I picked up Amulet for two reasons. First, Roberto Bolano is the "it" boy of Latin American novelists at the moment - critics and the literary fashionistas are climbing all over The Savage Detectives and 2666. Second the massacre at Tlateloco, which is what this book is about, is a shameful, neglected event in Mexican history.
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.