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Posts Tagged ‘Roberto Bolano’

There have been many enjoyable reads this year.  The Boat by Nam Le got 2011 off to a great start with a collection of disperse and riveting ‘long’ shorts.  I then had the pleasure of re-visiting two of Peter Carey’s great novels in Oscar and Lucinda and Illywhacker.  One of the standouts of the year was That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott, winner of the Miles Franklin.  I thoroughly enjoyed David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten – so clever and absorbing, the way the inter-linkages worked was very impressive.  Then onto another debut novel, this time from an Australian, with Favel Parret’s wonderful Past the Shallows.  There was time for some great classics too, like Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Later in the year I was thrilled and appalled by Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch – what a ride!  And speaking of rides, what a way to end the year with The Savage Detectivesby Roberto Bolaño: part road story, part loss of innocence, every part fantastic.  You can find the reviews of any of these by searching or by clicking on the tags at the end of this post.

What were your favourites this year?

As for 2012, I’m not about to go in for any challenges.  I just plan on reading more classics, both old – Anna Karenina – and more recent – Bolaño’s epic 2666.  And I shall keep abreast of some hot-off-the-press works.  Apart from that, I shall go where the wind takes me.

I hope you join me for future musings!

All the best for the new year.

John

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The Savage Detectives follows two poets, Arturo Belano (Roberto Bolaño’s alter-ego) and Ulises Lima (based on Bolaño’s good friend Mario Santiago), as they try to track down a missing poet named Cesárea Tinajero, as well as their subsequent wanderings through Europe as they grow into adulthood.

Written by Roberto Bolaño – the enfant terrible of post-‘Boom’ Latin American literature – it is structured in three, non-linear sections.  The first (entitled ‘Mexicans Lost in Mexico —1975’) and third (‘The Sonora Desert — 1976’) are both narrated in a first-person diary format by an aspiring poet named Juan García Madero.  Madero has joined a group of poets lead by Belano and Lima that is known as the ‘Visceral Realists’ in the bohemian Mexico City of 1975-6.   The Savage Detectives is quite autobiographical: Bolaño himself started a movement in 1976 in Mexico called the ‘infra-realists’.  When Belano and Lima go travelling to Europe, we are travelling in the footsteps of Bolaño himself who lived in Barcelona, and settled in a small Spanish town on the Costa Brava after marrying.  But who are the visceral realists really?  For all the posturing about getting published, Lima and Belano never seem to have had anything of theirs put in print.  Will they ever amount to anything?  And what becomes of their search for Tinajero (and related attempt to outrun a pimp and corrupt cop who are chasing after them)?

The middle section is by far the longest at some 400 pages.  It’s entitled ‘The Savage Detectives’ and comprises small to long ‘snapshots’, narrated in first-person interviews by some 52 separate characters, all of whom came into contact with Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, whether from their time in Mexico or in Europe.  Many of these narrators are fellow writers, some are lovers, friends, enemies.  The anecdotes span twenty years, from 1976 to 1996, and provide us with an impression of who these two drifter poets were and what became of them.  But it is only ever an impression, for both Lima and Belano are like ghosts.  They came in and out of focus, literally disappearing and reappearing, while many of the narrators can only give oblique impressions or hazy recollections of their interactions with the men, be they short-lived or more meaningful.

As for the visceral realists, one of poet narrators, Laura Jauregui, who was one of Belano’s lovers, believes she worked out what the whole movement was about: (p134-5):  “…it occurred to me that is was all a message for me.  It was a way of saying don’t leave me, see what I’m capable of, stay with me.  …  The whole visceral realism thing was a love letter, the demented strutting of a dumb bird in the moonlight, something essentially cheap and meaningless.  But that wasn’t what I meant to say.”

Indeed!  Are we getting the right picture here, or the deluded imaginings of a jilted lover?  Later, another friend writes that “they weren’t revolutionaries.  They weren’t writers.  Sometimes they wrote poetry, but I don’t think they were poets either.  They sold drugs.”

The change in structure and narration is quite a jolt and for the first 50 pages or so I was wondering what was going on.  As we progress in a more or less chronological fashion (with short time hops here and there), the effect becomes clear and there is a gradual darkening in the stories being told.  There is a real menace to the final pages, with characters we met in Mexico City dying or being killed or just disappearing.  In the afterword, Natasha Wimmer talks about how Bolaño thought of The Savage Detectives as his ‘own answer to Huckleberry Finn.’  Both novels are about friendship and the loss of innocence.  But where we follow Huck Finn on his journey first hand, here everything is cloaked through the lens of all these other narrators, something which adds to the sense of unease.

As soon as p136 we get a glimpse when a publisher talks about Belano and Lima thus: “I noticed something strange about them, it was as if they were there but at the same time they weren’t there.”

This sense of absence reflects one of Bolaño’s motifs.  Bolaño was a Chilean in exile, but as Wimmer points out, he was never comfortable with Chile or Chileans in general.  He is quoted as saying his home was the Spanish language.

Other narrators tell of hopes being dashed, of ‘doing what we could, but nothing worked out’, of smells of death on the blankets of Lima.  One is a backpacker camping at a site where Belano is the night watchman and writes that “I was sure something bad was going to happen.”  Another talks about how they were losing things without knowing it.  Often in these versions of history, Lima goes missing and Belano sets off to find him.  Later, when they arrive back from Europe, Lima goes off to a fictitious Latin American country and disappears for two years!  The publisher of Belano’s book says that Belano was a ‘phantom author’.  Joaquin Font, who takes Madero under his wing in the first section of the novel in Mexico City, narrates tales from a mental asylum and when he was told a friend of his committed suicide in 1980, he writes, (p281), “…that’s when I knew beyond a doubt that everything was about to go from bad to worse.”  Another: “We didn’t realize, but in those days everything was sliding inexorably toward the edge of a cliff.”

The sense of increasing despair is also reflected in the poetry of the missing Tinajero.  Like the poet, much of her work has been lost.  The one poem they find is actually three pictures.  In each picture there is a square placed on a line.  The first line is flat, like a becalmed sea.  In the second picture the line is wavy, and in the third the line is like a jagged mountain range.  It looks like a little boat without its sails tossed on stormy seas.  That, it seems, is life’s progression: from calm through unease to outright storms.

One of the earlier ‘stories’ in the middle section is narrated by Auxilio Lacouture and forms the basis of Bolaño’s novella Amulet (see my review) which was published two years after Detectives.  This is another feature of Bolaño’s oeuvre: the way characters from one work pitch up in another (like David Mitchell), and also the way stories themselves overlap.  Auxilio tells the story of how the military overran the University of Mexico in 1968: a metaphor for the real-life massacre of Tlatelolco.

When accepting the Premio Romulo Gallegos award in 1999 for The Savage Detectives, Bolaño said: “All of Latin America is sown with the bones of its forgotten youths.”   As Wimmer points out, in The Savage Detectives he “brings those youths back to life.”

The hallucinatory nature of the middle section is also true of the book-ends narrated by Madero as he describes how he is sucked into Belano and Lima’s strange quest to find Tinajero alongside a prostitute named Lupe, and chased by Lupe’s pimp and a corrupt Mexican cop.  We get arm-length views of Belano and Lima, and though we get close at times, we then find ourselves shunted away again.

It’s not all doom and gloom.  There are some very funny sections and stories.  There is a very humorous scene in which Belano challenges a literary critic to a duel after he becomes convinced the man is about to publish a bad review of one of his novels.  And duel they do, with sabres no less, on a Spanish beach watched by their ‘seconds’, who look on with a mixture of bemusement, astonishment, and jocularity.  (Pity the poor reviewer!  For a moment I wondered whether, had he still been alive, I would have found a use for the fencing lessons I enjoyed in my youth!  Alas, we’ll never know, for I’m not writing a bad review and, more to the point, Bolaño is no longer with us, though, having read stories of his very forthright personality it wouldn’t surprise me if a challenge was forthcoming from beyond the grave were I to do so.)  During the duel, the narrator realises that “this scene was the logical outcome of our ridiculous lives.  It wasn’t a punishment but a new wrinkle.  It gave us a glimpse of ourselves in our common humanity.  It wasn’t proof of our idle guilt but a sign of our miraculous and pointless innocence.”

There is also a very funny anecdote from a lawyer who intersperses his testimonial with Latin proverbs and who witnesses Belano make love to his daughter.  And there is the nice post-modern pay-off of the Belano-Bolaño relationship when the only scholar interested in the visceral realists, (who comes across as very strange), says, (p520): “Ulises Lima still lives in Mexico City. … About Arturo Belano I know nothing.”

Of course, about Bolaño we know an awful lot.  A combative personality, he eschewed the great and celebrated Latin American ‘Boom’ authors, many of which are seen differently at home than in the English-speaking world.  Take for instance Garcia Marquez’s very close relationship with Fidel Castro.  Bolaño dismissed Marquez as “a man thrilled to have known so many presidents and archbishops; Mario Vargas Llosa: same thing, but more polished.”(!)  Bolaño’s views are coloured by his personal experience: he got caught up in the Pinochet overthrow of the Allende government in Chile on a return visit, and was briefly jailed.  The revolutionary Mexican PRI party was responsible for the Tlatelolco massacre.  Bolaño and his infra-realist buddies went to the readings of other Mexican poets to disrupt them because they took money from the PRI.  One of his authorial predecessors he had time for was Borges, which is hardly a surprise, for Bolaño’s writing is in many ways as mysterious as Borges’ Labyrinths.  Bolaño is not of the Boom, but he gives us all another way to view the same madnesses that plagued Latin America in the 20th Century and still do so today albeit to a lesser extent.  But he extends the rage to include more modern illnesses, such as the all-powerful drug cartels that seem to run most of Mexico.  He recasts what it means to be a Latin American writer.

The Savage Detectives is one of two of Bolaño’s on the ‘1,001 Books to Read Before You Die’ list, (along with 2666), though many including James Wood and Natasha Wimmer point to his other novel By Night in Chile to be even better.  I for one am looking forward to reading it.

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

Translated from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer

Picador

1998

ISBN: 97803305509527

577 pages (plus an insightful afterword by Natasha Wimmer)

Source: the bookshelf rainbow

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Another damp day in Sydney saw the close of the Sydney Writers’ Festival for 2010.  Peter Carey is giving the official closing address, which along with many of the sessions will be available from the SWF website.  It was another very interesting day.  This is a long post but I assume that readers can see which session interests them and read those summaries:

1. ‘Portraits of a Lady’ with Colm Toibin and Kirsten Tranter in conversation with the learned Geordie Williamson, in part discussing their work’s (Colm’s Brooklyn & Kirsten’s The Legacy) relationship with Henry James’ famous novel, although the discussion covered more than this, with Colm in particular showing his encyclopedic knowledge of James, his life, and his work.  Geordie opened the session with a quote of Virginia Woolf’s review of (I think) Henry James’ Letters; Colm told the story of how Virginia and her sister (and everyone else in London at the time) wanted to impersonate James.  James was a great friend of Virginia’s parents and was over for dinner one evening and was telling a story in his own unique way, rocking on his chair as he spoke, until he rocked a little too far and fell toppled over, but what amazed Virginia was that he kept talking through the entire descent! 

Geordie asked the authors how it was that they squared with themselves the task of taking on the ‘monolith’ of James.  Kirsten told the story of how The Portrait of a Lady itself was James’ response to George Eliot’s Middlemarch, so this gave her a sense of confidence that such a project was appropriate.  Cue Colm’s very witty reason: he used to work a summer job in the motor tax office, ‘sorting paper records covered in dust and grime and dirt’. Said Colm: ‘In the day, I worked in the tax office, and at night I read The Portrait of a Lady'(!)  He was astonished with the idea of a secret held to the end of a story, and was puzzled and intrigued by James, and what appears on the surface to be the ‘style of morality’ but is really ‘the morality of morality’.  Geordie then asked about the different structure that each author took in their novels, with Kirsten favouring a fairly direct use of James’ structure (with some ‘grafted-on’ mystery elements, as well as changing the scandal from infidelity to the artist’s authorship of her work).  Kirsten purposefully did not re-read Portrait before writing her work, though she did dip into it.  Colm stripped out a lot of the original structure.  He noted that a lot of James’ work is poor, some of short stories in particular (often written quickly for money), but also some of his longer works.  Colm said ‘James struggled to write about the English’, but he did have a gift in his great novels of using a very intimate third person narrative which allows the reader to ‘become the character’.  Colm said James did this very well and Portrait is a great example.  In Brooklyn, Toibin said he limits his protagonist Ellis Lacey’s ‘ambition’, but he allows her the ability to observe events and surroundings with ‘full intelligence’.  A question was asked as to whether Henry James would have written great works had he been openly gay; Colm replied that EM Forster wrote a story which was openly gay but it was very bad because everything was given to the reader, whereas in other works his use of metaphor works, and the same could be said of James.  Another observation of Colm was that James, whilst very wealthy, wrote poverty well.  Colm clearly has both the gift of the gab – and the intellect to back it up.  A very interesting session that covered so much more than the premise allowed.

2. ‘The Boat to Redemption’ – Su Tong in conversation with Linda Jaivin (who also translated).  Another great session.  Su Tong has a wonderfully sunny disposition which came across even through Linda’s interpretation.  Tong’s books have included Wives and Concubines – which was made into the acclaimed film, Raise the Red Lantern – and others, with his latest novel The Boat to Redemption winning the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2009, making a total of seven novels, and over 200 short stories.  The story is set in the Cultural Revolution – the time in which Su grew up.  He saw people with placards around their necks with their crimes inscribed thereon and wondered what their struggles and stories were.  There is violence in his novels, but he defends this by saying that ‘violence was a part of everyday life.’  Su said he is now very awake to the ‘nightmare and corruption of his childhood’ and all its ‘blackness’. 

Interestingly, Linda noted that the title of the novel in Chinese means ‘River, Shore’ – it is set on a river, its narrator a young boy whose father decided to move from the shore to the river and they haven’t set on land since.  Su Tong’s own parents once lived on an island on the mighty Yangtze River, so for him the river was his world.  Yet the feeling of a river lends itself more to poetry than novels, so writing a story about the river proved a great challenge even for someone with his background. 

Su said that he sees himself as a doctor that looks at the ills of humanity and figures out what needs to be done.  He says it is common in China for doctors to cut out diseased tissue and show this to their families; Tong says this is what he does with society, he cuts out the rotten tissue and shows it to us – a nice metaphor.  We then had quite a funny description of how young people learnt about sex in China, with Linda noting the theme of sexual anxiety that it present in a lot of Chinese literature, including Su Tong’s work.  Mothers commonly tell their children when they ask ‘where do babies come from?’ that they come from the mother’s armpit or they are found on the street.  Su Tong was told he was taken from a boat.  He and his friends found out about sex from The Barefoot Doctor, the book given to rural people who were given very basic medical training.  Says Tong: ‘We studied Mao in class, and The Barefoot Doctor at home. 

We then arrived at Linda’s observation about the English translation.  Linda read both the Chinese and English version simultaneously and was appalled at the differences between them.  Important sentences had disappeared, chapters had been moved, and the overall elegance of the Chinese version did not fully come across.  This was meant as a compliment to Su Tong’s Chinese version, but of course, we in the audience suddenly felt like we were getting a far inferior version.  The explanation was that the English translation was taken from his second draft, and not his final draft, the publishers were anxious to get the book out!  Tong blames himself for this, but the obvious question – which was indeed forthcoming from the audience – was: ‘will there be a ‘proper’ English translation published?’  I was certainly thinking this, but I had already bought the book the other night!  Of course, the point that should have been made was: it was the English version that won the Man Asian Prize and had Colm Toibin singing its praises on Thursday night in the ‘Judges & Winners’ session.  So whilst I have not read it yet and will provide a review soon, I’m aghast to think that there are people out there that wont read it because they feel it is a poor book, and I for one am looking forward to reading River, Shore

3. ‘Reading Roberto Bolano’ with Hugo Bowne-Anderson and Chris Andrews (translator of several of Bolano’s works into English), with chair Don Anderson.  Bolano has captured the imagination of many readers since his premature death with his mysterious and incredibly prolific writing.  Don noted in his introduction that Bolano said ‘magic realism stinks’, but he also said of Garcia Marquez, that some of his novels were ‘perfect’ – and this in a nutshell gives us a glimpse into the elusiveness of Bolano.  Hugo spoke at length about Bolano’s works, observing that either of By Night in Chile or Amulet (see my review), are good ways into his work. 

Chris then gave us a particularly well-constructed talk on what he saw as the five characteristics of Bolano: Energy; Tension; Totality; Ehtics; and, Poetry.  He quoted the opening lines of The Savage Detectives and noted its lack of adjectives as well as the immediate sense of a ‘vibration’ of energy.  Tension is ‘something that Bolano can create out of nothing’, and Chris noted that quite often his short stories, like Poe’s short stories, reveal a hidden structure at the end and what you thought you were reading turns out to be something entirely different.  Yet many of Bolano’s novels eschew endings.  Instead we have very open endings.  Bolano wants to work the reader hard; he attempts to retain a sense of mystery, and wants understanding to be elusive.  In terms of the ‘totality’, both Chris and Hugo noted how Bolano’s works are related and connected.  However, Chris observed that there are many inconsistencies – characters’ reappear in other books but sometimes with different names.  Thus, there is some sense of a plan behind the totality of the work, but not a real plan given all these inconsistencies.  Chris said that these are a small price to pay for the whole.  Ethics: Bolano was quite a moralist in his fiction (if not in life).  His cardinal vice was ‘cosying up to power’, whilst his cardinal virtue is courage – a view that I share wholeheartedly.  Courage in Bolano’s works is often represented by duels.  Finally, poets are everywhere in Bolano’s stories, both as a metaphor for the creative class but also because Bolano himself was a poet before he began writing novels.  Poetry is important to him. 

Chris was asked about the method of interpretation, and gave an interesting insight when he said that often the first translation is very dry and awkward and does not retain the poetry of the original; it takes a lot of work to then arrive at a real sense of the original Spanish in English.  An observation was then made from a member of the audience which the panel agreed with, as do I, when it was argued that had Bolano lived a long life, the sense of a real plan interlinking his entire work may never have been forthcoming, and we would have instead what we have now, a lack of a definitive ending to everything, where, appropriately enough, the session was ended!  Very interesting.  I have The Savage Detectives and 2666 on my shelf, their weight pressing down into the wood, but feel now that I have a much greater awareness of what awaits me. 

4.  ‘Australian Stories’ with Thomas Keneally (Australians – Origins to Eureka), Jack Marx (Australian Tragic), Michael Cathcart (The Water Dreamers), moderated by Richard Glover.  A fun romp through some tall tales, interesting facts, and myths that each author has come across as an antidote to the view in school-children that ‘Australian history is boring’.  Richard opened the session with Mark Twain’s famous quote from his journey to Australia, which Peter Carey used as a quote before his excellent Illywhacker, and which appears in the excellent: The Wayward Tourist: Mark Twain’s Adventures in Australia (see my review), that Australia’s history ‘reads like the most beautiful lies’. 

There were some interesting observations made by each panelist.  For instance, Jack believed that one Australian myth is that of ‘mateship’ – he felt there is nothing special about Australian male bonds than anywhere else in the world.  Tom noted that one myth is the notion that all aboriginals were ‘supine’ to white settlement.  This was an interesting observation for me, for I am well aware that many of the aboriginals of the day openly resisted.  This notion was explored further after a question on why the stories of violence toward aboriginals goes untold.  Again, I found this an interesting assertion, as I was aware of these stories myself, but perhaps they are untold.  Jack observed that the violence continues today, providing the example of the indigenous man killed a couple of years back on Palm Is by a policeman and the lack of punishment.  Michael’s myth is the notion that ‘everyone died searching for an inland sea’, noting the irony that as far as he was aware, the only man to die whilst searching for an inland sea was a man by the name of ‘Poole'(!). 

All-in-all, the session was proof that there is a myriad of interesting stories that constantly fuel and refuel our understanding of the past, and the idea that those things that are swept under the carpet or assumed to be isolated things in our history, and thus unimportant, are actually rife within the primary records of the day, and it is not hard to find facts and myths and wonderful things if we merely open the page – an apt thought on which to end my musings on the 2010 SWF – thoroughly enjoyable, inspiring, fun, and yes, a little damp, but my mind was definitely expanded. 

Let me know your thoughts.  What were your SWF highlights? 

The D!

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Well, I’ve booked my programme of (ticketed) events for the Sydney Writers’ Festival (Saturday 15th of May – Sunday 23rd), though I still have a few choices to make for some (inevitable) overlaps.  For example: should I go to E32 ‘Who Owns the Story’ – dealing with the rights of authors in the use of aboriginal myth and dreaming stories, or E34: ‘Celebrating the Australian Accent’ with Jack Thompson et al?  For a Libran like myself, such decisions are nigh on impossible!

It’s certainly shaping up to be a busy and interesting week.  I’m not going to give a critical opinion on how the SWF measures up to, say, the recent Adelaide Writer’s Week, which had some pretty big names in Sarah Waters and others… Sydney will have to ‘make-do’ with the likes of Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame, Colm Toibin, and Peter Carey amongst a host of local talent too numerous to list.    

Some of the events I’m particularly looking forward to (amongst others) are:

  • E66: ‘Judges & Winners’: John Carey, Thomas Keneally, Colm Tóibín and Su Tong dissect the agony (and fun) of the Booker prize fight.  (This promises to be very intriguing – everyone has an opinion on the Booker Prize!).
  • Reading Muster 5: Alex Miller, Peter Goldsworthy, Rodney Hall and Nada Awar Jarrar pass the word around.
  • E148: ‘Marie Munkara’: The award-winning indigenous writer of ‘Every Secret Thing’ shares her stories.
  • E167: ‘Peter Carey’: Peter Carey talks to ‘Granta’ editor John Freeman about ‘Parrot and Olivier in America’.  (Carey is also delivering the festival’s closing address.) 
  • E192: ‘The Colony & Sydney Harbour’: Grace Karskens and Ian Hoskins retrace the history of Sydney.
  • E236: ‘Reading Roberto Bolano’: A celebration of the work of the late Chilean novelist and poet.  (Okay, so I’ve only read the (slim) Amulet – see my review which I liked a lot, but I am stalking both The Savage Detectives & 2666(!) – which are both on my shelf.  Perhaps I should start one of these before the festival!

Is anyone else going? What are the events you’re most interested in?

The Dilettante!

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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

Picador

ISBN: 9780330511834

184 pages

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