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New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "Mexican Manifesto" by Roberto Bolano

Each week I review the short fiction in the latest issue of The New Yorker. Hey, it's harder than it looks...

Issue: April 22, 2013

Story: "Mexican Manifesto"

Author: Roberto Bolano (say Bo-LAN-yo)

Plot: A man looks back at his youthful adventures in a series of Mexico City bathhouses with his friend/girlfriend Laura,probably taking place in the 60s or 70s, though we're not quite sure. One particular adventure sticks out in his mind, in which some teenage boys, sort of traveling bathhouse performers, perform a sexual act on each other, then one of them has sex with Laura.

Review: In the U.S. we generally associate public bathhouses with homosexuality and homosexual sex. However, (and forgive me if my bathhouse history isn't accurate) in a different time they used to be much more common in this country, particularly in urban areas with large populations of Eastern European immigrants, as places where people relaxed or socialized. I'm assuming the AIDS epidemic of the 80s and the resulting homophobia pretty much destroyed bathhouse culture, but they do still exist and they are generally not the steaming hives of gay sex that public imagination would paint them to be. Anyway, that's just a little background.

When opening a story about Mexican bathhouses, you can't help but read with a kind of prurient curiosity, even discomfort. And indeed, sex seems to swirl around this story, to surround and almost suffocate the story, like the very steam in the steam chambers surrounds and nearly suffocates the characters themselves, at times. Yet the story is not about sex, far from it.

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. Their heterosexuality and couple-hood helps them occupy a certain status in the bathhouses: the man is free from purely homosexual advances, and the woman is protected by the presence of her boyfriend. Therefore they are free to associate with people on a relatively non-sexual level. They meet interesting strangers, sometimes have drinks with them afterward, but mostly they float in and out of the bathhouses meeting interesting characters.

The final encounter is quite bizarre, certainly to a (comparatively) sexually uptight American who has trouble imagining these things actually happened, or how he would react in the same situation. But, that's what's kind of the fun of this story: it challenges you to go to these places with the characters, so much so that you find yourself reacting viscerally.

As I said, Bolano accomplishes something really incredible by setting this story in bathhouses. Not only do you get the weird sexual discomfort and disorientation, but you have the very tactile extremes of hot and cold (there are cold baths as well), the steam and the sweat, and the seemingly always-imminent threat of suffocation. All of this adds a very strong physical element to the story.

Also, most importantly, the steam has the power to obscure sight. This works almost in the same way that the bathhouses themselves are obscured from the everyday world outside. The bathhouses are, therefore, a mystery within a mystery; you can go inside them and still never know what's really going on, because there are corners into which you cannot see unless you go physically into them. And therein lies the true danger and excitement. This can work as a metaphor for just about any kind of sexual or personal discovery; the exploration of the unknown.

One of the real highlights of this piece was Bolano's nod to true Latin American magical realism/imagism, as he describes what Laura's hand does on the main character's shoulder as they sit in one bath house together...."her pinkie was sunbathing on my shoulder, then her ring finger would pass than 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..." Bolano slips this passage into the story so suddenly and unexpectedly that I had to stop and re-read it twice. Personally I'm glad this was his only "magical" flourish, though, as that stuff tends to wear me out as a reader.

In a sense, however, the whole story has a magical/fantasy kind of feeling. The characters seem to be living outside their normal selves, but not completely. Kind of like flying in an airplane with one foot on the ground. They travel far enough into this hot, hazy, mysterious landscape to learn about themselves what they wanted to learn, and then they pull back. And that seems to be enough.

The only part about this story that confuses me is the title. A "manifesto" is meant to be a statement of goals or intentions. I just don't see how that applies here, except to a specific part in the final scene. But I don't see why that would be enough to name the whole story "manifesto." Well, the best kind of story is one that leaves you with something to thing about.

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