Tuesday, February 2, 2010
Roberto Bolano: Amulet (1999)
“I climbed up to the only window in the bathroom and peered out. I saw a lone soldier far off in the distance. I saw the silhouette or the shadow of a tank, although on reflection I suspected that it might have been the shadow of a tree. . . . I saw the wind sweeping through the university as if to savor the last of the daylight. And I knew what I had to do. I knew. I knew that I had to resist. So I sat down on the tiles of the women’s bathroom and, before the last rays of sunlight faded, read three more of Pedro Garfias’s poems, then shut the book and shut my eyes and said: Auxilio Lacouture, citizen of Uruguay, Latin American, poet and traveler, resist.” Roberto Bolano’s Amulet is haunted by the violent repression of student and political movements in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. The novel takes place in Mexico City and focuses on Auxilio Lacouture, “the mother of Mexican poetry,” who actually is from Uruguay and also appeared in Bolano’s The Savage Detectives. Auxilio spends most of her nights in the impoverished bohemia of Mexico City among the young poets, “whose sole possession was a utopia of words, and fairly miserable words at that.” In her spare time, she freely cleans the homes of the writers Pedro Garfias and Leo Felipe, willfully rejecting the strong evidence that “dust and literature have always gone together.” During the day, she hangs out at the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, occasionally getting work from sympathetic secretaries and professors. Auxilo inadvertently becomes the only person to resist the police occupation and clearing of the autonomous university in September of 1968 when she gets caught up reading poetry in the bathroom. Auxilio claims, “thanks to the poems of Pedro Garfias and my inveterate habit of reading in the bathroom, I was the last to realize that the riot police were on campus and that the army had occupied the university.” She hides in the bathroom for nearly two weeks, reading and dreaming in order to “resist” (one might say to remain autonomous from) what is happening outside. Locked inside the bathroom, Auxilio slips free from linear time; the bathroom becomes “the timeship from which I can observe the entire life and times of Auxilio Lacouture, such as they are.” It is “as if I was thinking about my present, future, and past, all mixed together.” The body of the novel is therefore devoted to Auxilio’s stories about different parts of her life. Playing with time allows Bolano to loosely thread together a series of distinct tales into a novel, but it also makes possible a complex account of how political or historical sequences unfold, collapse, and perhaps reemerge in a new modality, location, and time. For example, while sleeping on the bathroom floor, Auxilio is aware that a few weeks later there will occur the massacre at Tlatelolco, where reportedly hundreds of protestors were murdered by the Mexican state. That traumatic event clearly overshadows the occupation of the university, though it remains always ahead or behind of Auxilio’s narration. The novel also links the events of 1968 to the 1973 military coup in Chile, where Bolano was born. Auxilio claims, “And the dream of September 1968 reappeared in that of September of 1973.” Bolano reportedly had Trotskyite affiliations during the 1970s and returned to Chile in 1973 as a spy to help overthrow Pinochet’s regime. He was caught but avoided severe punishment because an old classmate who was part of the new regime recognized him and arranged for him to be freed. As in The Savage Detectives, Bolano makes something of an appearance as the character Arturo Belano (in a strongly metafictional moment, when Auxilio meets Belano’s mother the latter looks at the former as if she “had just stepped out of her son’s notebooks.”). Like Bolano, Belano “decided to go back to his country and take part in the revolution.” When he returns in 1974 after being briefly imprisoned, he seems a different person. He gives up his older friends and starts to hang out with the youngest poets of Mexico. Again linking 1968 and 1973, Auxilio views these young poets “as if they weren’t creatures of flesh and blood but a generation sprung from the open wound of Tlatelolco, like ants or cicads or pus, although they couldn’t have been there or taken part in the demonstrations of ’68; these were kids who, in September ’68, when I was shut up in the bathroom, were still in junior high school.” Birthed from the traumas of history, these young poets speak a different language than the older poets: “No one could understand those voices, which were saying: We’re not from this part of Mexico City, we come from the subway, the underworld, the sewers.” But as the novel progresses, Auxilio’s visions of time become increasingly wild (at one point she seems to give birth to, or at least witnesses the birth of, History) and the meanings of the dates she mentions become opaque and inscrutable. In one clever chapter, she begins to “see what the future holds for the books of the twentieth century.” She lists the dates at which different authors, including Mayakovsky, Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, Pasolini, and Pizarnik, will be once again widely read or disappear into oblivion. But in this imaginary history of reading, History itself becomes illegible, a labyrinth of numbers. The novel concludes with Auxilio having a vision of a “legion of young people” singing and marching across a valley toward an abyss and their deaths. Auxilio is unable to do anything to prevent their destruction, but their song survives, in loving defiance of the loss of everything to dust.