‘Waking from that dream or nightmare I had begun to cry or maybe it was the other way around’ – Amulet by Roberto Bolano

amuletWe’ve spoken before about Roberto Bolano before, about how 2666, his celebrated posthumous masterpiece, was a book quite unlike anything else we’d ever read (for both good and ill). In the wake of the success of 2666 and the death of Bolano himself, all of his previous books (together with some which have yet to see the light of day) are being published. Amulet, a slim novel first published in 1999 (and then in translation in 2006) is the first book to come out under this aegis of reappraisal, as Bolano moves from quietly respected writer to all consuming twenty-first century genius.

Possibly conceived (Bolano apparently said that all of his novels exist in the same fictional universe and characters do appear and recur throughout the books) but certainly perceived as a spin-off of Bolano’s breakthrough novel The Savage Detectives, Amulet concerns one Auxilio Lacouture, a Uruguayan poet and self-confessed mother of Mexican poetry, who – in September 1968, as the Mexican student movement comes head to head with the army in a charged conflagration, hides in a toilet, a toilet that then becomes a hub, of sorts, for her entire life, allowing her to see the past and the future (even though she admits that she can’t possibly see the future, even as she sees the future) – which leads Lacouture to reflect upon how she came to be where she is, who she knows and knew, how she came to know them (and in some cases not-know them – a long middle chapter centres on a meeting that never happened) – all of which is… actually a bit confusing.

‘What’s she going on about, this crazy woman, this specter escaped from an infernal women’s bathroom on the fourth floor of the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature?’ Lacouture has one of her interlocutors ask at one point, to which, as a reader, I was forced to answer, ‘Damned if I know.’ At one point, she sees a mirror and peers into it and sees

‘an enormous, uninhabited valley, and the vision of that valley brought tears to my eyes, partly because, at the time, the most trifling matters were enough to make me burst into tears. The valley I had seen, however, was no trifling matter. I don’t know if it was the vale of joy or the vale of tears. But I saw it and then I saw myself shut up in the women’s bathroom, and I remembered that there I had dreamed of the very same valley, and waking from that dream or nightmare I had begun to cry or maybe it was the other way around, maybe the tears had woken me. And the dream of September 1963 reappeared in that September of 1973, which must mean something, it can’t have been purely coincidental; no one can elude the combinations or permutations or dispositions of chance.’

The book 2666 apparently takes its title from Amulet (a quote on page 86 runs

‘Guerrero, at that time of night, is more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or 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 hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else’).

Amulet itself is a ‘song’,

‘that I heard was about the war, about the heroic deeds of a whole generation of young Latin Americans… about courage and mirrors, desire and pleasure.’

There is much to be confused and confounded by here. Time stands still (except, of course, ‘either time never stands still or it has always been standing still’), it may be 1968 or 1974 or 1980 at any one time, experience counts for nothing (because ‘experience is generally a hoax’), our narrator is present (‘as an absence’), although disappearing or transforming into someone else (Erigone, perhaps), and on a path that perhaps was ‘the preamble to a nervous breakdown brought on by… my unexpected presence’. After 150 pages, visions mist over, crack, fall, are shattered, pulverized by bolts of lightning and gusts of wind that blow the dust away to nowhere or spread it through Mexico City. Lacouture ends up telling a voice in her head that she doesn’t know anything. The reader, battered and bruised, concurs…

Any Cop?: At one point we are gifted to a glimpse of the dream of Remedio Varo, ‘the great Catalan painter’ in which ‘something was always happening, while seeming to whisper or shout or hiss at you: Nothing happens here.’ This feels like quite a good description of Roberto Bolano’s confounding Amulet.


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