Reviewed by Alex Wenger
Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews
New Directions, 2006
The narrator of Roberto Bolaño's Amulet, his latest work to be translated into English, promises in its first paragraph that hers will be "a horror story," full of "murder, detection and horror.ut it won't appear to be, for the simple reason that I am the teller." This early admonition not to take at face value the account that follows is advice well worth taking. The narrator, Auxilio Lacouture, tells a detailed story, and posits herself as the "mother of Mexican poetry." She wants to speak for the age, and her intimate knowledge of all of its personalities suggests she has the right. But her account soon develops fissures. She has trouble, for example, establishing when she emigrated from Uruguay to Mexico City. Was it 1967 or 1968 or some time in the 1970s? Later, she recounts vividly a meeting with an artist in the city that either took place in 1963 before the artist's death or not at all, invalidating the earlier conclusions about her arrival. By novel's end, we know we are in a fantasy, and the last pages are Auxilio's dream-vision of an entire generation. It is a strange story told in a bizarre voice, at once calm and antic. It is also further proof, for those of us who come to him in translation, of Bolaño's immense gifts.
The novel suggests to us a central moment, or zero-hour, for its chronological distortion and hallucination. In 1968, at the height of a worldwide youth protest movement, the Mexican government violently occupied a number of its universities, arresting, beating, and occasionally killing those in their path. Since Auxilio is in the bathroom when the assault begins and the soldiers miss her in their sweep of the area, she earns the distinction of being the only holdout on campus during the fourteen-day occupation. The majority of the remaining novel finds the narrator seated on the toilet "remembering" events in her life-those in the future as well as those in the past. The campus assault functions in time like the disturbance of a pond's surface, and Auxilio's omnidirectional memories are the ripples of that disturbance. The promise and subsequent failure of 1968 was not unique to Latin America-France has made a fetish of May 68-but perhaps the consequences were most dire there.
The overthrow of the Allende government in Chile, one of the largest historical ripples from 1968's failure, makes an appearance midway through Amulet, as it does in virtually every Bolaño fiction. In this text, a young friend of the narrator's, Arturito Belano, leaves Mexico City to go fight for the deposed left of his native Chile. Arturito returns a changed man. He will go on to play a significant, if enigmatic, role in the narrative. When Auxilio is discussing another personality, she will suddenly mention Arturito, apropos of nothing. This habit alongside the resemblance of the character's name to the author's own name, leads the reader into odd territory. Is Arturito the "true" author of the narrative? Has he displaced the authorship of his own story for reasons not readily apparent? Even Auxilio's name suggests that she is an appurtenance. It is one of only many mysteries in this lovely work of deceit.
Alex Wenger is pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction at Columbia
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