Amulet – Roberto Bolaño scatters the personalities of Mexican poetry.

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.

I am a friend to all Mexicans.  I could say I am the mother of Mexican poetry, but I better not. I know all the poets and all the poetws know me. So I could say it. I could say one mother of a zephyr is blowing down the centuries, but I better not. For example, I could say I knew Arturito Belano when he was a shy seventeen year old who wrote plays and poems and couldn’t hold his liquor, but in a sense it would be superfluous and I was taught (they taught me with a lash and a rod of iron) to spurn all superfliuties and tell a straightforward story.

And from that opening onward, Auxilio Lacouture beings a tale that is anything but straightforward.

In one of his stories, “Dentist”, Bolaño appears to set out his basic aesthetic principles. The narrator pays a visit to an old friend, a dentist. The friend introduces him to a poor Indian boy who turns out to be a literary genius. At one point during a long evening of inebriated conversation, the dentist expressed what he believes to be the essence of art:

“That’s what art is, he said, the story of a life in all its particularity. It’s the only thing that really is particular and personal. It’s the expression and, at the same time, the fabric of the particular. And what do you mean by the fabric of the particular? I asked, supposing he would answer: Art. I was also thinking, indulgently, that we were pretty drunk already and that it was time to go home. But my friend said: What I mean is the secret story…. The secret story is the one we’ll never know, although we’re living it from day to day, thinking we’re alive, thinking we’ve got it all under control and the stuff we overlook doesn’t matter. But every damn thing matters! It’s just that we don’t realize. We tell ourselves that art runs on one track and life, our lives, on another, we don’t even realize that’s a lie.”

Amulet is the first of Roberto Bolaño’s works that I have read. I have the enormous 2666 sitting on my shelf in anticipation, and I have The Savage Detectives on e-book ready and waiting. Both of these books are long long long.  Amulet is a tiny little book – especially so in comparison with these more famous of Bolaño’s books and with the huge body of work he produced before he died (horribly early) at age 50.

Of course Roberto Bolaño is a Chilean writer and poet, so I am forced into a translation, although I have read (and it seems to me) that the Chris Andrews translated version I have is a good one. Amulet is a stream of consciousness book, that appears to be beautiful  – strikingly beautiful – and I assume from the pleasures in my reading we have an excellent translation here.

Despite the size of Amulet, 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 life force.

… I felt as though i was being wheeled into an operating room. I thought: I am in the women’s bathroom in the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature and I am the last person left. I was heading for the operating room. I was heading for the irth of History. And since I am not a complete idiot, I also thought: It’s over now, the riot police have left the university, the students have died at Tlateloco, the university has opened again, but I am still shut up in the fourth-floor bathroom, as if after all my scratching at the moonlit tiles a door had opened, but not the portal of sadness in the continuum of time. They have all gone except me. They have all come back, except me. 

The novel has a simple premise, but its written in a warm style – this woman is an enormously engaging character. Amulet is a careful internal study.  We sense that Auxilo is looked down on a little by the poets of Mexico, but Roberto Bolaño keeps such an interesting distance in the narrative that we virtually can’t have the experience of any other characters. 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 is not beautiful, she is not young. 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 us about the poets and writers in Mexico that she spends her time with. Despite the stream of consciousness style, she is still well tuned to the violence erupting in Mexico at this time.  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.

Important themes in all the works by Bolaño are “the myth of poetry”, the interrelationship of poetry and crime”, the voilent life in modern Latin American and the essential human business of youth, love and death. In concentrating on the lives of poets through Auxilio we have a strong symbiotic relationship between violence and poetry.

A week later Lopez Azcarate hanged himself from a tree and the news ran trough the university like a terrified fleet-footed animal. And when I heard the news it left me shrunken and shivering, but also amazed, because although it was bad news, without a doubt, the worst, it was also, in a way, exhilarating, as if reality were whispering in your ear: I can still do great things; I can still take you by surprise, you silly girl, you and everyone else; I can still move heaven and earth for love. 

Of course the ultimate act of violence is what the students will endure at Tlatelolco, but there is also the violence of poverty, homelessness and lovelessness that must be endured by the poets Auxilio observes. This is an insightful look at the poet as he struggles to find himself and the world waits with tethered for the brilliant words that will free us from ourselves. One of the characters in Amulet is the Chilean poet Arturo Belano, another of Bolaño’s many alter egos, and Auxilio says of him that “everyone was somehow expecting him to open his mouth and give us the latest news from the Horror Zone, but he said nothing, as if what other people expected had become incomprehensible to him or he simply didn’t give a shit.”

We are reminded constantly that this is another world – one in which the westernized reader is devastaingly unfamiliar. John Banville says it best in his excellent review for the Guardian: “Reading Auxilio’s half-adoring, half-contemptuous recollections of the likes of León Felipe, Pedro Garfías, Bonifaz Nuño, López Azcárate – all real poets of the Latin American pantheon – we have a sense of floundering in a world with which Bolaño is thoroughly and irreverently familiar but which to us is irremediably foreign. It is rather like being present at a raucous dinner party where one is desperately conscious of missing the point of all the stories and of not getting any of the jokes. “

I loved reading Amulet, and am looking forward to more of this great writers work. I will add in my end comments, that I read a lot of Clarice Lispector and I saw her influence here.  I looked it up and Bolano never credits her.  Either its a given that all South American writers are influenced by her, or I’m tapping into something Latin American that my untrained eye thinks is a link between the only two (outside of Marquez of course) Latin American writers I’ve really suck my teeth into.

Who knows.

But what kind of love could they have known, I wondered when they were gone from the valley, leaving only their song resonating in my ears. The love of their parents, the love of their dogs and cats, the love of their toys, but above all the love, the desire and pleasures they shared with one another.

And although the song that I heard was about war, about he heroic deeds of a whole generation if young Latin Americans led to sacrifice, I knew that above and beyond all, it was about courage and mirrors and desire and pleasure. 

And that song is our amulet.