Amulet — Roberto Bolaño

When one takes on the project of reading the novels of Roberto Bolaño — and 2666 is the sort of beast that is likely to hook a reader into such an endeavor — it becomes increasingly impossible to separate and compartmentalize his fictions. Instead, the reader becomes ever more entangled in a labyrinthine Bolañoverse, a chilling, dreadful mirror-maze world that discharges its echoes across continents and epochs. In a fascinating essay at The Quarterly Conversation, Javier Moreno attempts to map out this world. I’d read the essay (and commented on it) a few years ago, but I revisited it after finishing Amulet, mostly because I was pretty sure Moreno had already succinctly stated a key idea that I wanted to bring up in my review. He writes—

Amuleto, which tells the story of an Uruguayan poet that claims herself to be the mother of all Mexican writers, may be seen both as an extra chapter to Los Detectives or as a short introduction to 2666—or both at the same time.

Readers of 2666 and The Savage Detectives will find in Amulet a channel between Bolaño’s “big books,” just as Nazi Literature in the Americas serves as a strange, ironic connective tissue for the violence and chaos of the rest of Bolañoverse. Amulet is narrated by Auxilio Lacouture, and her story appears in a much shorter form in The Savage Detectives. I’ll let her summarize Amulet’s plot (such that it is)—

I am the mother of Mexico’s poets. I am the only one who held out in the university in 1968, when the riot police and the army came in. I stayed there on my own in the Faculty, shut up in the a bathroom, with no food, for more than ten days, for more than fifteen days, from the eighteenth to the thirtieth of September, I think, I’m not sure anymore.

I stayed there with a book by Pedro Garfias and my satchel, wearing a little white blouse and a pleated sky-blue skirt, and I had more than enough times to think things over. But couldn’t think about Arturo Belano , because I hadn’t met him yet.

In these two short paragraphs, late in the book, we get so many of the motifs that populate Bolaño’s world: the self-naming poet, the influence of violence in Latin America, the horrors inherent in resisting this violence, exile, hints of madness. We even get Bolaño’s elusive alter-ego, Arturo Belano, who floats through Amulet and the rest of the Bolañoverse like an unknowable specter.

The fact that Auxilio couldn’t think about Belano when she was stuck in the bathroom in 1968 does not actually stop her from doing so. She is, to borrow a phrase from Vonnegut, a woman unstuck in time. It is as if the entire novel, that is to say her narrative, her telling of her story, is tenuously anchored in the those traumatic days of September, 1968. She tells us, echoing Stephen Dedalus perhaps, that “History is a horror story”; unlike Dedalus, she can’t awake from the nightmare. Here’s a relatively early passage that describes what Auxilio can never really explain—

I don’t know why I remember that afternoon. That afternoon of 1971 or 1972. And the strangest thing is that I remember it prospectively, from 1968. From my watchtower, my bloody subway carriage, from my gigantic rainy day. From the women’s bathroom on the fourth floor of the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature, the timeship from which I can observe the entire life and times of Auxilio Lacouture, such as they are.

The life and times of Auxilio Lacouture, such as they are, will be somewhat familiar to anyone who’s read some of Bolaño’s other novels: plenty of dread, lots of sinister shadows, and many, many drunk poets. The anecdotes and small set pieces that fill Amulet seem culled from Bolaño’s own life (real or imagined), and can be alternately thrilling, dull, or even maddening. For my taste, the novel works itself into its finest moments when Auxilio’s grip on reality — both temporal and spacial — is at its weakest. At one point she tells us—

I don’t know if I’m in 1968 or 1974 or 1980, gliding, finally, like the shadow of a sunken ship, toward the blessed year 2000, which I shall not live to see.

Auxilio’s sanity both unravels and compresses, and Bolaño codes these movements in images of descent and ascension. Auxilio moves through fever dreams and nightmares, memories and prognostications, alternate realities and astral projections. Near the end of the novel, still in the bathroom, starving, probably in shock, she experiences her ordeal as a difficult climb up a frozen mountain. Along the way, she begins casting bizarre literary prophecies. A quick taste—

Virginia Woolf shall be reincarnated as an Argentinian fiction writer in the year 2076. Louis-Ferdinand Celine shall enter Purgatory in the year 2094. Paul Eluard shall appeal to the masses in the year 2101.

These pronouncements continue for a few pages. Underneath the madness, one can sense Bolaño’s goofy joy, but there’s more here than just list-making: Auxilio is pointing toward metempsychosis, suggesting her own soul’s migration, perhaps—here we find a way in which literature might transcend the violence and horror of history. And yet there’s also a sense of doom, of repeated violence and exile. Late in the novel Auxilio finds herself cast in the role of Erigone, daughter Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, forced from home by her half-brother, Orestes. There’s a sense that tragedy capitulates throughout time; that even if Auxilio can survive the army’s occupation, it will nevertheless scar her forever. Cycles of violence are bound to recur indefinitely.

This recurrence evinces in what might be the book’s most famous passage. Auxilio is walking home with some friends—

Then we walked down the Avenida Guerrero; they weren’t stepping so lightly any more, and I wasn’t feeling too enthusiastic either. Guerrero, at that time of night, is 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.

The passage names Bolaño’s opus: there is no mention of “2666” in 2666. The reference rests outside the book; or, perhaps Bolaño demands that we read his books intertextually. In any case, 2666 has its graveyards and its corpses, its own demanding geometry of memory. One gets the sense that this oblique reference to “2666” is really part of Bolaño crafting his own canon, an internal canon of the Bolañoverse, almost as if he were J.R.R. Tolkien or even Philip K. Dick. I think again of Auxilio’s prophecies, of her list of writers who will be reborn or forgotten, where we find Bolaño securing a historical place for the writers he loves and values.

Looking over this review, I realize that it might not be helpful for readers new to Bolaño: mea culpa. Amulet is a very fine novel, but not the right starting point. That would be 2666 or, if that prospect is too daunting, Last Evenings on Earth. To me, Amulet reads like the “Mexico” chapter in a trilogy about violence and exile in Latin America; the other two parts would be Distant Star (which I enjoyed more) and By Night in Chile. But perhaps I’m simply reaching for evidence to support this idea that Bolaño’s books are best read together. I’m sure that one can enjoy them on their own—only, at this point, I’m not sure how to do that.

Amulet, translated by Chris Andrews, is available now from New Directions.