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.
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.
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.