What could be a more beguiling place to start my ‘musings’ than a pondering of Roberto Bolaňo’s Amulet, a short book of only 184 pages or so, yet one that is by no means a light or flimsy work. Far from it. It is a distilled essence that resonates strongly. It is not a humorous work like his The Savage Detectives, yet it is a wonderful read all the same.
Much acclaim has been laid at the feet of Bolaňo since his premature death. By way of introduction, John Banville provides the following assessment of his impact:
“The strength and originality of his vision lies in the devastating scepticism which he brought not only to magical realist methods but to the very springs of fiction itself. His work is the crossroads where Márquez meets Burroughs and Borges meets Mailer, resulting in a riotous dust-up.” As Bolaňo was quoting as thinking that magical realism “stinks” and preferring the work of Borges, Banville’s summation seems well made.
And now to Amulet itself. Preceding Amulet is a quote by Petronius:
In our misery we wanted to scream for help,
but there was no one there to come to our aid.
And this is indeed the position the protagonist and narrator Auxilio Lacouture finds herself in, alone and with no one around to come to her aid as she opens the narrative thus:
This is going to be a horror story. A story of murder, detection and horror. But it won’t appear to be, for the simple reason that I am the teller. Told by me, it won’t seem like that. Although, in fact, it’s the story of a terrible crime.
We are immediately placed into the confines of this oblique, melancholic and hallucinatory ‘horror’ story. The ‘horror’ is the invasion of the university by the army and in 1968, the rounding up of all its personnel, and the Tlatelolco massacre, a government massacre of student and civilian protestors in the Tlatelolco district of the city on October 2, 1968. (The official death toll was 30, though many accounts point to a likely 200-300 deaths). But we are not witness to this. Rather, Auxilio skirts around this obliquely; she tells us of how she found herself in a nook of safety in the stalls in the female bathroom on the fourth floor of the Literature and Philosophy faculty of the university when it is stormed by the army. She glimpses her friends and university personnel being hoarded into trucks and taken away to God knows where. She chooses to resist, and stays in the bathroom for twelve days.
From early on in the story we witness the beginnings of Auxilio’s time shifting, a displacement that has Auxilio travelling both backward and forward in time from her precarious, confined safety in the university bathroom, including questioning what year she arrived in Mexico City in the first place. She ‘recollects’ how she, the “mother of Mexican poetry” befriended poets and lecturers in the university – including Arturito Belaňo who appears occasionally throughout the book, the alter-ego of Bolaňo himself. She foresees the loss of her teeth and how she holds her hand up to her mouth when she speaks or laughs in one of the many bar scenes she imagines living through. The time-shifts place the reader in the same sense of unease and displacement that Auxilio finds herself in. We are confined with her, we travel the many hallucinatory pathways her mind wanders during those twelve days. Later, we see her doubt her motherly position of the poets, as well as doubting many other things besides. Her visions and travels become stranger and stranger, from the cafes and bars of the city, the people she meets – one of whom she saves from death with the help of a Belaňo returned from Chile – and her self-confessed bohemian and itinerant lifestyle, to mountains of ice and great chasms and grand, sweeping valleys as she watches the youth of her age march toward the abyss. There is a sense of menace that constantly percolates to the surface of her visions and recollections, impossibilities and madness, a madness reflecting the unseen massacre, the madness of the loss of youth. One of the more striking and uneasy images that Bolaňo leaves us with is:
“Death is the staff of Latin America and Latin America cannot walk without its staff.”
As noted above, Auxilio’s meetings with Belaňo also tell the tale of his transformation. This gives us a Bolaňo himself obliquely placed into the structure and horror of the story, and allows Auxilio to describe the change in him after he spends time in Chile before returning to Mexico City. Here the poets all see the change that comes from knowing death, and both Belaňo and Auxilio are called on to save a man they find while trying to help a friend.
The scenes of horror and angst that churn the surface of Auxilio’s hallucinatory visions accumulate to create the ghost-song of the generation of young Latin Americans lost in “sacrifice”. It is a song that reverberates in Auxilio’s ears, a song of “courage and mirrors, desire and pleasure.” This seems at first read an odd note on which to draw the final pages together given the trauma of these disappearing youth. Yet it is redolent of the defiance of the young and their passion for life and each other, the defiance that Auxilio shows together with her frailty, the defiance that should always speak and sing louder than violence ever can. I found this book to be a wonderful and evocative picture, an oblique look at horror, yet one that resonates with a real truth because of this very obliqueness – for our ability to rationalise such events is limited. Indeed, we simply can’t; we instead tread warily around its edges lest we become dragged into the heart of its maelstrom. And at our most pressured, we fuse a massacre with a march, and a song of lament becomes an amulet we carry to remind ourselves of what it means to live.
… And just as this unforgettable song becomes the amulet in Bolaňo’s final – and I think – wonderful line, I hope that my thoughts become, in some small way, an amulet for my own nascent journey through the vivid worlds of all our writers’ genius – a song and life of courage and mirrors, desire and pleasure.
Amulet is a wonderful book, and an excellent (and short) introduction to Bolano’s longer works. I’m looking forward to The Savage Detectives and 2666!
For more on Bolaňo’s life and work, read the excellent piece written by Daniel Zalewski in The New Yorker.
For more on Amulet: see: Banville’s Guardian review.
And for a really erudite review, see Eli Evans’ review on bookslut.
Amulet by Roberto Bolano