to him as “one of the leading voices in experimental Spanish-language fiction.” I talked with Bellatin about his latest book, his feelings on Marcel Duchamp (from whom the book takes its title), and more.

Each of the three pieces that comprise The Large Glass has a very different form. Did you initially conceive of them separately, or were they always envisioned as companions to one another, in this specific order? 

I always write piece by piece. Even the small paragraphs. Really, I write without a definite sense of what it is that I’m doing. My writing is produced as if on an old autonomous machine. That goes on and on making noise. A bothersome sound. Repetitive and constant. There, precisely, in the old machine’s supposed errors, is where it seems to me that we can find that thing we call literature.

The Large Glass takes its title from a Marcel Duchamp work–what first drew you to it? And how did you translate your impressions of the sculpture into prose?

Nothing. I’m not drawn to Duchamp. Having given the book that title is a sort of irony. It seems impossible to me to believe that a good portion of contemporary art is based on the ideas of a man who saw horses instead of cars during his childhood. Who grew up in a society where things like the telephone or the airplane were being invented. I used the title as a way of affirming that what we understand as Modernity is dead, and what that same modernity considered art must be sought in the most unusual places. Not in museums or bookstores or conference rooms or theaters. Where could it be? That is a question we should answer.

Have there been any other works of art that have inspired specific writings of yours?

I suppose that everything I like must inspire me in some way. Fragments of reality, films, books, works of theater. But none specifically. I think that my own work is what inspires my own work.

What first prompted you to approach and deconstruct autobiographical narratives with this book? 

Noticing that it was impossible and dishonest to undertake an autobiography. The challenge of seeking a way to be honest with my narrative representations. If I want to be pretentious I could say that what I have attempted to produce is an Autobiography of the Soul. When I have reread it I notice that not a single word is true and, at the same time, not a single word is false. Everything mentioned has a concrete reference to my life. But no one aside from me would be able to decode it.

The first sentence of “The Sheikha’s True Illness” establishes a writer who is at odds with its characters. Do you see this divide between author and characters as a reflection of the distance between yourself as the author and the narrators of these autobiographies?

Of course I don’t have to be at odds with my characters to achieve what I am seeking, which is to have enough distance to see myself as a strange man to whom such strange and foreign things happen—which could just be a part of my imagination, rather than to describe a chain of customary events that wouldn’t even be of minimal interest to anyone. An even weaker interest than that which any of the three published autobiographies might arouse in the reader.

“My Skin, Luminous” is told in very brief sections. Why did you choose this stylistic approach for this particular story? 

What I wish to achieve is that each number be a complete work unto itself. My Skin, Luminous as a sort of infinity of small books, ordered in such a way that they give the impression of making up a part of various groups. That of the paragraph itself, that of the My Skin, Luminous section, and that of the three autobiographies. I did this with the idea of allowing for greatest possible number of readings.

There’s an image of grilled cuy featured midway through the book. What prompted you to include this in there?

As a sort of remembrance of my grandfather’s oven. Because in his house in the Peruvian Andes he prepared that animal for special occasions. Perhaps the only truly autobiographical—in the literal sense of the term—trace in the entire book is the image of that grilled beast.

translated from the Spanish by David Shook

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