The opening lines of this book are as follows: “This is going to be a horror story. A story of murder, detection and horror. But it won’t appear to be, for the simple reason that I am the teller. Told by me, it won’t seem like that. Although, in fact, it’s the story of a terrible crime.”
So what is this crime? No questions in Bolaño’s books ever come with easy answers, but what first comes to mind is the most obvious scenario, the central scene around which the rest of the story rotates: Auxilio Lacouture, the novel’s narrator and self-proclaimed “mother of Mexican poetry”, is reading a book of poems in her lap while sitting on the toilet of the fourth floor of a Mexico City University, when the army and the riot police invade campus and start seizing students and professors. Auxilio (whose name translates into the Spanish phrase for “help me!”), an illegal immigrant in Mexico without a real job, spends twelve days hiding out in the woman’s bathroom, eating toilet paper, reading poems, watching the moon move across the tiles and remembering scenes from her bohemian past, as well as dream-like hallucinatory visions of the future.
Bolaño’s narrative voice is very strong throughout this novel… it feels a lot more like the rolling and rollicking Bolaño of The Savage Detectives and 2666, as opposed to, say, By Night in Chile or Nazi Literature of the Americas. The latter two are also good books, but read more like Bolaño learning how to write in the style of what we would now consider “Bolaño-esque” , via the lens of Borges and Cortazar. In Amulet, it really feels like he’s hitting his stride, as though he’s like “I know what my themes are, I know what my style is, and I am gonna show it off and make it shine in yer faces, bee-yatches!” It’s quite glorious, really. I would definitely consider Amulet as the first in a trilogy, followed by The Savage Detectives (which has a chapter that basically tells the same story as Amulet) and concluding with 2666, which is eerily referenced here in a section where the main characters are walking down Avenida Guerrero (every city in Mexico has a street with this name): “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.” (86) Who knows what this passage means, in terms of Bolaño’s future works, and the apparently very personal significance of the numbers 2666? The reference to the “eyelid of a corpse” makes me think of all those bodies, listed one after another, in that Juarez-like section of 2666…
I’ve been really fascinated by the poet/artist archetype figure lately. Maybe it comes from having rewatched I’m Not There again recently; still a good movie upon third viewing. This time around I was especially into the Arthur Rimbaud character, who serves as a narrator of sorts throughout the film.
The monologue from this clip is based on passages from this Bob Dylan poem, which has the wonderful title of “Advice for Geraldine on Her Miscellaneous Birthday.”
Anyway, so I’ve been thinking recently about The Poet and Artists As An Archetypal Figure, and lately Rimbaud has been the subject of that interest. When I was in high school I used to jokingly say that while I had crushes on Franz Kafka and Holden Caufield, I would never want to date them, because they would probably make horrible, horrible boyfriends. I don’t know much about Rimbaud, but I have a feeling he would probably fall in the same “do-not-date” category, even without the whole gay thing. Anyway… it’s interesting to me, thinking about Artists and Poets, since my whole New Year’s Resolution this year was to Make More Art. I’ve sort of gotten that off the ground with my weekly Wednesday writing class, which definitely has and will continue to feel like a really big and important step to me. And, of course, Bolaño is always one of *the* authors to read, when thinking about Art and Poetry and Life and Violence and how it all fits together. For instance: Auxilio spends the entirety of the Tlatelolc massacre hiding in the bathroom, reading poetry: was this cowardly of her? Or was it (considering the circumstances) the only thing she COULD do, the only thing that makes sense? Why not spend a massacre, one that will go down in history as one of the most horrifying events to have happened in Mexico, reading poetry? When I was in Nuevo Laredo, I read Henry James and John Steinbeck, and ate spaghetti with meatballs and vegetarian sopes. My sister spends her job reading all day about crime rates and gang activity in Colombia and the Mexican border, and informed me recently that if she knew then what she knows now about what’s currently going on in Nuevo Laredo, she would have been like “OMG ARE YOU CRAZY.” But you know, I was there for three whole months… I’m not saying I should have gone out to actively fight poverty or crime whatever instead of reading The Wings of the Dove, but that’s what’s interesting to me about reading and writing and literature: it can just seem and feel so DISCONNECTED sometimes what’s going on in the world! People getting killed, raped, murdered, the oil spill, etc. But maybe literature is the only effective filter there is that will help us absorb these horrible experiences. Maybe that’s the point Bolaño was trying to get at with that horrifying section in 2666, mechanically naming dead body after dead body, until I would just put the book down in my lap and stare numbly out the Max train window, the Hillsboro scenery rushing by.
That’s why it’s interesting how in Amulet, the writing style is less like a newspaper reporter, and more like a helicopter or a camera lens, endlessly circling and circling around its central subject (the massacre) without directly naming it (the word “Tlatelolc” appears nowhere within these pages). It’s like what Auxilio says about Arturo Belano (the stand-in Bolaño character who also appears in Detectives) after he returns from his arrest and imprisonment in Chile under Pinochet: “What I mean is that everyone was somehow expecting him to open his mouth and give us the latest news from the Horror Zone, but he said nothing, as if what other people had expected had become incomprehensible to him or he simply didn’t give a shit.” (77) I feel like this sentence describes EXACTLY what Bolaño does stylistically in Amulet: he denies us our gratification for “news from the Horror Zone,” and instead delves into a technique that’s a lot more interesting, one that doesn’t refer directly to the horror of which it speaks. It reminds me a lot of Piglia’s approach in Artificial Respiration, which is best summed up by the Wittgenstein quote that is used extensively throughout that novel: “What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence.” Piglia used this sentence in AR as a way to encapsulate the novel’s approach to history, in the sense that there are some things that are just so horrible, so inexplicable and incomprehensible, that words cannot do them justice. Thus in the same way AR avoided making any references to torture victims of Argentina’s military dictatorship being thrown out of airplanes, Amulet makes no reference of university students being massacred, or of Belano’s experience in prison under Pinochet, or any other violence that is so fundamental and key to Latin American history. It’s an interesting technique, to tell a horror story by not talking about the horror…
There’s definitely plenty of references to the role of violence in Latin American history throughout the book. Even Che Guevara has a walk-in part: “And what was Che Guevara like in bed, was the first thing I wanted to know. Lilian said something I couldn’t hear. What? I said. What? What? Normal, said Lilian, staring at the creased surface of her folder… I admit I would have liked to know what Che Guevara was like in bed. So he was normal, OK, but normal how?” (122-123) At another point Auxilio refers to what she calls “another recurring and terribly Latin American nightmare: being unable to find your weapon; you know where you put it, but it’s not there. That’s just our luck.” (67) She’s specifically referring to being unable to find her knife in her purse while walking the Mexico City streets at night (oh how this reminds me of frantically fumbling for my pepper spray on the streets of Nuevo Laredo, every time a too-dark or looming figure crossed over to my side of the street!), but she could be talking about the role of writing in terms to violence in the novel. Can poetry and writing be a weapon against the horrors of our modern age? Or is it just a salve, a way to numb and distract ourselves, a pretty lie? (“Beautiful bourgeois art,” says the Rodolfo Walsh quote in the sidebar of this blog).
I could say a lot more about Amulet, easily: about Auxilio’s hallucinatory, Phillip K. Dick-like visions of the apocalyptic future (Dick’s influence is insanely prominent through Amulet!). I especially love the passages describing what books and authors will be read, and when, and how: “Cesar Vallejo shall be read underground in the year 2045. Jorge Luis Borges shall be read underground in the year 2045… Virginia Woolf shall be reincarnated as an Argentinean fiction writer in the year 2076.” (159) About the crazy section in which Auxilia meets a character called Carlos Coffen Serpas, who spends at least a chapter and a half summarizing the Greek story of Erigone to her. About the surreal final passage, in which Auxilio has a vision of hundreds of children, marching towards an abyss (another must-have image for Bolaño bing0!) , while singing songs: “And although the song that I heard was about war, about the heroic deeds of a whole generation of Latin Americans led to sacrifice, I knew above and beyond all, it was about courage and mirrors, desire and pleasure. And that song is our amulet.” (184) Hmmmmmm.
But instead I’m going to end with two things: 1) a quote about books from Amulet that I really liked, and 2) an excerpt from an exercise written in my Wednesday writing class, written in response to a prompt in which we were asked to envision two characters getting off of a bus together, who have come to give a gift.
Leave those papers alone, woman, dust and literature have always gone together. And I would look at them and think, how right they are, dust and literature, from the beginning… I imagined books sitting quietly on shelves and the dust of the world creeping into libraries, slowly, persistently, unstoppably, and then I came to understand that books are easy prey for dust (I understood this but refused to accept it)… the dust was never going to go away, since it was an integral part of the books, their way of living or of mimicking something like life. (5)
“Poems. I have a ton of poems for you. Pages and pages of them.” The skinny, Arthur Rimbaud-like young man, in his scruffy woolen suit, the sleeves ending far above his wrists (his bones look like small bumpy sparrow heads), his hair like a tousled bird’s nest, pulls out sheets of typed white paper from a white manilla folder tucked into his armpit. It’s hard for him to do so, due to the small blond girl he’s holding in his other arm. “Stop squirming now,” he says into her ear and ends up with a mouthful of blond hair.
I sigh. It is exceedingly hot on this stretch of the highway and I have to hold my hand over my eyes like the visor of a cap.
“Oh man, I just know I had more of them here somewhere. If you could just–” and he pushes the sheets into my hand, where they crumple lightly in a sound reminiscent of Christmas wrapping paper. “Celia, shake your book up and down.” The little blond girl obliges, shaking the pages of her book violently up and down, just aggressively enough to make me wince a little at seeing a book treated that way. I can’t read the title but it’s a small paperback book with yellowing pages and a picture of a brown terrier dog on the cover.
“Nothing,” the girl, Celia, says. I take a second to admire her blue dress and the white apron thing she’s wearing on top. I envy her rocking Alice in Wonderland look.
“Damn–I mean, darn.” He pulls his black sunglasses down the bridge of his nose and stands there blinking in the bright sunlight. They both stand there without saying anything, looking expectantly at me.
“Okay–gee, you guys–thanks–” I slowly shuffle through the papers. The paper is very thin-feeling, like the kind of paper a receipt is printed on, and the font is just small enough to make it hard for me to read.
“They’re all for you!” the little girl shouts, and the poet, Arthur, flashes me and embarrassed grin full of crooked teeth with rounded edges.
“Well, sort of. There’s one in there that I really like. It’s called ‘Advice for Margarine on her 23rd Birthday. It’s written list-style, like, and it’s got a whole bunch of surreal images and crazy language in it.” He pauses. “I’m really quite proud of it, actually,” he says, sounding almost surprised. His tone catches me off guard, and makes me wonder when was the last time I said the same thing in the same tone about myself.
“Thanks,” I say again, feeling a little dumb for not being able to think of anything wittier to say. Neither of them say anything for a moment and instead they both just stand there smiling at me. The little girl swings her leg lazily back and forth like a tire swing hanging from a tree branch, Arthur the poet holding her casually with one arm at his hip, and her black buckle shoes accidentally kick into his hip bone.
“Ouch,” he says. “Careful there, girl.”
I start folding the pages, getting ready to put them away somewhere, even if it’s just to stuff them into my sports bra. Too bad I’m wearing a sundress and don’t have any pockets. There won’t be another bus here for hours and hours, probably. It’s just the three of us, standing by the grey concrete highway, desert scrubland all around us, like someone plucked us up and plopped us into the middle of a dramatic photograph of American desert scenery.
“I actually think that might be a line in the poem,” he says, looking up at the sky. “Careful there girl!”
“Good advice,” I say, finally able to think of something. I turn my body slightly more in the direction of the little girl: “Can I see your book?”
Without a word she hands it over to me; I let out a cry of surprise when I read the author’s name. “Oh wow! This guy is one of my favorites! I read him all the time when I was a kid.” I flip through the yellowing pages. It even reminds me of the same copy I myself used to own, with the red splotches from spaghetti sauce (eating at the dinner table was perhaps not the best habit for my siblings and I), pieces of dried food clinging to the pages like petrified insect eggs and holes through which termites had eaten their way through the paper. When I flipped the pages I could see an animated movie of their journey, burrowing through.
“Maybe it is your copy,” the little girl says, and I don’t respond, don’t want to tell her the other reason why this book might represent so much to me: at the age of 7, I wrote the writer a letter, postmarked from Colombia to England, in which I drew a picture of one of his main characters (a Tawny Owl) and wrote “When I grow up I want to be an Arthur like you.” Author, A-R-T-H-U-R.
The writer at age 23