Thursday, September 20, 2007

Roberto Bolano's Amulet

If the beginning sentences of By night in chile are legion by now, this is how amulet begins............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. I am a friend to all Mexicans. I could say I am the mother of Mexican poetry, but I better not. I know all the poets and all poets know me. so I could say it. I could say one mother of a zephyr is blowing down the centuries, but I better not.

What are the ways or means with which one can say that this writer or novel is nearly enough? how can one measure the heartache of words, phantasms that words conjure, endless stealth in poetry, drama, emotion and the reality of life? One of the possible answers lies in reading Roberto Bolano. Such is the magic of his writing, stupendous poetry, reams of palpitations, dizzy heartaches. Bolano grows on you till other writers seem pale, even insignificant. I cannot make this outlandish claim that only some can like Bolano or that you must be in exile yourself or know what heartache is or that some sunsets have been witnessed and rehearsed now in memory alone.

No, I will not say that one should be a poet oneself or understand the music of words or be of a certain romantic temperament to get addicted to Bolano. I will not write here that Bolano must be read at midnight near the window, with a burning cigarette in ones hands. Obviously these things are desirable but not essential. To like Bolano one must have a love of all poets and writers, of displaced poets and forgotten writers, a soft corner for despair, a tender love for forgotten poems, a seething search for mildewed, thumbed memories.

I read Amulet recently at the suggestion of atenea, having not read this novel so far, strangely. I have felt deeply saddened and tranced, so to say, with the seething sadness of this novel. Calling herself the mother of Mexican poets, Auxilio hunts and seeks exiled poets, living with them, reading them, moving on, forgetting some, moving on in the mysteries of this night, this journey, having hidden in the bathroom of a Mexican university while students and teachers are being hounded and killed by the forces that launched the coup in Mexico in 1968. The refrain to this event is constant, for Auxilio reminds us again and again, of Latin America's violent and sad political events. Bolano gives us his alter ego again, called Belano, an autobiographical creation, who having returned from the terrors of Chile, has now changed.

Sometimes, not often, I found paid work; a professor would pay me out of his salary to be a kind of personal assistant, or the department heads or the faculty would put me on a contract for two weeks, a month, or sometimes month and a half, with vague, ambiguous and mostly non-existent duties, or the secretaries—who were so nice, I made friends with them all; they confided in me, told me about their heartaches and their hopes—made sure that their bosses kept finding me odd jobs so that I could earn a few pesos. That was during the day. At night I led what you might call a bohemian life with the poets of Mexico City, which I found deeply rewarding and convenient too, since money was scarce at the time and I didn’t always have enough to pay for lodgings. But most of the time I did. I shouldn’t exaggerate. I had enough money to get by and the poets educated me in Mexican literature by lending me books, their own books of poems for a start (you know what poets are like), the essentials and the classics, so my expenses were minimal…I was happy. The Mexican poets were generous and I was happy.

That is how Auxilio describes her activities. The changes that happen when Auxilio manages to survive are then reflected from her numerous perceptions about Latin america, literature, poetry, war, peace and the events that led to such disasters in latin america.

something is happening as time passes says Auxilio, something that has happened before, although in a sense every time time is the first time so experience counts for nothing, which is better in the end, because experience is generally a hoax.

The time that Auxilio spends in hiding, more than two weeks in the bathroom, while students are being killed, reading poems, writing poems on toilet paper is the moving theme behind her monologue. In essence, Auxilio does not want even to exorcise the ghosts of that time. In effect, she feels guilty for having survived, having seen that violent historical convulsion. From time to time, she reminds the reader of this violent history. There, in the night of this sad revolution, Auxilio moves with young, unknown poets, amongst them Belano himself. There are countless references to poets and writers, in one particular hallucinatory passage, Auxilio predicts the fate of more famous writers. I quote

Metempsychosis. Poetry shall not disappear. Its non-power shall manifest itself in a different form. Cesare Pavese shall become the patron saint of seers and lookers in the year 2034. Pier Paolo Pasolini shall become the patron saint of escapees in the year 2010. And so on.....

As in his other works, Bolano does not mince words. This book is a more open and direct example of what is achieved in other shorter works. I am not referring to his savage detectives, which must be discussed separately. I think that amulet is a far better book than by night in Chile, for it is more poetic, better written, more openly political and more mesmerisingly haunting. It is an example of perfection in form, and lucidity in content. This novel ( a good review here) is thus an example of Bola
no's honesty as a writer and as a political activist.

I think I can only struggle in describing this book, for it is a fantastic novel, an addiction. Parts of Amulet can be read aloud, which is not achieved by many books. I quote this passage from the last page, for in the last few pages, this book soars and hits and ravages like a malignant monster, filled with pain and poetry. The passage below could be written for all those people who have died or are still dying unjustly under the eyes of a blind world.

So the ghost children marched down the valley and fell into the abyss. Their passage was brief. And their ghost song or its echo, which is almost to say the echo of nothingness, went on marching, I could hear it marching on at the same pace, the pace of courage and generosity. A barely audible song, a song of war and love, because although the children were clearl
y marching to war, the way they marched recalled the superb, theatrical attitudes of love. But what kind of love could they have known, I wondered when they were gone from the valley, leaving only their song resonating in my ears. 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 that above and beyond all, it was about courage and mirrors, desire and pleasure. And that song is our amulet.

A good review here, an an American perspective on Bolano here.


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Kubla Khan said...

Thanks for your comments. I will get in touch with you soon.