Roberto Bolaño was the type of writer most writers want to be or think they already are: stylistically bold, thematically engaging, readable and re-readable; in other words, undeniably exceptional. Bolaño, who died in 2003, was a writer whose style is deceptively simple yet whose books and characters take hold of one’s brain–all or most or perhaps some small unguarded part of it–and frequently return to one’s thoughts, living and breathing and growing.
Amulet is his most recent novel to be translated into English. It’s a slim book, though that should not confuse it with “slight” or “minor.” It’s a major accomplishment, narrated by and the story of one of his greatest characters: a woman named Auxilio Lacouture, a Uruguayan living illegally in Mexico. She finds herself in the bathroom during the Mexican army’s occupation of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in the days preceding the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, the incident in which Mexican president Gustavo Diaz Ordaz brutally suppressed a growing student rebellion by ordering police to fire wildly into a large protest in Mexico City’s Plaza of Three Cultures. As the only person still on campus, she holes up in her stall with a book of poems. As the violence in Mexico City escalates outside of the safety of her women’s room stall, poetry becomes her nourishment and lifeforce.
With its simple premise, written in a warm style not overly laden with linguistic or syntactical fireworks, Amulet is a careful internal study of this woman and is utterly engaging. One gets the sense that Auxilio, who sometimes refers to herself as “the mother of Mexican poetry,” is seen as a freeloader by many of the poets and artists with whom she socializes. But it’s hard to be sure because there’s an interesting narrative distance which nearly occludes outside opinions of her. For example, she describes her life at this time: “I lived in Colonia Napoles and Colonia Roma and Colonia Atenor Salas. I lost my books and I lost my clothes. But soon I came by other books and, eventually, other clothes as well. I picked up odd jobs at the university and lost them again.” She’s not one of those “lovable” or “sassy” female leads; she’s not even attractive–Auxilio is missing her front teeth, and doesn’t take care of herself. Nor though is she sentimentally sad or depressing; to write her that way would be to include a level of self-acknowledgement that would be untrue to the character. She loves poetry above all and builds her life of poverty around it. Seemingly a friend to all yet friendless at the same time, Auxilio is real and beautiful, despite and because of her faults.
During Auxilio’s twelve days stuck in the bathroom, she tells tales about the poets and writers in Mexico at the time, the painters, the recluses she finds herself talking to in the middle of the night. All the while, her seemingly rambling monologue is honed in on the violence erupting around Mexico during this period. Her narration, sure yet withheld, is cryptic (it includes literary prognostication for the next 1,000 years), deeply insightful and poetic, always fascinating. Though she would be justified in condemning the world around her, her worldview resiliently avoids pessimism: “I wasn’t immune to their beauty. I’m not immune to any kind of beauty.”
After having finished the novel, one returns to the beginning, to ponder what to make of its opening lines: “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.” Even though Auxilio treads lightly around it, one nevertheless empathizes instinctively with the terror she must have felt in that bathroom–in Mexico illegally, surrounded by an army occupying the capitol, the sudden complete isolation and segregation, too paralyzed with fear to try and leave.
Indeed, it is the story of a terrible crime.
Amulet, one of Bolaño’s shorter novels (the lengthy ones will be published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, beginning with The Savage Detectives later this year), is the best of the four excellent Bolaño books published in English thus far (all by New Directions)–Bolaño’s voice is more distinct here, more undeniably and specifically Bolaño. Whether this is due to my having read four of his books in a short period of time, and finally “hearing” Bolaño’s voice, or because translator Chris Andrews is becoming more and more comfortable with Bolaño’s prose (and hearing the author’s voice in a different way), or because it’s just a wonderful book I can’t say. But, as with any great work of literature, Amulet continues to haunt, puzzle, and nag at me.
All of Bolaño’s books seem linked together thematically, so in some ways it’s vexing that they’re not being translated and published in order (so we could read them like serials). Narratively it seems they share some characters, and they often reference events in other books–the next big book after The Savage Detectives should be 2666, which Amulet points toward when a street is beautifully described as “more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or in 1968, or 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else.” Amulet is an important novel, a beautiful, moving, undeniable work of art. It makes this reader hopeful for the rest of Bolaño’s oeuvre, as it becomes available to the English-reading world in the next couple of years.
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