Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Roberto Bolaño’s “Mexican Manifesto” (tr. from the Spanish by Laura Healy) was originally published in the April 22, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.

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Trevor

Reading “new” fiction by Roberto Bolaño is problematic. From what I know (which isn’t much), now that we’ve received his published material, we are tapping into his computer files (I understand some people find this insufferable, but, hey, I’m on board, especially since Bolaño’s work all comes together to form something larger, if not something more comprehensible). Bolaño’s published work is fraught with holes, red herrings, dead ends, to say nothing of the pieces that are deliberately pointless, or, rather, the point is pointlessness, the meaning is meaninglessness. How much harder it is, then, reading these pieces that may have been written on a whim and never looked at again, to know where to begin an attempt to unpack it, to know, even, whether it’s worth the effort?

I’ve now read this story twice. I always love entering into Bolaño’s narrative nightmares. This is familiar Bolaño territory, though this fresh in my mind, I don’t think he navigates it quite as well as he does elsewhere. Still, it being familiar Bolaño territory, I imagine many of us Bolaño fans will enjoy being with him again as he takes us through his mazes. But I’ll be very curious about the reactions from people who do not read Bolaño.

The basic premise of the story is this: our unnamed narrator and his girlfriend, Laura, embark on a quest to visit every public bath in Mexico City. They don’t succeed, but they do manage to find the heart of something deep and dark, a journey into the city and into their own minds:

[A]s we advanced the abyss opened up around us, the great black scenography of public baths. Just as the hidden face of other cities is in theatres, parks, docks, beaches, labyrinths, churches, brothels, bars, cheap cinemas, old buildings, even supermarkets, the hidden face of Mexico City could be found in the enormous web of public baths, legal, semilegal, and clandestine.

Indeed, the way Bolaño describes them, these public baths encapsulate all of the “hidden faces” of other cities.

The first one they patronize remains ever after their favorite, and they return often. Montezuma’s Gym is a maze of private and public rooms separated by steamy glass screens that distort and mask everyone. The private saunas are two rooms, and in the first is “an old divan reminiscent of psychoanalysis and bordellos.” This ethereal world, where steam can cause euphoria, sleep, or suffocation, is used to explore humanity’s physical and mental uncertainty (it was in these places that they “mined the certainty of our love”). The baths’ ethereal feel, in which human motive and perception matches the heat and choking steam, is all very Bolañoesque, and we can uncomfortably bask in it.

The contradicting feelings are heightened when they visit in the evening hours, which is their most common schedule:

The baths at that hour seemed to enjoy, or suffer from, a permanent shadow. That is, a trick shadow, a dome or a palm tree, the closest thing to a marsupial’s pouch; at first you’re grateful for it, but it ends up weighing more than a tombstone.

Underneath it all, unseen below the tiles, are the “hot pipes and boilers that stoked the business from some secret place in the building.”

Our narrator, particularly at first, finds that his paranoia is heightened as well. Though they most often occupy the private rooms, this does not stop people from knocking, either to visit because, in some way or other, they’ve become “friends” though solidarity in this underworld, or, more commonly, to sell goods or “performances.”

During one visit, Laura accepts a performance from a proprietor of two young boys. The narrator notices how skinny they are, how skinny he is, how skinny all of them are. As it gets hotter — “unbearably hot,” though they do nothing about the heat — and they all begin sweating, he thinks they are all melting. The boys’ proprietor and, even, one of the boys falls asleep in the room where the air is getting thicker and thicker with steam, until the narrator simply cannot see anything.

I stood and took two steps along the wall. I heard Laura calling me. A Laura with her mouth full. What do you want? I said. I’m suffocating. I went back, less carefully than before, and bent down, feeling my way around the place where I figured they must be. I touched only hot tiles. I thought I was dreaming or going crazy. I bit my hand so I wouldn’t scream. Laura? I moaned.

He finally succeeds in turning off the steam and he and Laura are able to exit. Despite this existential crisis, a panic so acute it is not understood so much as felt, they continue to use baths and even run into this trio again, though “things were never the same.”

And what of all the confusion and paranoia? What does this mean?

I don’t know yet. As with the characters, it is easier to feel this than to understand it, which is one reason I love Bolaño’s work so much (and why I’m such a big fan of Krasznahorkai’s work). Attempting to “understand” is further complicated by two additional elements to the story, which the story begins and ends with, but which are absent in the remainder of the story: 1) a mural of Montezuma himself, who stays suspended over a pool, watching, while meanwhile his courtiers try “with all their might to ignore whatever it is the emperor sees”; and 2) a brief look at the workers. An eighteen-year-old orphan boy works at Montezuma’s Gym, and our narrator ends the piece by thinking of him and the other workers:

The color of the pool’s rocks, doubtless the saddest color I saw in the course of our expeditions, comparable only to the color of some faces, workers in the hallways, whom I no longer remember, but who were certainly there.

What is it the mural and these workers witness? What makes them so foreboding and sad? The narrator and Laura wander around the city in a haze, building their love on foundations connected to boiler rooms — I don’t know all that this is saying, but it isn’t limited to the narrator and Laura, and it is indeed foreboding and sad.

Betsy

I am one of those readers new to Roberto Bolaño, Trevor, and I much appreciated your introduction. I was glad to see you use the word nightmare, as the dreamlike story read like a nightmare to me. In addition, I enjoyed your idea that Bolaño’s work is “fraught with holes, red herrings, dead ends, to say nothing of the pieces that are deliberately pointless, or rather, the point is pointlessness, the meaning is meaninglessness.”

I take your warning — that maybe one ought to stay fluid in one’s reaction to him. So I will just talk about the things I thought about while I was reading.

First of all, he titles this story about sexual (mis)adventure “Mexican Manifesto.” Manifesto, however, has very little to do with sex and everything to do with political declaration. I feel on my toes from the beginning that something regarding the human condition is being talked about. It’s impossible not to associate the word manifesto with Marx, the “Communist Manifesto” and Trotsky, who was exiled to Mexico. So I read on, bearing in mind that whatever I read would probably have a political subtext.

But before continuing, I must reveal that I have slightly more interest than the ordinary American in Chile and Pinochet’s overthrow of Allende in 1973. My son-in-law was born in Chile in 1973, and his parents came to the United States shortly after, the coup having turned their world upside down. For that reason, I have slightly more patience with Bolaño’s opaque style than I would otherwise.  Life in times such as the Pinochet era is likely to make people speak obliquely. So while I am frustrated to read a story that seems to be talking about sex but has a political title, I am more than willing to give Bolaño some space.

Next, I notice that the woman in this story is named Laura. It’s hard not to make the leap to Petrarch’s Laura, given that Laura is given headliner status, her name being the first word in the story and the speaker’s name never being revealed. But this Laura is Petrarch’s Laura’s polar opposite: risk taking where the other is sheltered, sexually daring where the other is “pure.” But someone with more background in Petrarch than I might be able to make more of this.

At any rate, Bolaño’s Laura appears to be the speaker’s guide to a kind of underworld, but unlike Dante’s Virgil, she is not a dispassionate soul. Her purpose appears to be to deepen her own erotic experience of the affair she is having with the speaker. We have no sense of her having any other understanding of him, although he speaks of her with a kind of combined awe and despair.

Right away, another name crops up in the story: that of Aztec emperor Montezuma. Montezuma’s Gym is the name of the first bath house the couple visits, and a mural of Montezuma graces the foyer. Montezuma “looks fixedly out of the mural, as if searching for the improbable spectator, with dark, wide-open eyes in which I often thought I glimpsed terror.” I think, when searching for what manifesto might mean, Montezuma’s appearance is important, Montezuma being the indigenous emperor conquered by Cortes. So we are in the territory not only of conquered peoples (or twice-conquered peoples), but also the territory of terror.

Although the speaker refers to their odyssey through the bath houses of Mexico City as “pleasure and play,” to the ordinary reader their escapades sound like those of people who have no idea what either love or sex actually is. In fact, looking back, remembering these bath house adventures, the speaker conveys a feeling that is anything but playful. The words that dot his language are morose in the extreme: terror, orphan, fight, abyss, black, limbo, shadow, tombstone, dangerous, funeral, the unpardonably lost, last shred of hope, impossible country, tired, darker, misery, suffocating, blank image, bottomless [eyes], saddest.  

Of course, a list of single words taken out of context cannot convey much, but there is no similar list of words one can collect from the story to bear up the speaker’s idea that he was immersed in “pleasure and play.”

When we hear that both whiskey and marijuana, taken together, were part of the bath house visits, one gets the sense not of pleasure but of anesthetic. One wonders how unsatisfying the couple’s relationship is if they need the danger, strange company, “performances,” and anesthetizing to achieve their satisfaction.

We find out that women “were an absolute minority” in the bath houses and that “it wasn’t uncommon to hear extravagant stories of attacks and harassment, even though, truth is, those tales weren’t very credible.” We are further and further from Petrarch’s Laura, as well as further and further from any politically ideal existence, as well as further and further from the truth, given that the purpose of the bath houses is probably not primarily to provide pleasure to women.

Finally, when we meet the old man and the boys who provide the performances, it is not difficult to make the leap to the political — slavery, in particular. That the speaker has difficulty being straightforward about what these “performances” are or how the “performers” are paid is another indication of things being torqued. The speaker has difficulty seeing what is going on; the steam that obscures his vision is mostly a representation of his lack of understanding of himself or others.

The fact that the boys are so somnolent seems a tip-off, not to mention that the old man is asleep as well, and finally, the speaker himself seems half-conscious, watching Laura and one of the boys disappear into the steam.

The fact that the speaker says the language of the boys “had a touch of the funeral and of holes” is profoundly sad and profoundly confusing. His own language then collapses completely when he tries to clarify his strange thought that the boys’ language had a touch of the “Air Hole.” He offers this fragment in an explanation which is not a rational explanation: “One of the deformed faces of the Immaculate Grave.” The thought is not grammatical, nor is it clear, except that we understand that the whole scene and its meaning is horrific. In fact, he says at one point, “I felt like we were in a Nazi shower.” Laura says, “Don’t worry, everything’s fine.” But the speaker thinks, later, “I’m suffocating [. . .].I thought I was dreaming or going crazy.”

So what does it all mean? I get the feeling (as Trevor has suggested is the way to go with Bolaño) that a society is being pictured where everyone is anesthetized, where anyone who can truly see is terrified, where power is so overwhelming that people have no sense of reality, that people live in slavery and that all relationships have been distorted, and that the only way to survive is to be half dead.

So that brings us back to the problem of manifesto. The odd thing is that while Bolaño was from Chile, he places this story in Mexico, as if, like many of us, he only truly understands his country of origin when he can look back on it from afar. If your country had suffered a series of governmental failures, to the point that innocent people are murdered, tortured, imprisoned and sent into exile, to the point where you yourself no longer can live there, perhaps this portrait of life in “Mexican Manifesto” might have the sound of something true. Bolaño is suggesting that he knows a place where suffering abounds, and yet where the rulers say it is pleasure and play.

I am new to Bolaño. I recommend this strange, unsettling story, just because it is unsettling. There is a coherence to the feeling it gives you: something is gravely not right here, something really important is not right here. Some of what is not right has to do with misplaced power and with slavery, with the idea of sexual slavery being a trope to represent a wider reality and the idea of being half dead is best represented by drugged somnolence.

I hope the New Yorker has the opportunity to publish some more Bolaño, but I also wish that someone like Adam Gopnick or Louis Menand would do a long essay about Bolaño as well.

I look forward to any clarifications or suggestions any of you out there have as well.

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By |2013-04-15T23:35:44+00:00April 15th, 2013|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Roberto Bolaño|19 Comments

19 Comments

  1. Trevor April 15, 2013 at 11:39 pm

    Betsy, thanks so much for your in-depth and thoughtful post above. Bolaño is an enigma, and I think you’ve grasped a lot of what’s so interesting and disturbing about his work. I think you’d get a lot out of his work and recommend getting to By Night in Chile as quickly as possible! :)

  2. Betsy April 16, 2013 at 4:31 pm

    Thanks for suggesting “By Night in Chile”, Trevor. I’ll let you know!

  3. Manel K April 17, 2013 at 11:57 pm

    I really enjoyed this story, although I too couldn’t quite grasp its meaning.

    Thank you both for your analysis of the piece, it has helped me in trying to piece this together – although I am still lost in the maze of Bolanos writing!

    I agree with Betsy that the title, and Bolanos country of origin, lead me to believe that this is definitely a story about sex, which is really a story about politics. I’d like to know exactly when this story was written, as that may help us to better understand the political climate it was reacting to.

    The steam definitely seems to represent power and politics, with it thickening to the point where nobody can see anything. Betsy, you mention the fact it’s based in Mexico, and how outsiders can look in and see clearly what’s happening, rather than people in the relevant nation, and that’s definitely an interesting point. There is something to be found in the placement of a steam room next to a clear sauna, and the narrator can look across from the steam room into the side room and see what’s going on in there. (For example, he talks of seeing Laura with the men rolling joints, and at the end Laura escapes there and he see’s her, and follows, once the steam clears a little)

    The fact that the old man is asleep, could that represent the older generation dominating (in oppression) the younger generation, and closing their eyes to atrocities? The old man watches them begin their show, but soon falls asleep. The other boy sleeping, could that be the fact that society is so tired by what they are suffering that they have no strength to react? I’m not sure, but this did come to mind.

    I’d like to read more into Montezuma too, as that’s definitely a key to this story.

    In addition, while I believe the story is political, it also seems to deal with relationships, as Trevor mentions. Could the fact that the first bath they visit is their favourite, represent something? Maybe how relationships often degrade over time, and your first experiences are the most fulfilling?

    What about the private rooms vs the communal baths? I couldn’t help but feel the private rooms represented marriage, and the marital bed. Although allowing others in contrasts with this idea, and I think maybe I’m overthinking it!

    Anyway, I’m not quite sure what to think, and I’m sure much of what I’ve written isn’t correct, but thought I’d share!

  4. Betsy April 18, 2013 at 12:48 pm

    Manel, your discussion of the Bolano story is really helpful, especially the bits about the steam, the windows, and the old man’s age. The steam room representing a kind of marriage bed is interesting, in that Bolano might be suggesting that the political body has allowed the wrong people into the contract or allowed them access to the wrong power..

  5. Betsy April 18, 2013 at 1:41 pm

    One more thing…Laura could be read as the narrator’s “nation”. In the way that Petrarch uses Laura as an ideal, one can see the speaker’s ideal of nation skewered. From that point of view, their visit to Montezuma’s gym colors the political story, with the idea of conquered peoples, tyranny, and betrayal all the more vivid.

  6. Manel K April 18, 2013 at 2:08 pm

    I feel this part of the story is noteworthy:

    ‘Everyone seems carefree except the king, who looks fixedly out of the mural, as if searching for the improbable spectator, with dark, wide-open eyes in which I often thought I glimpsed terror.’

    Could it be that Montezuma sees something in the distance? Cortes and his men arriving, and his face is that of terror? Although by most accounts, in reality he welcomed Cortes and his men, so maybe my interpretation is off the mark.

    Or possibly the fact he see’s people bathing in front of him, the descendents of Cortes people and no Aztecs anymore leaves him with terror?

    Could it be a reference to Pinochet in Chile? (The setting of Mexico could have been used to avoid censors in Chile allowing it to be potentially published there?) How he was wiping out the left in Chile? How Montezuma looks on in terror at what is forthcoming…

    Again, I may be looking at this from the wrong angle.

  7. Dan Madeley April 19, 2013 at 8:55 am

    This story was so bleak and the narrator so alienated I found it off-putting. It was reminiscent of Camus’s the stranger in that the narrator seems to have no moral compass or feeling for what is significant, and he simply places himself in a horrible and depressing environment, and then describes it without relating the descriptions to how they make him feel, so we are left to assume he’s basically dead inside and feels nothing. I felt like Bolano’s narrator might have been smoking marijuana while writing it. One part that I thought was amazing was the description of Laura’s hand, her individual fingers playing out a drama upon the narrator’s back. Overall, I thought it was amazing writing, but it seemed more like a writing experiment than a real story, maybe it’s mostly a matter of taste.

  8. Trevor April 22, 2013 at 12:17 pm

    Never having satisfactorily figured out a Bolaño story, I’m perhaps just comforting myself here, but I don’t think they can be pinned down in quite the way other stories can. Bolaño is suggestive and then pulls the rug out from under us. What I mean is that we can take all of the images and interpret them here and I think we’ll always find them incomplete, unsatisfying, and frustrating. It’s like we ourselves, in our efforts to understand, are put in a maze. We follow a pathway that looks clear only to feel lost again, only to find a dead end.

    I love it. He mimics the murky, incomplete, and incomprehensible real world, particularly the heady world of Latin America (which I think he gets so well), the darkness of life, politics, art. You get a whiff of meaning, and then it drifts away. He puts it best in one of his essays. He says, “the story of our lives in Latin America” is “the photographic negative of an epiphany.”

  9. avataram (@avataram) April 22, 2013 at 3:13 pm

    Haunted by the story after I read it in my morning commute – thank you for discussing it.

    The first thing that struck me was that the specific bit about the show by the two boys reminded me of a scene in Bigas Luna’s “Las edades de Lulu”, which I am sure Bolaño must have seen. – Luna was from Barcelona, where Bolaño lived. In the film, Lulu asks for a show from the two boys.

    The entire relationship between the narrator, Laura and the two boys reminded me a lot of the film. In the film, the nightmare gets much worse – Bolaño has not gone that far.

    As an aside, this was Javier Bardem’s first film – he was one of the two boys.

    IMHO, Petrarch’s Laura may not have much to do with this story – Bolaño draws his inspiration from Spanish films rather than from classical sources.

  10. Betsy April 22, 2013 at 10:14 pm

    Thank you, Avataram, for pointing us towards film and Bolano. I am a novice reader of Latin American literature, and I find it very helpful.

  11. Betsy April 22, 2013 at 10:17 pm

    Trevor – as always, your observations are really helpful. That essay quotation is key. The Bolano journey looks like it’s going to have some fast rapids.

  12. Dan Madeley April 23, 2013 at 9:17 pm

    Thanks for the comment about why you like Bolano, Trevor. I agree he’s a very good writer (that we get only in translation, unfortunately). And he’s doing something interesting, that’s for sure. Have you read 2666? I only got about a third through it, but I’m thinking about giving it another try. Again, thanks for the insightful reviews and fun website. :)

  13. Dan Madeley April 23, 2013 at 9:24 pm

    Not just limited to Trevor, have Betsy or anyone else read 2666? If so, what did you think about it?

  14. Trevor April 23, 2013 at 11:21 pm

    Hi Dan. I have read 2666 and posted my review here.

    The problem is that that review is wrong. It was the first time I’d read a word by Bolaño. I stayed up until 3 and 4 in the morning reading it, so engaged was I. However, it’s a frustrating book, and in the end I felt it was muddled and confused. I was right. But I was also wrong because I felt this was a weakness where I now view it as a strength. Indeed, 2666 is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I can’t shake it. Please return and let us know your thoughts. And if you’re interested in my thoughts on Bolaño’s other work, see the author index link in the top left-hand corner of the blog.

  15. Dan Madeley April 24, 2013 at 12:15 am

    Thanks, after this encouragement I’m going to try it again. :)

  16. Trevor April 24, 2013 at 12:56 am

    It might be a good idea to go with something else first, Dan. All of his work informs his other work, so if you give something else a read I have a feeling it might make a revisit to 2666 be more worthwhile. It wasn’t until I read Nazi Literature in the Americas and By Night in Chile that I changed my mind about 2666, which towers over them all now.

  17. Dan Madeley April 29, 2013 at 11:43 pm

    Thanks for the advice Trevor. Isn’t it fascinating when an author puts out several books that are coherent and they all have to be read in order to understand the point. I read somewhere that Dostoyevsky said of the Brother’s Karamozov, “if I can finish this novel I will die happy; I will have expressed myself completely.” :)

  18. Ken May 21, 2013 at 4:00 am

    I read 2666 a few years ago and enjoyed it very much and, yes, it is not satisfying in the traditional way but so rich. This story was so amazing on a stylistic level that I should probably read it again and think more about “meaning.” I was so transifxed by the surreal, sensuous ambience here and by the beauty of the prose (even in translation) that I have very little analytical to add this time.

  19. Ken May 23, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    Upon re-reading, I’d say that looking for a political allegory here is not the most fruitful approach. Montezuma’s presence is possibly significant but I don’t think the old man represents an older generation or the fog and steam represent a confused or anesthetized society. I think the “manifesto” is probably of the love between the two characters and Bolano calling the story a “manifesto” is, if anything, a red herring. I’m aware, having read 2666, that he has social and political concerns in his work but feel that this is not where they are expressed. Just my opinion, obviously.

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