AMULET is different, confusing, and disconcerting . . . and quite haunting. Although it probably is most readily classified as a novel, it does not easily wear that label. AMULET is a first-person narrative, but there is no real plot. Instead, what the narrator -- Auxilio Lacouture, a woman poet originally from Uruguay but now in Mexico City (and a character in another of Bolano's works) -- relates is more of a memoir of her years as a kind of groupie in the vibrant literary world of Mexico City in the mid-1960s to late-1970s. But this "memoir" is not chronological or linear, and it continually veers between the impressionistic and the realistic. Rather than "memoir", maybe it is better thought of as an all-night oral account (and accounting) of her "literary life" delivered by Auxilio to a small group of fringe literati in a cheap and shabby university apartment.
The central event in Auxilio's story is the police crackdown on the student movement and occupation of the National Autonomous Mexican University in September 1968. While the riot police cleared the campus of students and dissidents (an actual historical event, with fatalities) Auxilio cowered in the women's room on the fourth floor of the Philosophy and Literature building. Again and again Auxilio returns to this event, with evident uneasiness about having hid out in a bathroom stall.
Auxilio fancies herself the "mother of Mexican poets," and during the course of her bohemian life in Mexico City she has come into contact (or claims to) with a number of Latin literary figures and artists, including "Arturo Belano" (an obvious alter ego for the author Roberto Bolano, an alter ego who has appeared in other of Bolano's works). Other actual historical figures of Latin American arts who make an appearance in Auxilio's story include Leon Felipe, Pedro Garfias, Remedios Varo, Lilian Serpas, Carlos Coffeen Serpas, and Ernesto "Che" Guevara.
Auxilio's account of her life in Mexico City is almost surreal -- a conflation or confusion of memories and time, as if she and everyone else is addled by psychotropic drugs, alcohol, or poverty and hunger -- or is it all a dream? Is this confusion something universal, or is it peculiar to Latin America, or peculiar to Bolano?
The "amulet" of the title appears at the end of the book in connection with a vision, or dream (again, there is confusion), which involves "a mass of children" or "young people" who were the "prettiest children of Latin America, the ill-fed and the well-fed children, those who had everything and those who had nothing," all of whom are "walking unstoppably toward the abyss." Don't worry, I have not fully revealed the ending or fully described the amulet. Indeed, the entire book might be regarded as an amulet in juxtaposition to the political and social violence that swept and upset much of Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s.
AMULET is the second of Bolano's works that I have read. The first was "Last Evenings on Earth," a collection of short stories, which was intriguing and good, but not on the same plane as AMULET. But I still haven't come to even a tentative conclusion as to whether Bolano is a great writer, worthy of all the recent hype and buzz. I will have to read more of his work, but I can say that after having read AMULET, I now look forward to doing so.