Amulet

amulet

I’ve already written in my review of Distant Star about some of the reoccuring aspects of Bolano’s writing – the autobiographical characters, the almost obsessive focus on poetry and poets, and the background of Latin American violence – all of which are to be found in this equally short novel, Amulet. This time the setting is Mexico, and Bolano has chosen as a locus the suppression of student protests in 1968. This is literally the centre of the novel, the conceit of which is that the narrator, Auxilio Lacouture, becomes trapped in the toilets of the university during its occupation by the army and is therefore the only individual not to be removed from the campus. From this point, she views memories from both her past and future. Clearly this moment of captivity – where she is trapped or hiding rather than imprisoned – is important. As with Distant Star, much of the violence is kept in the background:

“I was at the university on the eighteenth of September when the army occupied the campus and went around arresting and killing indiscriminately. No. Not many people were killed at the university. That was in Tlatlelolco.”

In Tlatlelolco possibly hundreds of students were killed at a protest rally – the exact death toll has never been established. This is perhaps the “horror story” which Auxilio refers to while at the same time saying, “Told by me, it won’t seem like that.”

Though the novel is largely about the writers and artists in Mexico at that time, the vantage point from which the story is told creates a context that is emblematic of the oppression which has been frequently experienced in Latin America. Auxilio refers to it as:

“From my watchtower, my bloody subway carriage, from my gigantic rainy day.”

This collection of metaphors is a good example of the way Bolano resists schematic symbolism and instead achieves something more impressionistic. The turmoil in the continent is again apparent when Arturo Belano, another of those characters who seem to represent a facet of Bolano, decides in 1973 to return to Chile to take part in the revolution. When Arturo returns to Mexico he is a changed man, no longer “a shy seventeen-year-old who wrote poems and plays and couldn’t hold his liquor.” On behalf of a friend he confronts a local gangster, rescuing a young man in the process.

However, for the most part the heroism of the novel is the heroism of writers, continuing to write in the face of not only oppression, but poverty and obscurity. Auxilio calls herself more than once the “mother of Mexican poetry”, a reference both to her maternal relationship with the younger generation of writers and also a hint at the link between that poetry and the oppression she has witnessed. This link is not an obvious one – these poets do not write protest poems – it is the opposition of violence with aesthetics. We have a glimpse of this when Auxilio’s vision of the future is a list of dates relating to when writers will be read, forgotten or reincarnated. Even art is not the answer, however. Belano leaves Mexico for Europe and instead we are left with the artist Coffeen Serpas, a recluse, who draws “thin and sickly-looking” figures which his mother hawks around the bars.

The impressionistic nature of the novel makes it possible that Auxilio does not, in fact, survive her ordeal at the university, and that the novel is the hallucinatory vision resulting from her hunger. This would explain the constant returning to “the reflection of the waning moon on the tiles of the fourth-floor woman’s bathroom”, and the feeling she has of “being wheeled into an operating room” at one point. Her tiredness towards the end of the novel (“Not long afterwards I started sleeping a lot”) may well reflect approaching death. The novel certainly ends with a vision, one she has referred to earlier, “ an enormous uninhabited valley”, which she remember having dreamed about when trapped in the bathroom. Looking more closely she sees a shadow advancing from the other end of the valley,

“an interminable legion of young people on the march to somewhere…I don’t know if they were creatures of flesh and blood or ghosts.”

They are “walking unstoppably toward the abyss”, singing. They are simultaneously the massacred students of Tlatlelolco, the young poets she has mothered, and the “prettiest children of Latin America.” A novel, which at times has seemed to meander, has come to a powerful and moving conclusion.

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