Sunday, 23 October 2011


Amulet - Roberto Bolano

There is something rhapsodic about Bolano's writing, making what is static and ephemeral in the plot seem propulsive and concrete. The action is in the metaphor, in the vigour of the writing.

Amulet revisits the terrain of The Savage Detectives. It is, in fact, a reworking of part of the longer work with the emphasis changed. Auxilio Lacouture, an Uruguyan living in Mexico city recounts events from her bohemian life among poets and academics, including the lightly disguised "Arturo Belano".

From the very start we are told that this book is a "horror story. A story of murder, deception 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."
In fact it is hard to categorise this book. Perhaps science fiction. ("At first glance it does not seem to be a work of science fiction. Only the dreams and visions of the adolescent Gunther O'Connell give it a prophetic, fantastic coloring."from Nazi Literature in the Americas) Auxilio was in the women's bathroom at the University when troops took it over, an action which saw the shooting of hundreds of students in Mexico's equivalent of Tiananmen Square. She stayed shut up in the bathroom for 12 days, without anything to eat, and during that time it seems that she stepped outside the space time continuum, as she can remember the future as well as the past.

Auxilio calls herself the mother of Mexican poetry, her maternal instinct stretching from acting as unpaid cleaner for two of the eminences grise of the scene when she arrived in Mexico to spending nights (but not money, she rarely paid) amidst a hubbub of poets and academics with poverty for her constant companion. "And sometimes I said to myself: These kids are our hope. But other times I thought: Some hope, a bunch of drunk kids.."

It is as though events coalesce and dissipate in the clouds of cigarette smoke, people coming into focus and disappearing but all shot through with a passion for meaning and truth. It is, and this is one of Bolano's tropes, as if poetry mattered, as if meaning mattered, in a world that has forgotten both: "they gave me their poems to read, their verses, their fuddled translations, and I took these sheets of foolscap and read them in silence, with my back to the table where they were raising their glasses desperately trying to be ingenious or ironic or cynical, poor angels, and I plunged into those words (I can't in all honesty say into that river of words, although I would like to, since it wasn't so much a river as an incohate babble), letting them seep into my very marrow, I spent a moment alone with those words choked by the brilliance and sadness of youth, with those splinters of a shattered dime store mirror, and I looked at myself or rather for myself in them, and there I was."

We never see the horror, as promised, but we get something which can perhaps protect us from it, an amulet. We get a song of the dead, "a barely audible song, a song of war and love, because although the children were clearly marching to war, the way they marched recalled the superb, theatrical attitudes of love."

I find myself almost inarticulate trying to express my reaction to this book, it is so powerful and led me straight on to another Bolano, Nazi Literature in the Americas. In time I hope to read all his books (I have read 2666 and The Savage Detectives before this) and to return to attempting to better encapsulate his method and his achievement.


  1. It's one of my favorite books by Bolano (though I tend to say that to every other book by him).

    Rhapsodic, propulsive ... I think your review has already articulated much of what attract me to his works.

  2. Yes, the temptation to call all his books favourites is strong. I love when I can't wait to read a book but I'm not sure why, or what the author is doing.
    Judging by my reading so far, Bolano's work could be published in a single volume.(Although there might be some weight issues) Everything seems to reflect everything else, and gain depth from those reflections.
    Indeed, there are as many or more connections between the other works I've read as there are between some of the books in 2666.