Hello, I’m Adam Simoneau of Syracuse University. And I’d like to share a few insights on the short story you’ve just read.
Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote some of the greatest short stories, once said, “A short story should be short enough to read at one sitting, and be a mood piece with every sentence contributing to the total effect. It should also seem simple, but have lots of irony in it.”
Truman Capote, author of In Cold Blood, said, “I labor over every word, every sound. The final result must be exactly right, as dazzling and unique as a Faberge egg.”
So, with that in mind, let’s proceed with a quick analysis of The Mexican Swimmer.
Because you’ve just read the story, you know that the anti-hero, Rodrigo Villalobos, decides to visit seven brothels on his way home. Thusly, in his mind, he will ‘swim his way home’ like Burt Lancaster did in the movie The Swimmer.
Though our hero’s idea sounds ridiculous, one only has to think about university hazings that make the news, stories our male friends have told us about trips to Tijuana, or the wild parties thrown by The Wolf of Wall Street, to know that our hero’s planned adventure is within the realm of reality.
The themes in the story include:
Confronting one’s evil self and past evil deeds.
Projecting a false image.
Religious hypocrisy (for some).
Immoral business practices.
Male sexual vanity.
The exploitation of women.
And the idea that, evil often goes unpunished.
Now let’s examine the story:
Telling his story in the present tense, it seems as if Rodrigo is reliving his adventure again in his mind, thus making it all the more emotional for him, and perhaps the reason he sometimes lapses into Spanish.
We later learn that his full name is Rodrigo Villalobos. Villalobos, in Spanish, means house of wolves. Most English speaking people know the meaning of villa and lobos, so it might come up in the reader’s mind as we gradually learn about Rodrigo’s arrogant and criminal personality and the fact that his political administration is probably a ‘house of wolves’, as might be his home and family.
The other characters in the story, as explained by Rodrigo, seem to be merely necessary attachments in his life, or people that he’s discarded in the past. Let’s look at these characters as we examine the plot.
Around 5am in a town in Mexico, Rodrigo stands on the balcony of a high-class house of prostitution.
In the first paragraph, Rodrigo thinks it’s God’s idea to swim the seven brothels, as if, in Rodrigo’s words, “like God speaking to me from the burning bush’. In subtext, we can see, right from the beginning, Rodrigo mixing religion and sex, which he will often do as the story continues.
Rodrigo calls himself ‘The ruler of all I survey’, which is taken from the poet William Cowper, who was himself paraphrasing the old testament, when it talked about the King of Egypt giving Joseph his freedom and ‘making him lord also of his house; and ruler of all his substance.”
Later, we find out that Rodrigo was churched trained, but it’s doubtful that he learned the phrase from either the bible or a poet. He probably heard someone say it, thought it was cool, and in his arrogance, kept the expression for himself to use.
Getting back to the story, seeing a line of seven brothels, that leads to his house, three kilometers away, he decides to, listen to ‘God’s voice’ and emulate Burt Lancaster in the movie The Swimmer by walking to and indulging in each brothel, ending up at his home.
Burt Lancaster was one of Hollywood’s most masculine movie stars. What man wouldn’t want to think himself as a Burt Lancaster type? However, Rodrigo later denounces the character Lancaster played, calling him an idiot.
Readers of The Mexican Swimmer, who saw the movie The Swimmer, will remember what happened to Burt Lancaster’s character. Let’s not spoil it here, but those that do remember, will expect the same thing to happen to Rodrigo. That anticipation will flavor their reading.
Those that don’t know about the movie might wonder what happened to Lancaster’s character and start guessing where this story will end up. Either way, seeing having seen movie or not, will influence the reader’s anticipation.
Rodrigo tells his plan to his two bodyguards, and even though he is warned that it’s dangerous to go it alone, they are dismissed, so Rodrigo can enjoy his adventure alone.
The two bodyguards are Ernesto which means serious in Spanish, and Armando, which means Army Man or Soldier, appropriate names for bodyguards.
Ernesto tells his boss: "In swimming you can catch your breath and swim on, but when you lead your buzzarino to water, you can't always make it swim firmly."
Of course, in context, the reader can figure out that the slang word buzzarino means male genitalia, but did you know that buzzarino was the name of Senor Buzzarino, a famous pimp in Mexico? That’s where that slang word comes from.
The brothel where Rodrigo spent the night when the story opens is named Utopia. The definition of Utopia is ‘an imagined place where everything is perfect’. Rodrigo calls it ‘the most beautiful brothel in town’. Imagined or not, it has satin sheets and the prostitute Rosita ‘the most beautiful woman in Mexico’. Rodrigo has spent the night with, so indeed, it might be Utopia, for him.
The Utopia is not part of the adventure that Rodrigo decides to go on, thusly the brothels of importance for him are seven in number. Though the number is not made clear in the story, perhaps the reader can feel the number seven which is many things in the mystical, religious, literary and media world.
The first brothel Rodrigo visits is named La Escalera, which means staircase or stepladder in Spanish, a good name for the first step in his adventure. He is recognized and greeted by the manager and is treated royally. He goes to the Santa Ana Suite which might have been named after General Santa Ana, the Mexican general that conquered The Alamo, but was defeated at the battle of San Jacinto. Perhaps this hints that Rodrigo might yet be defeated.
Rodrigo orders a special drink called by the Aztecs ‘the drink of the Gods’. It is believed that the Aztec empire died out because the Spanish explorers thought the Aztecs were evil for having human sacrifices. Later, we find out that Rodrigo sacrifices people for his own good. Disease was another reason for the end of the Aztecs, something that Rodrigo is risking as well by visiting these brothels.
At La Escalera, Rodrigo chooses a prostitute name Sonja who, as he says ‘is worth her weight in cocaine’. It’s interesting that he chooses cocaine to make a comparison. Is he familiar with it, does he make it or sell it? We don’t know yet.
At this point Rodrigo is arrogant as he tells the first part of his story. He brags about his performance with Sonja and is much concerned with his masculine image that others have of him.
The next brothel is the Mandalay which Rodrigo says has ‘plush settings’, so he is still in a nice area of town. Here he is concerned about his upcoming performance in bed with the prostitute, Carmelita, and worried that his image would be tainted. But later, he happily brags that he we was able to perform well enough that Carmelita would give him good marks if anyone asked about him later. Standard male sexual vanity, but perhaps taken to the extreme in Rodrigo’s case.
By the time Rodrigo gets to the 3rd brothel, the Amiga Caliente (meaning hot woman friend), he knows that his sexual energy is spent and he chooses a shy, young prostitute named Theresa (a saint’s name) and decides to just drink with her in one of the rooms.
Rodrigo talks with the girl and she tells him that she is relatively new in the business. Her down-cast eyes and quietness, suggest the exploitation of women that is happening in this town and in this business as well.
Looking at Theresa’s ‘virginal face’ reminds Rodrigo of a Christmas pageant that he once saw. He tells us that it was when he was ‘in the church’. What does that mean? Is he a defrocked priest or have some other past ties to the church? We’ll find out later.
With that memory, Rodrigo compares Theresa to the Virgin Mary from the pageant who was, in his opinion, ‘too virginal looking’ to the play the part of Mary. He seems to have many strange opinions that mixes religion and sexuality in on odd manner.
Rodrigo uses the word 'sadly', when thinking of Theresa's future. This is the only time Rodrigo shows concern for someone on his journey, or is it just the alcohol in him mixing up all his strange views on life?
After a couple of drinks, Rodrigo gives her money, pats her condescendingly on the head and leaves. Perhaps Rodrigo really does feels sorry for Theresa’s future or maybe he just thinks he’s being magnanimous to pay her without getting serviced. We don’t know for sure, because he makes no further comment about her situation.
This part of the story, with Theresa, seems to suggest a calm before the storm.
Rodrigo proceeds to the next brothel called the Bamboo. There, Asian women are dressed in cheap Japanese kimonos and geisha wigs. Rodrigo says that they are not authentic Japanese geisha, but girls from the Philippines and Taiwan. Is he showing his racial prejudice? Or is he irritated that the establishment is trying to fool him?
He makes the statement, “Who are they trying to fool?....Me?” An arrogant statement meaning that no one can fool him and that no one should even try to fool him. He has a drink at the bar, ignores advances from two of the girls and leaves.
At this time, Rodrigo explains to us that even from the beginning he knew his idea performing sexually in every brothel was just an attempt to impress his two bodyguards. He decides that if he just went into the remaining brothels and had a drink, that would count as having performed at each one. It sounds as if he is used to changing the rules to suit himself. He also arrogantly explains that no one would dare question his word.
As he goes from brothel to brothel we see that he is consuming more and more alcohol, and now he is becoming aware of how much he’s had to drink.
On the way to the next brothel, he has to keep his eye half-shut so as not to see the filth around him that ‘disgusts’ him. He is starting to get out of his comfortable element.
As Rodrigo enters the La Serenata brothel, the smoke and filth really bother him. Truly the establishments and the neighborhoods are getting more low-class as he moves forward with his trip.
At the bar, Rodrigo brags to us that if the bartender knew who he was, he would be given free drinks and free women. This tells us that he is someone of importance and at least his name is known to people.
We finally learn what his first name is when he is recognized by one of the prostitutes who speaks to him. But she’s not quite certain if it is Rodrigo or not. She tells him her name, Gabriela Santiago, and he seems to recognize her from high school, even though he hasn’t seen her in 20 years and she’s lost some teeth. (Probably from the bad treatment that women get in that business).
Rodrigo complains about how her bad appearance makes him have a weird feeling. He tells us that he seduced her in high school and then forced her to have an abortion. He gulps down his drink, turns his back on her and leaves the place. He explains his actions so simply and quickly that we suspect he’s used to turning his back on people and situations that make him feel uncomfortable.
The next brothel is the worse place Rodrigo has been in. He mentions to us how the owners give the worse places the best names, such as this place named Diamond Penthouse. We later learn that Rodrigo’s has a good job title and image, Mayor of the town, which hides his ugly nature like the good hotel name that is given to the worse brothel.
In this brothel, a bouncer, that Rodrigo refers to as a Gorilla, grabs him and tells him that he must order a drink and pay. But when Rodrigo reveals his full name to the bouncer and to us, the bouncer lets go of him, backs away in fear and apologizes. Now we know that Rodrigo is not only known, but known as someone to fear, perhaps a gangster who sells cocaine (since he mentioned cocaine before). Our hero really seems to be an anti-hero.
On his way to the final brothel named the Iguana (a dangerous lizard in Mexico), the alcohol finally catches up to Rodrigo and he becomes sick to his stomach. Twice he almost vomits, though he tells us that it’s because he loathes the neighborhood and the people who live there.
Still, he plans to have at least one drink at the Iguana and then he can say to himself, and to others, that he actually visited and had sex in every brothel on his way home. Rodrigo is making up his own rules to justify his lies. This is a practice that the unscrupulous use, and as we later learn, he is Mayor of the town. Rodrigo fits the mold of an unscrupulous politician.
At the Iguana brothel, the bartender named Hernando de la Vega recognizes Rodrigo and attacks him with a baseball bat and switchblade knife. Rodrigo gets hit in the head and his arm cut. But when the bartender reveals his name, Rodrigo doesn’t know him. The bartender explains that Rodrigo had his father and brother killed. Rodrigo pulls out his pistol. This stops Hernando, so Rodrigo doesn’t have to kill him, but he aims at Hernando’s head and shoots him, just in case he is wearing a bullet-proof vest. Rodrigo seems to know about such things as who might be wearing a bullet-proof vest, and he doesn’t hesitate to eliminate an enemy. He seems a practiced killer.
Walking away from the brothel, Rodrigo remembers that he had ordered two men, with the bartender’s last name, killed because they were impeding his climb to the top. He tells himself that all those past killings are ‘history’. The term ‘that’s history’, with a wave of a hand, is often how East Los Angeles gang members respond when asked about their past evil deeds. “Nah, it doesn’t bother me,” they say. “That’s history.”
Rodrigo now admits that ‘swimming home’ in this fashion was a stupid idea and now thinks that Burt Lancaster’s character in The Swimmer was an idiot.
As Rodrigo stumbles in pain and disorientation through a thick forest that he must go through to finally get home, he starts having regrets, and feels sorry for himself.
He reveals to us that he was once close to the church because of his mother, but now he’s become a despicable human being that is bleeding to death. He now believes his final tragedy will be that God will not let him enter heaven. He’s definitely a religious hypocrite as murderers aren’t commonly thought of as heaven material.
Rodrigo finds his way into the back garden of his house, but when he knocks on the back door, no one comes. He sits down on the ‘marble landing’. It seems it’s an expensive house. Some readers think that this place with the marble landing is really heaven and that Rodrigo has already died.
Rodrigo is, in fact, ready to die and asks God to take him. Now Rodrigo doesn’t even question his right to enter heaven, even with his recent and past killings as mortal sins on his soul, He definitely lets himself off the hook easily even with his religious training.
However, before he bleeds to death, the back door opens and his personal aide, Ramon, is there to save him. The name Ramon means counselor or protector in Spanish. He calls the house caretaker, Gilberto, to help him carry their boss into the house. Gilberto is Spanish for pledge or bright.
They bring him into the back part of the house, clean him up, tend his wounded arm and dress him in a new suit.
This is another point in the story that some readers think that Rodrigo has died and is being prepared for his funeral. However, he is dressed up just in time to have breakfast with his beautiful wife and two children.
His wife’s name is Esmeralda which means emerald or precious green gem in Spanish. Esmeralda might bring up the image of the gypsy girl that Quasimodo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, is in love with, perhaps branding Rodrigo as a criminally handicapped or an emotionally deformed person.
Rodrigo’s son is named Marco which means Mars, the god of war in Spanish. Maybe with that name he’ll grow up to be just like his father, a god of war or another conqueror like Marco Polo.
His daughter’s name is Pasha which means small lord in Spanish. Perhaps under her father’s tutelage she will indeed grow up to be a small lord, perhaps with his arrogance and be a lord over everyone she knows.
The female cook’s name is Aldonza which means sweet or nice in Spanish. But the name might conjure up in the reader’s mind Aldonza the whore in ‘Man of La Mancha’. This might give the idea that even away from the brothels, Rodrigo has a whore in his house or that he can’t quite separate his home image from his night image.
Finally, the story ends as Rodrigo leaves his house for work. His two bodyguards are there with his limousine and both call him ‘Senor Mayor’. Rodrigo tells us that it’s a new day of work at City Hall to help the people.
So, Rodrigo starts out his morning with arrogance, which turns into disgust as he reaches the seedier parts of his own town. Next he came face to face with his evil past, had to fight for his life, feared that he would die and asked God to take him to heaven. Rodrigo is then saved by his aids, ‘brought back to life’ so to speak, and then returns to his prosperous lifestyle and his ‘business as usual’ arrogance.
What he did that night goes completely undiscovered by his family and he is not punished for killing the bartender, nor for his past evil deeds. One could argue that he will ultimately be punished, but that would be argument only.
Because Edgar Allen Poe said that a short story should be ‘loaded with irony’, let’s examine the irony in this story:
To begin with, the title; The Mexican Swimmer is ironic in itself, as Rodrigo never actually swims much. Though, when asked about how his morning is going, he purposely answers, ‘Swimmingly’. He seems proud that he could ‘search out and select just the right word’; swimmingly. His ego, arrogance and pride are still as strong as ever, no matter the ordeal that he just went though.
That ordeal could have changed, or at least enlightened other men, but not our head-strong anti-hero. It’s also ironic that, even though Rodrigo has many underworld and prostitute connections, he has a wholesome wife and children. However, we might wonder how long they will remain wholesome.
Though Rodrigo is the mayor of the town, he has never been in the dirtier neighborhoods, nor intends to help those areas. Indeed, he is part of the corruption that keeps those neighborhoods in such bad conditions.
Rodrigo remembers that the room where he took his high school girlfriend to have an abortion in, was overlooking a butcher shop. It seems her life was butchered from that point on considering where she ended up.
There’s more irony when Rodrigo vomits on the Montezuma Cedar Tree bringing up the idea of Montezuma’s Revenge, when foreigners drink the water in Mexico and get sick.
When Rodrigo says, “I am the worse piece of garbage,” it is still actually an ego trip. To think of ourselves as ‘the best’ or ‘the worst’ are both ego trips.
Also ironic is that the worse brothel has the most prosperous sounding name; Diamond Penthouse, just like the worst person in the story, Rodrigo, has the best title; Mayor.
Though Rodrigo brags to his bodyguards the he will ‘screw his way home’, he only does that in two of the seven brothels, but he will tell his men that he performed in every brothel. It’s another example of image versus reality in his life.
More irony is; The ‘gorilla sized’ bouncer at the Diamond Penthouse, changes to a ‘girl’s voice’ when he finds out Rodrigo’s identity.
The roses in Rodrigo’s garden are dead and black, but he brings one of them back to its natural color of red by his blood dripping on it.
Rodrigo talks about ‘serving the people’, but we come to learn that he has in fact, never served anyone but himself, and has actually had people killed.
Perhaps the greatest irony is that even though Rodrigo is an evil man and gives himself up to God to die, he survives, remains prosperous, unpunished for his past, and the next day goes about business as usual.
To sum up this analysis; what starts out as whimsical drunken stunt by a rich man, turns into an ironic story that reveals a man’s secret past and self-loathing. A past and loathing that he can conveniently compartmentalize and put behind him as ‘history’ with the dawn of ‘just another day serving the people’.
We can almost be certain that Rodrigo has no intention of serving the people in the poor neighborhoods that he walked through earlier, the neighborhoods and the people that disgusted him.
Rodrigo certainly knows how to compartmentalize and rationalize his evil deeds.
Psychology tells us that compartmentalization is an unconscious psychological defense mechanism used to avoid metal stress and discomfort. It is also linked to rationalization.
People who use compartmentalization as a major defense system, are hiding their weaknesses. During the last part of Rodrigo’s journey to his home, we certainly see his weaknesses.
Looking back at the first lines in the story where Rodrigo thinks that it might be God telling him to go on his adventure, we can wonder, maybe God wanted Rodrigo to face his past sins and suffer for them, at least for that morning. A sort of ‘Ghost of Christmas past’, if you will.
Well, those are some of the ideas that you might consider when you re-visit The Mexican Swimmer as the short-story, or as chapter one in the novella of the same name. In the novella, you will see the ramifications of Rodrigo’s so-called ‘swim home’.
Thank you for reading.