Amulet Paperback – Apr 29 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Bolaño's work fugues again and again around the confluence of fugitive literary movements and tumultuous political upheavals of '60s and '70s Mexico and Chile. Originally from Montevideo, poet Auxilio Lacouture cleans house in Mexico City for two well-known poets and hangs about the university literary scene doing odd jobs. In September 18, 1968, as the army occupies the campus, arresting and killing people, Auxilio is in the deserted bathroom stalls, obliviously reading poetry; later she becomes famous for being the only one who resists arrest that fateful day. Over years without fixed address or employment, she loses her teeth and befriends the teenage Arturo Belano. Belano eventually returns to Chile at the time of the Allende coup and is imprisoned by Pinochet—a political initiation author Bolaño experienced himself. Auxilio's first-person narration serves as a medium for lost young voices of revolution, such as the elusive, limping Elena, the Catalan painter Remedios Varo, and Lilian Serpas, who claims she slept with Che Guevara. Auxilio's lyrical prophecies converge in a wrenching tribute to all the voices she has known, tinged with Bolaño's luminous pathos. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Bolaño's reputation and legend are in meteoric ascent. — Larry Rohter (The New York Times)
The most influential and admired novelist of his generation in the Spanish-speaking world. — Susan Sontag (Times Literary Supplement)
He is by far the most exciting writer to come from south of the Rio Grande in a long time. — Ilan Stavans (Los Angeles Times)
Bolaño wrote with the high-voltage first-person braininess of a Saul Bellow and an extreme subversive vision of his own. — Francisco Goldman (The New York Times Magazine)
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One of the more acute reviews of Bolano recently was, I think, in the "London Review of Books"; the reviewer noted thaqt Bolano writes continuously about writing, and that his novels chronicle novelists and poets, but that somehow his books aren't exactly novels. The authorial voice, and in this case also the narrator's voice, are presented as if they are talking. It's as if this is what happens in a writer's mind when he or she is contemplating the craft and social world of novel writing, before it's time to settle down and actually write. I think that's an excellent insight, and it explains an odd effect in Bolano: when you encounter a passage that is beautifully written, it seems somehow out of place, as if that is something that should only happen in the novels that Bolano's characters are forever discussing. Or to put it another way: it is as if novel writing is no longer possible, and the only way forward for the novel is rumination about the novel.
Wonderful book. I dare you to forget it.
Sounds too arty? No, it's lively and readable. The whole thing is held together and made compelling by the heroine's unique voice. You won't want to stop listening to her, even at her most confused. I suspect that this will be a classic that our great grandchildren will be reading and puzzling over too.
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.
Tlateloco first. In 1968, many thinking Mexicans were pushing the PRI, the ruling party in a one party country, to become more open and democratic. Some specific demands were: the repeal of an article in the penal code that allowed people to be locked up for "crimes of opinion;" the freeing of certain political prisoners; the removal of Mexico City's police chief. On October 2, 1968, students from the Autonomous University and elsewhere gathered for a meeting in Mexico City at the Plaza de Tlateloco. The army surrounded the plaza and opened fire. By the best estimates, over 300 people were killed and thousands more injured and arrested. Even by the harsh standards of Latin American politics, it was a massively brutal response, one that went largely unnoticed outside of Latin America in that turbulent year.
Amulet is a book that wants to bear witness. The story is told by Auxilio Lacoutre, an eccentric Uruguayan who fancies herself as the "mother of Mexican poetry" for the disinterested love and attention she showers on Mexico City's aspiring poets, including one Arturo Belano, a stand-in for the author. Auxilio becomes a heroine, at least in her own mind, because in 1968 she was holed up for almost two weeks in a ladies room at the Autonomous University while it was under siege by the police and the army. What she saw she can't confront, not directly, and the book captures the long, sideways slide of her consciousness as she tries to assemble a life after the carnage she's witnessed. A large part of Bolano's accomplishment in Amulet is to take a life that in a certain light would look random, chaotic and self-indulgent and make it seem, in its own small way, heroic.
Part of Bolano's appeal is that he defies easy categorization. He's not a realist, and he pointedly disavowed magical realism, calling it a literary and philosophical dead end. He writes about mundane, gritty things with fierce particularity, but then veers off into allegory, myth and symbolism, imposing his poetic mindset, especially his professed love of French symbolist poetry, into his novels. His prose brings to mind those hyperrealist paintings of diners and other mundane objects. These are diners where sunlight zings off airbrushed chrome and sparkling windows gleam maniacally. It's a diner, all right, but not like any diner you ever actually saw.
I'm surprised that no one talks about the debt Bolano owes Jack Kerouac: the same headlong, self-referential style, the same chronicling of a literary band of brothers, the same insistence that the literary middle finger can hold off brutish, life-denying authoritarianism. The difference is that Bolano is also grappling with how individuals respond to the brutal and erratic political systems of Latin America. No one was lining up Kerouac and the Beats to shoot them, or tossing them in prison to torture them. After witnessing the massacre at Tlateloco, Auxilio becomes restless, emotionally numb, unable to fully inhabit the present. She's a soldier in the cultural wars who's undergoing post-traumatic stress.
Bolano - in this he reminds me of the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman - seems to be saying that without art we can't make it through, but art itself cannot overcome jack-booted political power. It is this tension between affirmation and negation, and the sparks thrown off by his jittery, glittering prose, that make Bolano such a compelling novelist.
This is a very beautifully written novel, with fully realized atmosphere and tight focus on the plot. You really feel for the characters and the situations they're in, and the last few pages are some of the most beautifully written in all of literature. Highly recommended.