Kawabata, the Writer, the Transvestite Philosopher, and the Fish (2015)
The text below is a translation of Mario Bellatin’s film “Kawabata, the Writer, the Transvestite Philosopher and the Fish” (Kawabata, la escritora, el filósofo travesti y el pez). This text accompanied the Cine Vivo Panel on Friday December 7th.
“Some years ago someone who studied philosophy by day and crossdressed by night began to frequent my house.
To encounter a scholar of that sort seemed to me sufficiently peculiar to dedicate entire afternoons to listening not just to stories of his nocturnal adventures, but to how he applied his knowledge of Kant or Nietzsche—the pair whose disciple he had made himself—to his everyday life.
I remember that he would arrive at my house, prepare some quantity of tea, and begin to refer to the myth of eternal return or to Kantian categories with a startling ease.
He wasn’t just able to explain the most abstract parts of those systems, but offered me—while he transformed his body—examples of how those philosophical constructions presented themselves in inadvertent ways throughout daily life.
The transvestite philosopher traveled with a briefcase that had some books in it, along with clothes and objects he would need during his nocturnal incursions.
While he talked he would pull out the earrings, lipstick, and wigs that he would later don.
He took off his pants and slid on black fishnet stockings.
That’s how I would witness, against a backdrop of a number of litanies of a philosophical order, how that timid student transformed himself into the aggressive woman who took a variety of risks on her journeys across the city night after night.
The transvestite philosopher had iron discipline.
Whatever time he finally went to bed he was on his feet at six in the morning so he would not miss the first class of the day.
His eyes red, attempting to hide the traces of last night with chemical product, he sought to capture even the most elusive idea his teachers expressed.
Only between classes would he take a break and go out to the faculty patio.
The transvestite philosopher took a seat on a bench, where he was accustomed to making an inventory of his nocturnal hours.
He remembered the men who had accepted his offerings.
Hardly any of his memories were pleasant.
He told me so more than once.
If they picked him up in their cars they tended to go to the edge of the sea, where on several occasions they abandoned him, so he was forced to make the laborious return alone.
Those he feared most were the groups of boys that invited him to accompany them to the outskirts of town, moved only by the desire to unleash an unusual violence on his body.
That was the moment I sought to resolve some of my doubts concerning his sexuality.
Or rather about his need to transform his body.
It was curious how the intellectual precision he was capable of displaying when he took on any topic of a philosophical order seemed to fade before my questions.
There didn’t seem to be an answer at the same level as his disquisitions of the other order.
In a way, he came to admit that going out at night was a necessity to achieve his transformation in its fullness.
It wasn’t true that I only sought to obtain an answer of the nature of those he gave me in relation to treatises on Kant or Nietzsche.
I was involved with the transvestite philosopher in another way, and that was why I suffered, why I was tormented by what he told me or what I imagined happened to him on the streets.
Sometimes he said how he also was with men of low resources.
The guards from businesses on the outskirts of town or workers arriving at their posts for the nightshift.
With those subjects he tended to break into abandoned lots, which the transvestite philosopher knew with exactitude, or he ventured into parks with high hedges.
This occurred even during the coldest months of winter.
During a season of the year that the transvestite philosopher tried to ignore, since in no way did he seem willing to sacrifice displaying his long legs and svelte body, the qualities that he had put so much determination into developing, to turn himself into the character he wanted to play.
On returning to his house he revived himself by taking a cold shower.
Feeling the water was the only way he had discovered to find himself in good condition for class the next day.
I listened to him silently.
I asked myself the reasons why the body offered before me had to endure that sort of everyday Calvary.
I remember that before transforming himself, the transvestite philosopher always showed up at my room dressed in black.
His hair reached his shoulders, tied with a small elastic band.
I repeat, I listened to him silently.
Only every once in a while did I stage some small intervention.
Although I was reluctant to play such a role, my attitude was similar to a psychoanalyst’s mid-session.
The transvestite philosopher talked without stopping, me alone a mirror for his words.
Sometimes he appeared to confuse who I was, to act as if my person were one of his regulars.
At such moments, my anguish increased.
Who were we, those two people who found each other situated one in front of the other in my bedroom?
Not only did I stop recognizing the concrete purpose of my interest, but that other eye, that of the transvestite philosopher, also stopped knowing who I was.
There were other occasions when he abstracted such that he even tried to physically conquer me using the techniques he employed once he had achieved his total transformation.
The transvestite philosopher knew that was not going to have an effect.
That wasn’t what was being sought in those meetings that took place in my room.
But, of course, in those instants neither he nor I were the ones present there.
On other occasions he was taken by an unusual violence that, happily, almost always lasted only an instant.
When such a thing occurred, I ceased recognizing, almost entirely, the transvestite philosopher’s usual aspect.
During those moments I felt an extreme pain.
At that time I already knew the only thing I desired in life was adequate time and space to write.
Nothing else seemed able to interest me.
At that time I was almost sure I wasn’t going to require anything else in life.
The boy dressed in black didn’t fit into the sort of plan I had designed for my years to follow.
Over time I silently uncovered not just aspects of the transvestite philosopher’s present life—elements that fascinated and hurt me at the same time—but also details about his first incursion into the game of playing with changing his sexual identity, about his mother, who he abandoned in a public hospital, and, most of all, about his early passion for books.
Since childhood he visited—often dressed in women’s clothing—neighboring houses in search of some printed matter that could serve as his reading.
In his family no one was fond of books and the only things that he could find in the neighboring houses were almost always comics or newspapers that gave account of the city’s crimes.
Strangely, in school he had a teacher who made a plan of basic readings for him.
It’s difficult for me to create something that isn’t fiction.
That’s the case now.
To claim to divulge the motives behind my writing Beauty Salon—which is what I am now trying in some way to do—it isn’t something that can be found within the limitations with which I tend to frame my texts.
I am sure that narrating my encounters with the transvestite philosopher lacks the most basic narrative tension.
That’s why I consider it curious that some readers tend to find personal features in my fictions.
On more than one occasion I have heard commentaries or read arguments along those lines.
If it were so I don’t think that any of my texts would have aroused the slightest interest.
Nonetheless, I will now continue with this story because I feel it necessary to explain the circumstances in which I created the book Beauty Salon.
It seems to me that now that the transvestite philosopher is dead I need to express the feelings that being before him caused, now about twenty-five years ago, admiring how that body I loved—that of the student dressed in black—transformed into something of an ungraspable nature.
That which was in some way capable of producing desire in me transformed, there in the room that I rented at that time, into something foreign.
The woman that finally appeared in my bedroom was different from the person that I could have longed for at another moment.
It was precisely at that point of the metamorphosis that, in some way, I reconciled with the type of life that I had decided to undertake: dedicating all of my time to the exercise of writing.
Keeping myself outside what was occurring around me, offering myself for entire hours to a writing that went nowhere and keeping any type of impulse that wasn’t to write under control.
Although I am unjust and untruthful when I surprise myself writing these words.
The transvestite philosopher and I maintained a sort of romance, not just verbal but physical.
We spent entire afternoons and nights lying beside each other in the room that I rented at that time.
It was I who convinced him to study philosophy at the institution I already attended.
I remember that we went together to request information and I remember also that I waited reading in one of the university gardens while the transvestite philosopher took his admission exam.
But, as I say, soon that subject stopped being the person with whom I could establish some sort of communion and turned into an unreachable being.
I remember that in that epoch I was finishing a rereading of The House of the Sleeping Beauties by the Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata.
I had read the novel years ago, nonetheless that second incursion left me perplexed.
As many must know, the book describes an exclusive brothel, which only serves old men of a certain social prestige.
The clients sleep alongside young women who have been narcotized so as not to know with whom they spent the night.
Among other restrictions, the old men cannot even attempt to have sexual relations with the sleeping women.
They are only given the opportunity to sleep alongside the beauty the unconscious youths represent.
The novel—in reality a sort of treatise about the sad ties between youth and old age—takes place over the course of five nights.
The narrator needs no more than a discrete house in the suburbs and a monotonous perspective expressed in the first person to construct a metaphor for existence.
Through the impressions of a client at the point just before old age, we open onto the infinite immense and mysterious questions.
Similar perhaps to the questioning that presents itself in the book Beauty Salon: the possible relationships between beauty and death.
These two elements had appeared for the first time in an earlier book: Greenhouse Effect.
In that text the main character, Antonio, asks himself a question that alludes to the theme once he feels the nearness of the end.
Seeing himself naked in a full-body mirror he formulates an idea that seems opposed to the natural belief that death that corrupts beauty.
It’s that question that transfers from one book to the other.
In the same way as I carry over a certain mania of writing from one book to another.
Among other matters, I noticed from a very young age that I need to surround myself with one or several animals to write.
I remember as a child I kept a small zoo, which I wouldn’t allow anyone besides me to approach.
Many times observing their conduct I have found solutions to some of the human behaviors that present themselves as difficult to understand in my manuscripts.
From their reactions I have been able to perceive a set of universal, atavistic elements, present in human conduct.
I am very interested, among other points, in the fact that animals are what they are.
Their animal being presents itself in a transparent way, without any blurriness able to tarnish the forcefulness that a character or a situation must have in writing.
In that time, a certain writer decided to give me a medium-sized aquarium, since the fish that her son tried to raise had been dying despite efforts made to impede their death.
I had never before experienced living alongside fish tanks.
For that reason investigating the narrative possibilities that could be described by my everyday observation of the aquatic world seemed interesting to me.
After accepting the offer, I visited a specialized establishment, where after overwhelming the salesman with an infinity of questions about the customs of freshwater fish I left with a transparent plastic bag with the specimens easiest to raise inside.
Once in my room I placed the aquarium beside the typewriter and, instead of concentrating myself on my customary activity, I dedicated myself to watching what occurred inside the fish tank.
In a brief time I could see how their truly astonishing lives began to develop, most especially for someone who had never before had contact with the aquatic world.
Although I satisfied the necessary requirements so that the growth of the fish could develop normally, that experience did not end well.
I had placed the newly purchased fish—two females and a male—in the aquarium according to the specifications they gave me at the store.
After two days the male fish turned up dead.
As soon as I noticed I also saw that the two females were moving strangely, too.
After a moment of attentive observation I understood they were circling to the end of eating the meat of the dead male.
I remember I removed the victim immediately.
I experienced a certain aversion to touching him.
To undertake the operation I used a rubber glove that I tended to use for matters of another order.
Two mornings later I discovered the presence of an infinity of tiny fish in the aquarium.
One of the females had been pregnant and had just given birth.
One hour later I approached the fish tank again and I could barely discern the presence of the newborns.
I looked with greater care and only a few were left.
There was no doubt that between the two of them the two females had been eating them.
Half an hour later the two females swam alone as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.
As if that were not enough, the next day the female who had just given birth stayed static at the bottom of the aquarium.
At that moment I regretted having accepted the gift from the writer.
I never imagined that such happenings could take place in that small receptacle of fresh water.
The prostrate female never rose again.
She died a short time later.
Only the last female remained in the fish tank, and as if that were not enough, a white cloudiness began to appear on her side, apparently because of the effect of certain fungi, which obligated me, following the instructions of the salesman to whom I returned to consult with, to bring her to her death in a forceful manner.
From that moment onward I found myself with nothing to look at.
As I said, in that time I had quit writing to observe what happened in the fish tank.
My days at that time had been limited to observing the aquarium and to waiting some afternoons for the transvestite philosopher’s visits.
But now that a good portion of my day was empty, perhaps the situations I had experienced during my sessions with the transvestite philosopher, my second reading of The House of the Sleeping Beauties, and my experience with the dead fish began to mix themselves up in my head.
I don’t remember much of what happened in my life later.
I am only conscious that at that time I suffered from a disappointment of love.
An event that happened within the scope of my real life.
That is to say, what I have related regarding my experience with the transvestite philosopher, with the fish that I placed next to my typewriter, or with the reading of The House of the Sleeping Beauties belonged to a type of false space in my existence.
I also had my real life, which is what it was called at that time.
And in that existence I suffered a sentimental rupture that carried me desperately to the nearest pharmacy, where I bought a considerable quantity of barbiturates.
In that time I lived in a society where a medical prescription wasn’t necessary to enable such an acquisition.
I returned to my room, I ground the tablets in water, and I made a sort of shapeless paste that I swallowed in one go.
I remember that I looked at the empty fish tank, the forgotten typewriter, and I called the person who had caused the disappointment by telephone to inform them that it was their fault I had taken a great quantity of pills.
When I woke up the first thing I saw was my psychoanalyst, who had been beckoned to the emergency room at the hospital that I had been taken to.
He told me I was an imbecile.
Later, the person who had caused my disappointment informed me that they had arranged for the police not to intervene and that I was going to be checked into a clinic run by nuns.
When that experience ended I was transferred back to the room that I rented.
I lived for some time as if existing on another plane of reality.
The transvestite philosopher kept visiting me some nights, but I don’t remember it.
I don’t remember.
I see fragments of the passing of the day, where I am surprised in front of the typewriter.
I glimpse episodes in which I look for some paper to put into the machine.
The whole is nothing more than fragments of reality.
I have the sense that nearly a month of convalescence went by.
Until, little by little, reality quit showing itself in such a fragmentary manner.
A determined logic began to subtly appear in everyday events.
Soon—I can’t specify the time—when in a certain way I considered myself part of the everyday world, I discovered that the book Beauty Salon was already finished.
When did I write it? I asked myself, surprised.
At that moment, now more lucid, I began to read it with great caution.
With the almost terror of finding myself not with a bad book—that was what I expected—but with an I-narrator that hadn’t been managed in a precise way during the process of the book’s creation.
Then I discovered a text that had to do with a beauty salon that is converted into a place prepared for death.
The voice of a stylist seeks to narrate and explain how the transformation of his salon into a hospice for public use has been possible.
At certain moments the character describes the good times of the establishment, when one of the important factors in the decoration was the raising of colorful fish.
In other passages he narrates the presence of a group of sick guests and how the waters in the fish tanks begin to cloud.
There also exists the apparition of a series of characters who accompany the stylist from the prosperous times into decadence.
The story of some fish that with the passage of time become the visible part of that deterioration.
I noticed that the book is constructed like a story closed unto itself.
At that moment I thought of my rereading of The House of the Sleeping Beauties.
Of the hermetic place where the book takes place, obedient only to the laws that the text itself imposes.
An enclosure without escape.
The description, as I had desired it before being held in the hospital, doesn’t escape the four walls represented, an ancient beauty salon decorated with questionable taste.
The aquariums were present there, and illness as the prison of the body, the unopened windows and the environment charged with miasmas better suited to a hospital or a morgue than a beauty salon.
Some readers believed they perceived the presence of one illness in particular when they confronted the book.
Others found parallels with the hospices that served those with the plague during the Middle Ages.
Still others found a number of metaphors among the fish and the characters that appeared in the text.
In view of the conditions in which it was created I consider all readings valid.
And since the apparition of Beauty Salon I believe the same thing has happened with all the books that appeared after.
I hope that each person finds in my texts a defined time and space.
When someone finds some element they use as a foundation to establish the process of their complicity with the text, I feel that the proposal made since my first work functions: that each reader reconstructs their own text.
The greatest satisfaction that the reading of Beauty Salon brought me was observing the presence of the relationships that can exist between beauty and death.
Now that I think of it, was the sort of writing trance that preceded the book perhaps not a type of homage to the transvestite philosopher that visited me some afternoons?
To make sense of such sessions, which now make me nostalgic, during which I appreciated the physical transformation experienced by that person who talked about Kant while carefully putting on his fishnet stockings and high heels.
As an homage to that boy who after talking about the Critique of Pure Reason told me, with a disdainful smile, of the humiliations that he had endured the night before.
There might also exist in that book a certain gratitude to the writer who gave me the fish tank, who in a more conscious manner than perhaps I want to admit introduced me to how ruthless the aquatic world can become.
Of course the enchantment produced by my reading and rereading of The House of the Sleeping Beauties is present.
Nonetheless now, twenty years after its publication, I notice with fright that I am the only one of the trilogy that enabled me to endure the writing of Beauty Salon who still has life.
Two years ago the transvestite philosopher—who after his studies turned into a renowned conceptual artist—died, a victim of multiple sclerosis.
Ten years ago the magnificent writer, with whom I undertook long sessions of private workshops where we tried to find some sense in the written word, died.
I believe that we all know that Yasunari Kawabata deliberately left the gas turned on in his house before going to bed.
Beauty Salon can be considered a book of the dead inspired by the dead.
Everything in that book is dead.
Even I, who have left my life somewhat to one side to transit through this sort of living death that writing is.
Might I be alive? I typically ask myself when someone talks to me about Beauty Salon or about my writing in general.
Can it really have been I who wrote the books that have been published under my name?
Everyone appears to be dead.
The narrator who transforms a beauty salon into a hospice.
The sick that he picked up so that they could spend their last days in his facilities.
The fish that he sought to raise with so much enthusiasm.
The fish I placed in the aquarium that I put beside my typewriter.
The transvestite philosopher, dead.
The outfits with which he was accustomed to transforming himself for night, dead.
The writer, dead.
The fish tank that she gave me, dead.
Whatever hope I had of sustaining a life like everyone else, dead.
My interest in writing, which repeats unto itself as if a sort of insensate mechanism that neither comes nor goes any place tangible, dead.
Writing like a sort of hospice similar to the one that appears in the book.
As a metaphor for the beauty salon that often without noticing each of us tries to turn our lives into each day.
Sent from my iPhone
Translated from the Spanish by David Shook at 36,000 ft.
Virgin Atlantic Flight VS 105
1.54 p.m., Greenwich Mean Time, 1 May 2018.”