April 22, 2013

"Mexican Manifesto"

By Roberto Bolaño
Translated from the Spanish by Laura Healy
~4600 words

The narrator and his female companion tour bathhouses in Mexico City, leading to a steamy, unsettling encounter with two youths and an old man.

OK, I’m not always a fan of the New Yorker’s fiction illustrations, but this time they got it right. Through the dark mouth of a grotto, we peer into a bluish haze through which the sprawled, naked body of a young man appears. As our eyes focus—or the fog clears—we realize that the mouth of the grotto is formed by the arms of a person looming above us. Entangled with the body on the floor are other limbs. Deeper in the mist is another naked form. And that blob, off to the left, looks to be more curves and skin.

Just what the heck’s going on here?

That’s the question I asked myself again and again while reading “Mexican Manifesto.” But I’m not the only one who was confused. The narrator was a bit shaky on the details, too. This is how the story opens:
Laura and I did not make love that afternoon. In truth, we gave it a shot, but it just didn’t happen. Or, at least, that’s what I thought at the time. Now I’m not so sure. We probably did make love.
Well, yeah, I bet we’ve all had lapses like this. Did we just make love or didn’t we? I forget. (Try asking your partner that question. Get back to me about how it goes.)

In short, the story opens in a haze. After making love (or maybe not), the narrator and Laura start experimenting with public baths. Usually they’d take private rooms, steeping themselves lengthily in the sauna before exiting: “Then we would open the door and head into the chamber with the divan, where everything was clear, and behind us, like the filaments of a dream, clouds of steam slipped by and quickly disappeared.” But the rooms are not so private as you might think: people knock at the doors, and Laura lets them in. There’s some sharing of weed and steam, some possibilities of promiscuity. Then the visit of the old man with the adolescent boys trained to give a sex show. In the fog of the sauna, bodies overlap, voices call out, something almost happens. And then they leave and it’s over.

It doesn’t take long to figure out that the whole story is a sauna. And a dream. Not quite a wet dream, but a moist one. We follow the slack thread of motivations from one scene to the next, unsure where (or if) it leads anywhere, emerging at the end with our pores cleared but our minds still fogged.

I don’t know. If I agree to traipse through someone’s dreamscape, they could at least reward me with powerful prose. But sometimes Bolaño just slips on the tiles. Declaring that “Laura seemed so sweet at that moment” doesn’t convey sweetness any more than “I felt a kind of detached terror” sends a chill down my spine. On the other hand, the more vigorous images have their own problems. What does it mean to “laugh like a housewife”? In what way are beauty and misery “paradoxical dwarves, travelling and inapprehensible dwarves”?

I don’t know. It all left me feeling thick-headed. I think I’ll go take a shower. A long one. Hot and steamy.

Satisfactory (but just barely).

Reader poll: I found "Mexican Manifesto" to be ___.

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