Short Story Day Twenty-One – Mexican Manifesto

21. Mexican Manifesto
Roberto Bolaño

This is day Twenty-one of my Month of Short Stories – a story a day for June.

Illustration from the New Yorker

Roberto Bolaño considered himself primarily a poet. For most of his life he was a bohemian vagabond poet, working odd low-end jobs by day and writing poetry by night. Good work if you can get it.

He married in Europe and in 1990 his son was born. At that point he felt responsible for his family and began writing fiction to help pay the bills. Over a short period of time he produced a series of acclaimed novels, collections of short stories, and his magnum opus – 2666, which was published posthumously.

I haven’t read any Bolaño up to this point. I did buy a hardback copy of 2666 – the huge novel (900 pages) sits on the bottom row of my book shelf like a leaden lump of wood pulp; a mysterious Pandora’s box of secret promises, putative wisdom, and unknown wonders locked tight between its covers – only to be opened and released by masses of time, long sleepless evenings, and painful eye strain.

Maybe I should read The Savage Detectives or even the novella By Night in Chile first.

Today’s story Mexican Manifesto, was first published this year in the New Yorker. Since Bolaño passed away a decade ago – I assume this story was found in his papers or computer files.

It is a hazy memory of the narrator, thinking about his youth and the adventures he had with a woman as the two of them explored the world of public bathhouses in Mexico City. He talks about the bathhouses in general and the denizens of the rooms, corridors, and steam. He elaborates on a strange encounter when he and the woman hire a trio – an old man with filthy underwear and two young boys – to provide them with a sexual performance. It doesn’t work out right. Due to his leaky memory, the ethereal nature of the bathhouse, and the clouds of steam that conceal and confuse – it isn’t clear exactly what happened.

The story is a dream or a dreamlike memory or a dream of a memory, or a memory of a dream… or maybe just a half-forgotten recollection mixed up with a fantasy of something that might have happened a long time ago. Youthful adventures tend to warp as time goes by – they become like wisps of steam leaking into the outer chamber of a bathhouse, ghosts of time – they become what they weren’t.

Maybe they never were.

I’ll have to read the story again, and think more about its secrets. I think a key might be the mural described in the first paragraph. It’s in the foyer of their first and favorite public bath, Montezuma’s Gym. I want to figure out what the king sees.

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. That’s what Laura said, and while we were at it she 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.
—-Mexican Manifesto, by Roberto Bolaño

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