“It was here that I was dying,” appears on the first page of René Belletto’s novel Dying. And in the end this is really nothing more than a thesis statement for what is more meditation than novel. While reading Dying, I was often reminded of another work that seems to challenge genre conventions: Minotaur, by Israeli novelist Benjamin Tammuz. Dying mixes and matches its genre influences throughout. Though elements of adventure and spy narratives are prevalent, the foundation of the story is romance, much like Tammuz’ masterpiece. But instead of presenting a great novel of love and desire as Tammuz did, Belletto indulges more in philosophy. Dying reads less as a novel than a journal of fictional thoughts exploring a theme.
Dying is split into two sections—each section being a different story. By doing this, Belletto has taken a collagist’s dynamic to the novel. This approach to structure is also echoed in asides, such as a treatise on the etymology of the word “prison.” Such passages break from the narrative flow, and offer little relevance to the story as a whole. But Belletto is not concerned with a cohesive narrative, he is concerned with feeling. The feeling of love, misery, and yes, dying.
The first section of the book, which only makes up about a quarter of the book as a whole, follows a man who pays a ransom for a woman he has never met. This narrative’s sole purpose is to set up a philosophy for what follows in the second section. “I needed to be reassured,” Belletto writes at the end of Part One, “we were absolutely in our own story and no other.” Part two of the novel is a similarly esoteric tale of romance, the story of a sculptor who fakes his own death to exit the obsessive love shared with his paramour.
Because the second section is so much longer than the first, it is burdened with carrying the book as a whole. Unfortunately it gets muddled in its own refusal to bow to convention. Of any kind. At one moment Belletto channels noir style mystery:
“…two men were waiting for us in the gallery. One was holding a pistol. He struck the poor servant with a sudden and sickening brutality.”
And soon after mysticism overtakes, with the narrator’s innate and seemingly random ability to heal people. In comparison to the fairly steady tone of the first section, this rapid fire shifting of gears serves to confuse more than elucidate.
In fact, it is really the first section of the book that says the most about Belletto’s writing, because it is this section that is the most coherent. The most polished, thematically and in terms of narrative. It is also contains the most poetic prose in the book: “his joking seemed expressly designed to silence you, dominate you, mortify you, annihilate you.” And while Belletto still plays with literary devices, he contains them. When he dives into reader-directed asides, it doesn’t abandon the overall feel of what has come before or what comes after.
While the comparisons to Tammuz’ Minotaur flitted through my head continuously while reading Dying, the ultimate difference was that the former remained close to a consistent narrative followed like a thread from beginning to end.
In Dying, Belletto is not concerned with a narrative thread, but by the sensation of love, the cruelty of dying, and the misery of being caught between the two. Belletto is examining rather than telling a story. He is exploring, playing, with basic tenants of literature.
Like any good literary love story, Belletto’s novel shows that true love and desire is not something that happens between characters (as one would find in a Harlequin), but instead an occurrence of one character in relation to another. Thus the situations in which he has placed his narrator: a lover who must remove himself from his love, and a man who finds a love for someone he doesn’t even know. Subsequently the reader is brought into this occurrence of love. After all, reading is ultimately a romance, a point not lost on Belletto.