Friday, March 5, 2010

Courage and Mirrors



A lot of my recent posts have been devoted to readings of authors who I've written about before, done in the interest of both making connections between texts and creating a sort of personal and open bibliography in the number of essays that I've written. I'm hoping that, for myself and others who frequent this blog, in due time there will be a decent number of links and multiple reviews of singular writers, available for both entertainment and literary purposes, with notes and essays representing my humble views on said works. With these ideas in mind, I recently finished reading Amulet (first English translation published in 2005), one of the smaller novels by one of my favorites, Roberto Bolano. I've given his writings the most attention here, at least in terms of the number of essays that I've posted on given writers and their works. Of course, I haven't been alone in singing his praises, nor do I claim to have "discovered" him before he became relevant in mainstream literary consciousness. Awhile back, I remember reading an essay on Bolano's works as a whole, with the underlying question being "how much attention is too much?" Despite his undeniable literary merits and his gifts of storytelling in his lifetime (1953-2003), it's sometimes hard to see through the haze of celebratory fireworks. While I've done my own reviews with scholarly intentions, there have been times where I've been lost in my own gushing over his novels, reveling in the excitement of having personally discovered such a talent. In both deep and superficial ways, it's one of the joys of arts and literature.

Amulet tells the first person account of Auxilio Lacouture, an eccentric woman who calls herself "the mother of Mexican poetry." She hails from Uruguay, but ends up in Mexico City, "exactly where my wanderings took me." Her story is reliable as a whole, but there's an unmistakable feeling that she either embellishes some of her details or skims over some important parts. This may seem oxymoronic, but this passage towards the beginning of the work could be read as an example of glossing or of succinct, logical details. After moving to Mexico City, she becomes an impromptu housekeeper for two revered Spanish poets:

"I orbited around those two great Spaniards, those universal minds, moved by a poet's passion and the boundless devotion of an English nurse or of a little sister looking after her older brothers. Like me, they were wanderers, although for very different reasons; nobody drove me out of Montevideo; one day I simply decided to leave and go to Buenos Aires, and after a few months or maybe a year in Buenos Aires, I decided to keep traveling, because by then I already knew that Mexico was my destiny and I knew that Leon Felipe was living in Mexico, and although I wasn't sure whether Don Pedro Garfias was living here too, deep down I think I could sense it (Bolano 3)."

The majority of the novel revolves around the stories and flashbacks had by Lacouture during the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre of Mexican students and protesters by the Mexican government. When the massacre starts, Lacouture is in the women's bathroom of the university, and ends up hiding there for twelve days, during which she shares her stories and experiences some equally scary but intriguing hallucinations. Given the scale of the killings, her account of the happens is almost creepy in its simplicity, as if she cannot fully comprehend what's happening. Bolano shows great skill in this rendering, given that psychologically, some people would be in such shock that clarity becomes heightened.

"What did I do then? What anyone would have done: I went to a window and looked down and saw the soldiers, then I went to another window and saw tanks, and then to another, the one at the end of the corridor (I bounded down that corridor like a woman raised from the dead) and there I saw trucks, and the riot police and some plainclothes cops bundling the students and professors they'd arrested into the trucks, like something from a movie about the Second World War...but with little phosphorescent figures (Bolano 25)."

The bathroom scene struck me as vaguely familiar, and then I realized that Lacouture was one of the dozens of "interviews" in Bolano's novel The Savage Detectives. The links between these two novels doesn't stop there, but also reflect themselves with Lacouture's meetings and friendship with one of the main characters in The Savage Detectives, Arturo Belano. Lacouture is open about her sexual encounters with the poets she meets, but she becomes more of a mother figure to the young Belano. There's a vague distance between the two, but also signs of immediate respect. Belano was such a central figure in the other novel, and in Amulet it's compelling to have even further personality sketches.

"I went over and talked to him, covering my mouth with my hand, and he looked me in the eye, looked at the back of my hand, and didn't ask why I was covering my mouth [Lacouture's teeth had fallen out], but I think he guessed straight away, unlike the others, I mean he guessed the deeper reason, the ultimate dignity that obliged me to cover my lips, and it didn't matter to him.
That night I made friends with him, in spite of the difference in our ages, and all the other differences! I was the one who introduced him, some weeks later, to the poetry of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams and T.S. Eliot (Bolano 38)."

A friend of mine who introduced me to the works of David Mitchell pointed out Mitchell's habits of inserting characters from his previous novels into his later ones, creating a web of interconnections, even if a specific character is only minor in one work yet central in another. However, and this is not to slight Mitchell's use of the device, Bolano uses it more to create a fuller fictional bibliography and history in his novels. In Nazi Literature in the Americas, he created fictional essays and lists of book publications that read like a real encyclopedia; in his other novels, he's attempting to create a real world in the midst of fiction, not making his characters grander than they need to be, but showing how "real" they are, even in simple storytelling.

Amulet has been (mistakenly) called a companion piece to The Savage Detectives, but with the end of the novel, it's clear that Bolano's preferences for poetry have taken over, and as beautiful as the writing is, the hallucination scenes are almost too abrupt, turning into a poem-like closure, but one that's not emotionally connected to the storytelling side of the story. Lacouture, for all of her happenings, becomes at best an enigma, a sort of mouthpiece for Bolano's expertly crafted assortment of the Mexican poetry scene. Despite being abrupt, the final pages are haunting, leaving themselves open to much interpretation, from the blood-stained history of Mexico to its academic/poetry scenes, and to the combination of the two. Her hallucination involves children singing as they fall into oblivion, and whether this is done out of stupidity or innocence, the effect is beautifully chilling. I'll close with one of the final paragraphs. In addition to what I've stated above, the literary metaphors are obvious, but not in an expected way, but instead heartbreaking.

"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 clearly marching to war, the way they marched recalled the superb, theatrical attitudes of love (Bolano 184)."

Work Cited:
Bolano, Roberto. Amulet. Copyright 1999 by the Heirs of Roberto Bolano. Translation copyright 2006 by Chris Andrews.

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