Saturday, August 29, 2009

Roberto Bolaño: Amulet

David Flusfeder reviews Roberto Bolaño's Amulet.
The Chilean poet, novelist and provocateur Roberto Bolaño died in Spain in 2003. He was 50 years old and had already gathered a wide readership in the Spanish-speaking world. Death, though, can be a great career move. The response to the 2007 publication in the United States of his 1998 novel The Savage Detectives, followed by 2666, which was almost finished at the time of his death, has brought him into the international literary front rank. Both are large books, celebrations of poetry and a battered kind of urban heroism, written in Bolaño’s beguiling combination of concision and wordiness. But now, with the success of those, his smaller books are being translated into English for the first time.

Bolaño’s work is a roman-fleuve: characters and situations recur throughout his writings, and time is a watery element that the characters drift through. Amulet has its origin in a 10-page episode in The Savage Detectives. That novel was centred on two provocative young poets living in Mexico City in 1976: Ulises Lima and the author’s alter-ego, Arturo Bolaño. In one of the most striking episodes, a woman, Auxilio Lacoutre, “the mother of Mexican poetry” (and a “mother” is, in this context, a woman who sweeps and shops and listens and adores), is in a fourth-floor lavatory cubicle when the army occupies the campus of the Mexico City Universidad. She is stuck there for 12 days. In the original episode, the emphasis was on Auxilio’s physical predicament. She drank water from the tap, ate loo paper and lived in a state of fear and heightened memory.

In Amulet, the emphasis is on the remembering rather than the predicament. Auxilio suffers from the blessing of being able to “remember” the future as well as the past. There are feverish prophecies about literary destinies: “For Marcel Proust, a desperate and prolonged period of oblivion shall begin in the year 2033… Jorge Luis Borges shall be read underground in the year 2045… Louis-Ferdinand Céline shall enter Purgatory in the year 2094… Witold Gombrowicz shall enjoy great prestige in the environs of the Rio de la Plata around the year 2098… Max Jacob shall cease to be read, that is to say his last reader shall die, in the year 2059.”
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