by Roberto Bolaño
Picador, Harcover, pp192, ISBN 0330510487
Lamees Al Mubarak
The Chilean writer, Roberto Bolaño, has been creeping up the lists of ‘most popular foreign language writer’ for several years now and Picador’s Amulet, his fifth novel to be translated and published in English, confirms Bolaño’s rise. He is best known in the English speaking world for Savage Detectives and the posthumously published 2666 for which he received the 2008 National Book Critics’ Circle Award for Fiction as well as critical acclaim in the US. Bolaño has also been immortalised as a character in Javier Cercas’ bestselling metafictional novel Soldiers of Salamis where he appears as a free spirited Chilean writer living in Spain and fulfilling the role of sage literary advisor to the awkward protagonist. This cameo couldn’t be more appropriate for a writer whose own work balances so precariously between cold, hard political chronicles and indulgently fanciful literary musings.
Set in an era of international student protests, Amulet is about writers, artists and all their hangers-on obsessing about, while simultaneously snubbing, the realities of living in Mexico City in 1968 as their world floats towards political implosion. The events of the novel, although chronologically scattered, do not include the Tlatelolco massacre of hundreds of students, which took place just ten days before the 1968 Mexican Olympic Games. Nevertheless this Mexican tragedy lingers throughout the melancholy subconscious of Bolaño’s plot and must preoccupy any reader who is aware of the Latin American historical context; you really don’t have to be an ardent Hispanist to appreciate this novel, but it helps if you give twentieth century Mexican events a slice of your mind.
Bolaño’s protagonist is the self-proclaimed ‘mother of Mexican poetry’ Auxilio Lacouture; a sporadically homeless illegal immigrant from Uruguay whose presence ‘in the women’s bathroom on the fourth floor of the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature’ haunts and defines her. She spends thirteen days trapped in a toilet cubicle while the university is occupied by soldiers and sustains herself by recounting and predicting hallucinatory memories and prophecies of a life spent basking in the sad creativity of poets.
Initially, Auxilio recalls being drawn to Mexico by an urge to mix with the exiled Spanish poets León Felipe and Pedro Garfías and describes how this developed into a more generic preoccupation with failing poets, cynical journalists and staid academics. Eventually, the gap-toothed Auxilio finds that she is an immovable fixture in the bars and seedy hangouts of younger and younger poets, ever on the cusp of greatness. A woman amongst men, a Uruguayian amongst Mexicans, an omnipotent anomaly.
Bolaño creates in Auxilio a pretty unreliable narrator to say the least, but he endears her to the reader by way of her vulnerability, her disarming observational style and her fascinating foul-weather friends. One of her friends, Chilean poet Arturo Belano, is also a character in Bolaño’s Savage Detectives (where Auxilio herself appears briefly) and is widely thought to be Bolaño’s alter-ego. Auxilio also describes enchanting and unlikely encounters with the Spanish painter Remedios Varo. Through her promiscuous friend Lilian Sepas, we even learn what Ché Guevara was like in bed (‘Normal’). Or do we? It becomes increasingly unclear as the novel progresses whether this series of literary mirages is anything more than a somnambulant amble through Latin American political and cultural ‘what ifs’. And that very ambiguity is Amulet’s charm.
By the time Auxilio sighs ‘My nights with the poets of Mexico City left me exhausted, empty, or on the verge of tears’, the reader can empathise, having been dragged there with her by Bolaño’s all consuming narrative of doomed bohemians, dancing towards disaster. But it’s a beautiful journey and (once you’ve recovered) one you will want to make again.