Saturday, October 15, 2011


by Roberto Bolaño

 It's always a little strange to read an author's most celebrated books first, and then backtrack through their lesser known, and less-recognized, earlier work.  That is especially true with a writer like Roberto Bolaño, who mines his earlier work for recurring themes, situations, and even characters.

At the centre of Amulet, a slim novel first published in Spanish in 1999, and first translated into English in 2006, is Auxilio Lacouture, the 'Mother of Mexican Poetry.'  Lacouture's defining moment came in 1968 when, as a sometimes intern at Mexico's Autonomous University, she spent a period of around ten days in the women's washroom as the military combed the building and detained just about everyone in it.  The political and legal reasons for this action are never explained; instead we have Auxilio's less than reliable accounting of the event, during which time she had visions of future.

The book is told in first person, and as such, we never get a clear understanding of which events are real, and which are imagined, as she stares at the reflection of moonlight on the tiled walls of the washroom.  It doesn't really matter though, as the book is an often fascinating examination of Bolaño's favourite topic, writers.  Auxilio, who is missing her front teeth and therefore almost always keeps her hand in front of her face, never has a very stable life, moving from job to job and apartment to apartment (when not staying with friends).  The only constant is that she is a fixture of the Mexico City poetry scene, getting to know all the young writers.  She herself is not a writer, and her self-selected title as 'Mother of Mexican Poetry' might be more accurate if read 'Mother of Mexican Poets'.

Within Auxilio's circle is the young Arturo Belano, Bolaño's usual fictional counterpart.  Also with him is Ulises Lima, who we get to know much better in The Savage Detectives.  Actually, Auxilio also appears in that later novel, telling her story about her time in the University washroom, which caused no small amount of deja vu.  Other characters are shared between the two novels, such as the gay poet Ernesto San Epifanio, who I believe is also a character in 2666, but I would need to do some checking (and that book is way too dense to flip through for this purpose).

What I found most interesting in Amulet is the scene where Auxilio trails Belano and San Epifanio, who are on their way to meet with the King of All Rent Boys, who has claimed San Epifanio as his property.  Auxilio muses, as they walk down the Avenida Guerrero, that it "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."  I've never understood the significance of the title of 2666, Bolaño's greatest work, but I feel like there is a clue here.

Aside from a slow section that involves a reclusive painter and Greek mythology, I found that I enjoyed Amulet a great deal.  If I had the time, I would love to sit down and read all of Bolaño's work in the order in which they were published, as I feel there are a number of things that I miss by reading each book individually.  Maybe if I ever decide to get a PhD in literature...

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