Tag Archives: Bob Dyaln

Amulet

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.

(I) Quote

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)

(II) Exercise

“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

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Filed under apocalypse, Bolaño, books, fiction, Mexico, Rio Plata, writing

Chronicles, Volume 1

Reading this autobioography by Bob Dylan was pretty fun. I especially liked his descriptions of living in New York as a young, struggling artist: the dirty apartments, the weird eclectic roommates, the greasy food and the freezing cold weather. There’s a
dizzying list of names and friends and influences and favorite songs and books and politicians and people in this book. It makes me feel the same way I did when I first listened to “Desolation Row“: like, whoa… that’s a lot of names! Or as he sings in the song: All these people that you mention, yes I know them, they’re quite lame. I had to rearrange their faces and give them all another name (that used to be my signature quote in my yahoo e-mail back in sixth-grade… ah, youth!). I imagine if you made an effort to look up all the musician names that appear in this book on youtube or wikipedia, by the end of it you’d be a Folk Music Expert.

So needless to say, there’s a lot of good stuff here for the really hardcore Dylan fans that are in the mood to be archaeologists. Just to make things clear, that is not me. I do like Dylan’s music a lot–I listened to him a lot in high school, went through a period of not listening to him at all but have recently gotten really into him again, mostly because of recently seeing the film I’m Not There. I might actually now know more about Dylan and have more of his music than my dad ever did (who introduced me), which is a little disarming.

So in the end I only looked up two Dylan-endorsed artists, Kurt Weil’s “Pirate Jenny” and assorted songs by Robert Johnson (the guy who supposedly sold his devil at the crossroads). They’re both pretty good. According to Bob, they’re what inspired him to start writing his own songs instead of just playing folk covers. Anyway, it’s a pretty neat technique for an autobiography, listing your influences and your interests. What are we if not compilations of the art we seek and crave? (That sounds a little pretentious and perhaps doesn’t quite capture what I mean… I guess sometimes I feel like we are all just crazy kaleidoscopes or collages, cut-and-pasted together like the kids I used to work with would make.)

It was also interesting to read this book for the historical period it captures, that of my parent’s generation. God, it feels so wrong to call it “the historical period,” but that’s what the 50’s and early 60’s are, aren’t they? Bob Dylan is only five years older than my father. I remember a childhood story my dad used to tell us about how he taught Dylan to sing in his warbly voice, after a performance at his high school auditorium. I don’t think I ever thought it was true but I remember begging him to tell it again and again, as though it were a cherished bedtime story. I also remember seeing Dylan on TV once when I was a child and I thought he was handicapped, and that the harmonica thing around his neck was some kind of special brace. Wow, Bob Dylan is so brave for struggling and succeeding despite his handicap! I also went through a period thinking that he was black, and whenever I heard the name “Bob Dylan,” the face that would pop up in my head was that of Bob Marley. Oh, dear.

Anyway, this book does a great job of capturing the feeling of the period, the sense of impending hysteria and craziness that would be the mid-60’s. The fear of the Russians, On the Road, the Holden Caufield-like distaste of the bourgeoise sqaure world that is so horrifying and stultifying in Revolutionary Road, air-raid drills, cowering under desks (which makes me think of grade school, when we had guerrilla attack drills and we all lined up on the football field and boarded orange school buses. It always took at least 40 minutes, if not more, and I remember my second-grade self thinking man, we would have all gotten shot dead. Why didn’t they train us to hide in closets instead? I guess there’s no good answer of how a classroom full of children ought to respond to a guerrilla attack). Communists, freight trains, Woody Guthrie. A world that is beginning to feel increasingly archaic and distant. God knows how the kids at the Boys & Girls Club or of the future cyber generations will view this world. I wonder if my kids (if I have any) will view this period the same way I viewed the era of the Titanic as a girl, or Little House on the Prairie: a lifestyle that is completely remote and alienated from mine, as radically bizarre as though I were reading about people who were living on the moon. I guess every single historical age feels this way, I bet if I did more reading about the Romans or the Greeks I would find similar sentiments expressed among artists and politicians. The only thing that doesn’t change is change.

“I just thought of mainstream culture as lame as hell and a big trick. It was like the unbroken sea of frost that lay outside the window and you had to have awkward footgear to walk on it. I didn’t know what age of history we were in nor what the truth of it was. Nobody bothered with that. If you told the truth, that was all well and good and if you told the un-truth, well, that’s still well and good. Folk songs had taught me that. As for what time it was, it was always just beginning to be daylight and I knew a little bit about history, too–the history of a few nations and states–and it was always the same pattern. Some early archaic period where society grows and develops and thrives, and then some classical period where the society reaches its maturation point and then a slacking off period where decadence makes things fall apart. I had no idea which one of these stages America was in. There was nobody to check with. A certain rude rhythm was making it all sway, though. It was pointless to think about. Whatever you were thinking could be dead wrong.” (35)

My favorite part was reading about what books Dylan liked as a young man. It reminds me of my sixth-grade self making best-of lists, in the honored Nick Hornby tradition: Best Tori Amos songs live. Best Movies of the 90’s. Etc, etc. In Dylan’s view, Thucydides gets a big thumbs up (“a narrative which would give you chills”), as does Balzac (“hilarious”). Faulkner was “powerful” but difficult to get. James Joyce’s Ulysses gets a thumbs down, as does Freud. He expresses a strong fascination for military history, especially the Civil War (man, I need to read me another Civil War book one of these days!).

I also loved the passage about Dylan reading old newspapers on microfilm from 1855 to 1865 in the New York public library, trying to learn as much as possible about what it was like to live in that period. It sounds exactly like something I would do, if I lived in New York. The overall moral seems to be to stuff your head with as much knowledge as posible, it order to “send a truck back for it later.” (86) I like the idea of absorbing experiences and knowledge like a sponge with the hope/faith that it will pay off later on, and just trying to be as open as possible… even if it doesn’t seem to make too much sense at the time.

“What was the future? The future was a solid wall, not promising, not threatening–all bunk. No guarantees of anything, not even the guarantee that life isn’t one big joke.”

It’s also really interesting to read his passages about song writing and creativity. If I had to pick one theme for this book, it would be about forming a relationship with creativity, how to nurture it and make it work throughout a lifetim (I haven’t even touched on the chapters about making his albums New Morning and Oh Mercy, but they’re fascinating, especially the part where Bono makes a phonecall to producer Daniel Lanois. Who’d have thought?) It makes me think of this wonderful video of a talk by Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert, about nurturing creativity. I recently re-read EPL in New Orleans, where Corey’s mom had a copy, and I browsed through Committed in Powell’s the other day. It made me fall in love all over again with ideas like “being kind to yourself” and “nurturing your spirit” and so on. Que concepts, no?

“If I was building any kind of new life to live, it really didn’t seem that way. It’s not as if I had turned in any old one to live it. If anything, I wanted to understand things and then be free of them. I needed to learn how to telescope things, ideas. Things were too big to see all at once, like all the books in the library–everything laying around on all the tables. You might be able to put it all into one paragraph of into one verse of a song if you could get it right.” (61)

Anyway, nine days left in Portland before heading to Colombia and the next/chapter adventure. Hoooo knows how things will go. Here’s to the future, the past and the present, to bike rides and books, to plane tickets and the Internet making the world both a smaller/bigger place all at once. “The whole city was dangling in front of my nose. I had a vivid idea of where everything was. The future was nothing to worry about. It was awfully close.” (104)

Two photos from last year serve as *my* chronicles: one of my working-with-kids job in Portland, one in Mexico…

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Filed under books, non-fiction, pondering the future, quotes, review