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.

“A Strange Kind of Vibration” — Chris Andrews on Translating Roberto Bolaño

The Australian is running a new article about one of Roberto Bolaño’s English translators, Chris Andrews. Reporter Bernard Lane reveals that

Andrews had been badgering publishers for translation work. In 2001 he badgered the right publisher, Christopher MacLehose of Harvill Press in London, at the right time. MacLehose had just bought the first English rights to Bolano and his translator had fallen by the wayside. Andrews knew and admired Bolano’s [sic] writing, thanks to his acquisition of Spanish at the universities of Melbourne and La Trobe. He got the job and out came By Night in Chile.

Andrews on Bolaño–

“I think of him as a pan-American author, as an author of the western hemisphere,” says Andrews. Bolano’s reception in Britain had been slow at first, not that his prose was a problem.

“There are a lot of important features of Bolano’s style that can be transferred from one language to another,” Andrews says, “The big syntactic patterns, the patterns of repetition, the long sentences, the bursts, the parenthetical remarks; that comes across.”

The article centers around Andrews’s translation of Nazi Literature in the Americas. We absolutely love the Picador edition’s cover for the UK, Australia, and similar markets. It captures the book’s apocryphal tone, its violence–and also its sharp sense of humor. On that book specifically (and Bolaño’s work in general)–

In a sea of allusion, English readers may feel adrift. “I don’t think it matters very much,” says Andrews. “It’s probably going to be read by people who have already got an interest in Bolano.

“One of the nice things about those bits of Bolano that are full of references and allusions is that it is hard to draw the line between the historical characters and the fictional ones.

“In different literary cultures, there are different norms about what you need to explain. In the French translation of Bolano, there are footnotes.”

Wouldn’t readers halfway familiar with Bolano suspect they were dealing with yet another level of artifice? “I think they would,” Andrews says, “even if it said ‘translator’s note’.”

The article details what techniques Andrews employs when stuck, particularly with regional dialects and slang. Andrews also talks about his correspondence with Bolaño himself,  in the last few years of the Chilean’s life. Here’s Andrews describing his attraction to Bolaño:

The prose has a mesmerising quality that intrigues Andrews.

“There’s a character in one of the stories I’ve just been translating who’s an actor called El Pajarito [Little Bird] Gomez. He’s a skinny, unimpressive-looking guy, but as soon as he appears on camera he vibrates in a weird way that almost hypnotises the viewer.

“When I read that, I thought, that’s a bit like what happens with Bolano’s prose for many readers, that it has a strange kind of vibration.”

Nazi Literature in the Americas — Roberto Bolaño

I was talking with a friend last weekend about Roberto Bolaño and he remarked that many of the early slim novels from this remarkable writer tend to read like sketches for his masterwork 2666. This is a more than fair assessment and also one that shouldn’t–and doesn’t–detract from enjoying these books. But it’s difficult to read the nightmare-rant of By Night in Chile or the paranoiac dread invested in the tales in Last Evenings on Earth without recalling the layered themes of violence and art that underpin 2666. Bolaño’s fake-encyclopedia, Nazi Literature in the Americas is perhaps, by its very nature, the sketchiest of these sketches, yet that term, “sketch” — well it’s just plain wrong here. While most of the book’s entries are marked by brevity, none are undercooked. Rather–and I hate that I’m about to crib from critic Francisco Goldman’s blurb on the back of the book, but he’s spot on–the book is a “key cosmology to Bolaño’s literary universe.” In short, Nazi Literature in the Americas helps to confirm that, like J.R.R. Tolkien, Bolaño was a writer with a fully-realized universe at his disposal, one with its own heroes and villains, histories and myths, and yes, like Tolkien, its own literature.

Nazi Literature in the Americas is a stunning, ugly, highly-enjoyable, and often hilarious book. It details the exploits, both literary and non-, of over two dozen fictional writers from North, Central, and South America. While few of the writers are actually practicing Nazis, all are right-wingers and most are crazy failures. Big surprise that Bolaño would write about crazy, failed writers, right? And that is the central paradox of the book: while the writers here are anti-Semites and fascists and neo-Nazis who represent the worst in human values and ethics, they also darkly mirror Bolaño himself, or at least his fictional stand-ins. For example, the (anti-)heroes Ignacio Zubieta and Jesús Fernández-Gómez are Colombian writers who side first with the fascists and then the Nazis, yet they come across as doubles for the Mexican lefty poets Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, the (anti-)heroes of The Savage Detectives. The pair pops up a few times in the course of the book as well, most notably in the section on Daniela de Montecriesto, who was a minor character in 2666.

She’s not the only character to traverse Bolaño books. The final chapter of Nazi Literature, its longest, tells the story of Ramírez Hoffman, the aviator-poet-serial killer whose story is extended in the novella Distant Star. Hoffman’s entry, besides being the longest, is also the only written in the first-person. The narrator is even identified as “Bolaño.”

At times the reader will find himself sympathizing with Bolaño’s monsters. The sci-fi writer Gustavo Border says: “I have been tormented, spat on, and deceived so often–the only way I could go on living and writing was to find spiritual refuge in an ideal place.” Bolaño immediately cuts the pathos with humor; Border ends his sad comment: “In a way, I’m like a woman trapped in a man’s body.” Elsewhere, what’s most shocking is not how much sympathy Bolaño evokes, but how interesting the literature he describes sounds. Take Segundo José Heredia’s Saturnalia, for instance:

Saturnalia, the story of two young friends who in the course of a week-long journey through France are confronted with the most horrendous acts they have ever witnessed, without being able to tell for sure whether or not they are dreaming. The novel includes scenes of rape, sexual and workplace sadism, incest, impaling, and human sacrifice in prisons crowded to the physical limit; there are convoluted murder plots in the tradition of Conan Doyle, colorful and realistic descriptions of every Paris neighborhood, and, incidentally, one of the most vivid and spine-chilling female characters in Venezuelan literature since 1950: Elisenda, the enemy of the two young men.

It sounds horrific but I’d love to read it. It also sounds like a Bolaño novel, with its nightmare violence, prisons, and detective plots.

In one telling aside, one of Bolaño’s writers realizes that “literature . . . is a surreptitious form of violence.” Bolaño’s oeuvre seems to work from this thesis, or perhaps work to enact this thesis. If the writers of of Nazi Literature are villains, they are also sympathetic in their villainy, not for their racist viewpoints, which are subtly but repeatedly mocked and condemned, but rather for the fact that as writers and artists they have no hope; like Oedipus they are fated to violence. Like Bolaño himself, they both channel and engender violence. Their failure, of course, is to seek to regulate or otherwise give meaning to that violence via ideology and dogma. Tellingly, Bolaño investigates–and perhaps corrects–this failure in his opus 2666 which resists easy answers and scapegoats.

And so to return to our point of entry: Nazi Literature in the Americas will probably be enjoyed most by those who’ve trucked through 2666 or some of Bolaño’s other works. It’s a quick, propulsive read, and while quite funny–and at times scary–it’s most fascinating as a document that further fleshes out the Bolañoverse. Highly recommended.

“The Philosophy of Furniture” — Edgar Allan Poe

“There is reason, it is said, in the roasting of eggs, and there is philosophy even in furniture — a philosophy nevertheless which seems to be more imperfectly understood by Americans than by any civilized nation upon the face of the earth.”

I started Roberto Bolaño’s faux-encyclopedia, Nazi Literature in the Americas last night. In the first section, Edelmira Thompson de Mendiluce creates a room based on Edgar Allan Poe’s essay “The Philosophy of Furniture.” I’d never read or even heard of that essay up until now, and, given Bolaño’s penchant for invention, I wondered for a moment if it even really existed. Edelmira recreates the room according Poe’s specifications and then writes Poe’s Room, her defining novel, in its rich confines. The essay exists outside of Bolaño, of course, as does the room–it’s part of the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site.