Roberto Bolaño: “Mexican Manifesto” from TNY, 4/22/13

Gaylord Morris: "Montezuma"

Gaylord Morris: “Montezuma”

…[S]he introduced me to the world of public baths, which from then on, and for a very long time, I would associate with pleasure and play. The first one was, without a doubt, the best. It was called Montezuma’s Gym, and in the foyer some unknown artist had done a mural where you could see the Aztec emperor neck-deep in a pool. Around the edges, close to the monarch but much smaller, smiling men and women bathe. 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. The water in the pool is green. The stones are gray. In the background, you can see mountains and storm clouds.

Ah, a Roberto Bolaño story about Mexican bathhouse culture. Just what I was waiting for.

The last time I tried to read Bolaño, I was quickly defeated. I did somewhat better this time around, but I still required a good deal of assistance. Fortunately, lots of assistance is just a few clicks away. The story itself is also available online.

Grant Catton addressed my first point of confusion quite directly in his blog review: “The story is about a young man and woman who use each other as ‘buddies,’ holding hands as they explore together a strange and subterranean culture they likely wouldn’t have had the guts to explore alone.”

I’d wondered about the couple, Laura and the unnamed first-person narrator; the relationship seems less than committed, shall we say. The narrator describes a woman who thinks little of changing her opinion capriciously. Either that, or the narrator changes his view of her capriciously:

One day I’ll wander around in here, Laura said. Her experience raiding public baths was greater than mine, which wasn’t saying much, considering I’d never before crossed the threshold of such an establishment. Nevertheless, she said she knew nothing of baths. Not enough. She’d gone a couple of times with X and, before X, with a guy who was twice her age and whom she always referred to with mysterious phrases. In total, she hadn’t been more than ten times, always to the same place, Montezuma’s Gym.

In the space of these few sentences, Laura 1) knows nothing of the baths; 2) knows more than the little the narrator knows; 3) went a couple of times; 4) went about ten times. I may be overly fastidious about details, but which is it? This all adds to the subversive sense of unreality, confusion, and/or threat.

The narrator claims, from what seems to be a future look-back point (which gives me the impression this might have been conceived of as a section in a novel, but I don’t know enough about Bolaño to say), to associate this period of his life, the bathhouse phase, with “pleasure and play.” Throughout the piece, however, there’s a sense of threat and danger, along with grim imagery – tombstones, Nazi showers. Sex – impalement, loss of control, nakedness – is, psychically speaking, pretty scary stuff. Just in case you’re doubtful about that, Bolaño throws in ” an old divan reminiscent of psychoanalysis and bordellos.”

I’m quite fond of a rather extraordinary scene, part of the visit that is most detailed:

I felt Laura’s fingers caress my shoulder. In a little while, I realized that Laura was playing, very gently, but it was a game: her pinkie was sunbathing on my shoulder, then her ring finger would pass and they’d greet each other with a kiss, then the thumb would appear and both pinkie and ring finger would flee down the arm. The thumb was then king of the shoulder and would lie down to sleep; it seemed to me that he even ate some vegetable that was growing there, for the fingernail dug into my flesh, until the pinkie and the ring finger returned, accompanied by the middle and index fingers, and all together they would frighten the thumb, who hid behind an ear and spied on the other fingers from there, without understanding why they’d thrown him out, while the others danced on the shoulder and drank and made love and, out of sheer drunkenness, lost their balance and fell off the cliff and down the back, an accident Laura would take advantage of in order to hug me and lightly touch her lips to mine; in the meantime, the four fingers, terribly bruised, would climb up again, clinging to my vertebrae, and the thumb would observe them without ever thinking to leave his ear.

I went into the story assuming there was a level above the literal one, because, well, Bolaño is that kind of writer. The title, of course, sounds overtly political. And yes, the notion of “revenge” crossed my mind, but I’m pretty sure that’s a connotation unique to ignorant ethnocentric Americans like me, and it’s probably also pretty offensive, so I discarded it. Still, Montezuma towers over all, in a mural appearing in the foyer of Montezuma’s Gym, a favorite bathhouse. The story returns to the mural at the end:

Montezuma’s eyes, bottomless. Montezuma’s neck suspended above the surface of the pool. The courtiers (or maybe they weren’t courtiers) who laugh and converse, trying with all their might to ignore whatever it is the emperor sees. The flocks of birds and clouds that mix together in the background. 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.

I’m not well-versed enough in Mexican history or culture to extrapolate much from this, but a worried king neck-deep in a pool opening and closing the story must have significance. To the rescue: Manel at The Mookse and the Gripes, who proves a wonderful guide to that aspect: “…the title, and Bolaño’s country of origin [Chile], lead me to believe that this is definitely a story about sex, which is really a story about politics.” The discussion is extraordinary.

With stories like this, perhaps I should just sit them out and let the people who understand what they’re reading do the talking. But then I wouldn’t learn anything, and that is my purpose here. I’m already learning to be a little less afraid of Bolaño.

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2 responses to “Roberto Bolaño: “Mexican Manifesto” from TNY, 4/22/13

  1. I’ve been trying to read the New Yorker stories every week. I got hooked after reading Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

    Bolaño is not easy. But the Mexican Manifesto motivated me to start reading one of his book of short stories, “Last Evenings on Earth.”

    So far so good. What he does well, is he capture the human condition, and does so acutely.

    The stories don’t always make sense, but that’s okay. I’m learning to remove that question from my criteria after reading stories. The bigger question is did it make you feel something? Where you transported? Did you get a glimpse of the human condition?

    Approaching it this way has helped me make it through the more challenging fiction.

    Now, speaking of Bolaño, from a technical writing standpoint, I’ve noticed that he knows the value of COMPRESSION. He really knows how to get on with the story. It always feels forward moving.

    He knows how to “TELL” well. I don’t care what they say in all these silly writing classes … “show don’t tell.” All the major award-winning novels have a copious amount of telling in them.

    And it’s not just exposition, these authors know how to TELL well, so that it’s engaging and gripping.

    What Bolaño does well is narrative summary, and usually that’s where you get some of your most gorgeous lines, some of the most thought-provoking writing. Not in the play-by-play. We don’t need every step the character takes documented (he walked up the steps, he sat down, he opened his eyes, he did this, he did that, and on and on and on).

    Don’t get me wrong, action is key … but there’s so much more that can be said.

    Bolaño is teaching me how to read … and write. Imagine that!

    • Hi Dwayne – welcome to the TNY Posse, always room for more. I find that even when I don’t particularly like a story, I find something in it that matters to me, and something I can learn from, and that’s why I blog stories, after all.

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