Chinese Checkers: Three Fictions by Mario Bellatin. Translated by Cooper Renner.

Chinese Checkers: Three Fictions (Ravenna Press, 139 pages). In “Hero Dogs: A Look at the Future of Latin America Envisioned as an Immobile Man and His 30 Belgian Malinois Shepherds” (2000), 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 jugular.”  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.” 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.” 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.”  His other interest is in maintaining “a color print that shows more than a dozen space ships traversing inter-stellar space.”  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.”  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.”  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” 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.”  (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.

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.”

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” 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.”

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,” 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.”  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.”

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.”  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.

“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. … Just like the other boy, he wanted to write a series of stories.”

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.

Norman Lock, author of The King of Sweden (2009), Shadowplay (2009) and A History of the Imagination (2004) among others.

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