Amulet [1999/2006] – ★★★★★
“…those who can see into the past never pay. But I could also see into the future and vision of that kind comes at a high price: life, sometimes, or sanity” [Roberto Bolaño, 1999/2006: 64].
Last year I had a goal to read a certain number of books by Asian authors (see my YARC), and so, this year, I set myself a similar goal, but, this time, I will travel to another part of the world and try to read as many books as possible by Latin American authors. I will begin my Latin America Reading Challenge with a short book by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño (1952 – 2003) titled Amulet. In this vivid “stream of consciousness” account, our narrator is Auxilio Lacouture, a woman from Uruguay and the “mother of Mexican poetry”. She works part-time at one university in Mexico City and at one point realises that her university (National Autonomous University of Mexico) is being surrounded by an army (event that happened two months before the infamous Tlatelolco massacre of 1968). Auxilio finds herself alone and hiding in the lavatory of the university as the army rounds up the staff and students. At that point she starts to recall her own past, talking to us about her dedication to nurturing the artistic talent of others. As time passes and her hunger and exhaustion increase, her account becomes increasingly hectic and imaginative. Amulet is an unusual novella with one unusual narrator at its heart, which is also strangely compelling as it tries to tell us the truth of the situation in the country and the state of Latin America’s literary talent and tradition through an unconventional and slightly dreamlike voice.
One of the great things about Amulet is the voice of Auxilio Lacouture – it is fascinating to follow her train of thoughts because she seems interesting in all her eccentricities and instances of quiet rebellion. Auxilio is a poetess who is passionate about poetry, and her belief in young up-and-coming poets and writers is unwavering. Even though she is clear about the great talent and admiration of her idols, she is unsure about herself, her purpose and her roots, trying to re-imagine herself. “One day I arrived in Mexico without really knowing why or how or when” [1999/2006: 2], says the narrator. Auxilio did not achieve much of what society calls “success”, i.e. a stable job and starting her own family, and, instead, seems to wholeheartedly dedicate herself to poetry. In this way, she is an outsider to traditional Mexico and prefers to lead a bohemian lifestyle surrounded by her friends who are also poets or writers. So, when in Mexico, she starts to clean the house of two Spanish poets – Pedro Garfias and León Felipe, while maintaining her connection to one university at whatever cost to be close to literature and intellectuals.
When Auxilio hides in the lavatories of her university, fearing that soldiers will come and discover her there, there comes that moment in her life when she feels the most alive and aware of life’s fleetness. Her inner reflections on her friends, literature and on the life on streets take the turn of compulsion and necessity. She needs to gather her thoughts and tell us all about it, and she starts to tell the truth through her poetically-charged prose and original worldview. She is from Uruguay and does not fit into the traditional concept of a Mexican woman, and yet she is a woman who finds herself in Mexico, “nurturing” the country’s literary talent. She is both a foreigner and at the very core of Mexican’s formation of its future talented generation – “the mother of Mexican poetry”. At this point, contradictions emerge – she is in time and beyond it. She is in a place where history is made (the siege of the Mexican university) and yet she is beyond this event (does not directly participate in it since she did not surrender to the forces (hiding in the lavatory)). She is an observer, commentator and participator all in one, and her account is both enigmatic and clear at the same time as she then tells of a broken heart of her friend philosopher Elena, of literary aspirations of her friend poet Arturo Belano caught in the war that should not have existed and of her part in the operation to rescue a boy from sexual slavery in the Mexican underworld.
“Life is full of enigmas, minimal events that, at the slightest touch or glance, set off chains of consequences, which, viewed through the prism of time, invariably inspire astonishment or fear”
[Bolaño, 1999/2006: 23].
Through Auxilio’s poetically-charged account, we discern the true nature (and sometimes horror) of events happening in Mexico City. Her friend Elena becomes the symbol of Mexico’s “broken heart”/hopelessness and the life of her friend Arturo Belano symbolises Mexico’s lost opportunities in the world and its dismissiveness by everyone on the world stage. It is as though the narrator wants to tell us the truth through certain objects, characters and events, and the result is the account which is erratic, yes, but always compelling as local power struggles in the story tell of power struggles on the whole continent and the conditions of one poet in Mexico City tells about the state of poetry and literature in the whole of Latin America. Catalan painter Remedios Varo and Salvadoran poetess Lilian Serpas are also characters in the narrative which becomes increasingly whimsical and fantastical as Auxilio’s mind starts to play tricks on her under the strain of hunger, hopelessness and exhaustion she feels hiding in the lavatory. Mentioning writers Roberto Arlt, Anton Chekhov and Carson McCullers, as well as the famous plane crash in the Andes, Auxilio makes predictions, and muses on all the lives she did not live and on all the people she admires but will never become. There are a couple of thrilling moments of suspense in the story as we, the readers, start to question whether, far from regarding Auxilio as some madwoman, we should not be thinking about her as a person who sees into everything more deeply and is more keenly aware of the true nature of the situation than anyone else around.
Amulet will not be for everyone. It is a rather eccentric short book which is torn between clarity and incomprehensiveness, wisdom and irrationality, direct insights and almost irrelevant observations. However, at its heart, there is still one distinctive and compelling voice that tries to convey one horrific chapter in the Mexican history, the state of the society, as well as pay tribute to Latin America’s literary ambition and tradition in the only way it thinks it can.