It is September 1968 and the Mexican student movement is about to run head-on into the repressive right-wing government of Mexico: hundreds of young people will soon die. When the army invades the university, one woman hides in a fourth-floor ladies' room and for twelve days she is the only person left on campus. Staring at the floor, she recounts her bohemian life among the young poets of Mexico City - inventing and reinventing freely - and along the way she creates a cosmology of literature.
“Amulet” provided the toe in the water for this author’s writing and my impression, having finished this teaser, is that I shall be reading his other works.
In “Amulet”, Bolaño gives the reader a view of the world of South American poetry, and the poetry scene in Mexico City in particular, over a period spanning the 1960s and 70s. The narrator is a lover of poetry who has devoted her life to being near the poets whose work she loves, and the young poets whose energy, enthusiasm and freedom of thought touches her.
If asked what this book is about I would say it is about poetry, revolutionary thoughts, love, the passing of time and growing old.
Bolaño’s mechanism for presenting this history is interesting and I think frees the reader from the linear passage of time, and blurs the boundaries between real memories and possible memories.
I would suggest the narrator is not one hundred percent reliable, but the result comes across as a credible perception of Mexico City in those decades and the symbiotic relationship between the poetry movements and South American revolutionary thought, and indeed, action.
This novel moves back and forth in time from it's anchor point of the women's bathroom on the fourth floor of the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature of the Autonomous University of Mexico. The mother of Mexican poetry tells us of the young poets that came and went through the cafes and streets of Mexico City.
"And that is when time stands still again, a wornout image if ever there was one, because either time never stands still or it has always been standing still; so let's say instead that a tremor disturbs the continuum of time, or that time plants its big feet wide apart, bends down, puts its head between its legs, looking at me upside down, one eye winking crazily just a few inces below its ass, or let's say that the full or waxing or obscurely waning moon of Mexico City slides again over the tiles of the women's bathroom on the fourth floor of the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature, or that the silence of a wake falls over the Cafe Quito and all I can hear are the murmurs of Lilian Serpas's ghostly court and once again I don't know if I'm in 1968 or 1974 or 1980, or gliding, finally, like the shadow of a sunken ship, toward the blessed year 2000, which I shall not live to see."
A remarkable book, but the ending comes off a bit artificial.
Another magical Latin American tale by the late Chilean author Robert Bolano.
Auxilio Lacouture, a homeless muse from Montivideo, Uruguay moves to Mexico City in the 1960's. Her love of poetry leads her to the university where she ingratiates herself to the two leading grandfather figures of Spanish-Mexican Poetry, Leon Felipe and Pedro Garfias. She latches on to them by providing cleaning services and errands free of charge; in return she is pleased to be allowed to be in the near proximity of these literary giants. She begins to call herself "the Mother of Mexican Poetry" and builds an idealistic self mythologizing image which culminates when the student riots of 1968 at the University of Mexico City are put down by police armed forces; she hides in the 4th floor female bathroom of the School of Philosophy and Literature buiding, beginning a 13 day self imposed exile there that becomes an underground tale retold by many and well known within the circle of Mexican poets and university students.
Auxilio moves from house to house floppping on couches, floors and roof tops along the way collecting clothes, books and tales that she leaves behind when she picks up to move to her next stop.
Frequenting the avant-guard bar scene of the city she befriends the younger, more rebellious poets one of whom she is particularly enamored with being Arturo Bolano-the author's alter ego.
One large section is centered around a re-telling of the Greek mythology of Orestes and Erigone as told to her by one Carlos Coffeen Serpas, a somewhat disabled and dependent painter who lives with his mother the poet Lilian Serpas, who sells his odd, stick-like figure sketches to patrons in bars throughout the city's varied barrios. Escaping his presence, Auxilio falls into a bizarre fugue-like state in which she is visited by a personal angel she is surprised to be from Buenos Aires. In a Nostradamasian barrage she begins a cascade of literary predictions in which the future reputations of various giants are spelled out: "Marcel Proust, a desperate and prolonged period of oblivion shall begin in the year 2033...Cesar Vallejo shall be read underground in the year 2045...Louis Ferdinand Celine shall enter Purgatory in the year 2094...the complete works of Roberto Arlt shall be adapted for the screen in 2102...etc,etc (the, at times, funny and strange predictions go on for four pages).
The book ends in a dreamlike biblical description of marching children seeking their fate in a vast valley in the countryside and the reader is left with a most satisfying experience.
One of the more acute reviews of Bolano recently was, I think, in the "London Review of Books"; the reviewer noted thaqt Bolano writes continuously about writing, and that his novels chronicle novelists and poets, but that somehow his books aren't exactly novels. The authorial voice, and in this case also the narrator's voice, are presented as if they are talking. It's as if this is what happens in a writer's mind when he or she is contemplating the craft and social world of novel writing, before it's time to settle down and actually write. I think that's an excellent insight, and it explains an odd effect in Bolano: when you encounter a passage that is beautifully written, it seems somehow out of place, as if that is something that should only happen in the novels that Bolano's characters are forever discussing. Or to put it another way: it is as if novel writing is no longer possible, and the only way forward for the novel is rumination about the novel.
Wonderful book. I dare you to forget it.
Bolano's Auxilio sees herself as the mother of Mexican poets. She takes them in whenever she can, feeds and supports them, sometimes has sex with them. She has a special affection for one Arturo Belano--a refugee from Pinochet's Chile and alter-ego of Bolano himself and this shorter work (184 pages) IMO should be seen as a kind of prequel to Bolano's masterpiece 'The Savage Detectives'. Just like me to read them in the wrong order. C'est la vie. What can you do? In any case adventures relating to Belano (Bolano) and his derelict friends and would be poets provide the background to the kind of nightmare of history for those on the bottom end of events as they happen are what is described here. These dark tones more stated than implied give to this work its moral quality. One can picture the same kind of devastated quality in Bolano's vision of Mexico City in comparison to say Louis Ferdinand Celine's Paris in his landmark novel 'Journey to the end of the night'--Bolano's writing being equally compelling and exciting as Celine's but in its own destinctive way. In this respect I can see Bolano becoming a major influence for writers for perhaps generations to come and from all over the world and not just from Latin America.
In any case I wouldn't hesitate to recommend any of Bolano's works. If not all masterpieces they all border on it. A wonderful writer.
Knowing nothing of Mexican poetry or politics it was hard to know what, if anything, was real in the background to the novel. I was hoping to be dazzled by the writing, but found the confusing nature of the plot darting between Auxilio's memories and reveries difficult. The opening lines promise much - a horror story of murder, detection and horror, but immediately takes that away as the teller says it won't seem like that told by her. Interspersed among the ramblings which become increasingly surreal prophecies are some more conventional scenes of life with the literati, and their experiences with both the underbelly of Mexican society and regimes in charge in Latin America; these episodes briefly brought the novel to life.
As for reading more of Bolano, I may well try The Savage Detectives, but find the prospect of 2666 about 600 pages too much for me.
Bolano blurs the distinction within the narrative between fact and fiction to a dizzying extent and asks some telling questions about how we experience the world (see also Monsuier Pain).
The language is very strong and kept me gripping until the very last page. A lot of poets and authors who are mentioned in this book I do know by name or I've read something from them.
Like the longer work from which it derives, 'Amulet' is set in the world of Mexico City's poetry scene. It slips between description of a number of events and a series of hallucinations. The atmosphere Bolaño creates is unnerving.
Bolaño writes fairly convincingly from a female perspective, a notoriously difficult trick for a male writer to pull off. I guess it helps that his narrator is an oddball, not a 'conventional' woman. The dream-like repetitions move the narrative along in a fevered state of tension, reflecting the unease that habitually accompanies this writer's work. And it's a pleasure to make fleeting re-acquaintance with a few of the characters from 'The Savage Detectives'. And Bolaño knew what he was doing, of course. The opening and last lines are both memorable ones.
Unless it was self-deprecating high irony, the least likeable aspect of this book was the narrator's account of Arturo Belano, the fictionalised version of our novelist who first appears in 'The Savage Detectives'. Auxilio/Bolaño paints a picture of a romantic and heroic figure, returning from his defence of Allende against Pinochet to take on the lords of Mexico City's underworld. Hmm... According to some accounts, Bolaño never even returned to Chile at that troubled time (bringing to mind the controversy over Laurie Lee and the Spanish Civil War, another prose writer who saw himself as primarily a poet). There's nothing wrong with self-mythologising but a little due modesty doesn't go amiss.
There's little of the deft touches that grace 2666 (I think that's particularly apparent in a scene where Auxillo talks to herself about being mad - 2666 features a similar scene with Amalfitano written with much more skill). Our main character is conundrum too - how much are we supposed to believe of what she says? Are we to be annoyed by her constant name dropping and self-promotion? Or should we feel pity and consider her quite delusional? Differing voices are given scant, if any, time here.
I believe Bolano has a noble message with his stated aim in this book but I feel this story misses the mark. He simply doesn't punch hard enough or direct his point with enough precision. The free flowing, rambling narration of this novel has an appeal but, for me, it undermines what Bolano wanted to achieve. Not a bad book but one well below his best.