Amulet by Roberto Bolaņo
It seems likely that around these parts, north of the Rio Grande (“He is by far the most exciting writer to come from south of the Rio Grande in a long time,” writes Ilan Stavans for the Los Angeles Times), the late Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, whose fame as well as his literary output has mushroomed, Tupac-like, since his death of liver failure in 2003, will be known as a Latin American writer, perhaps even the next great Latin American writer, and at first glance the diagnosis seems reasonable. After all, he was a South American, born in Chile and raised there and in Mexico, and was an active if youthful participant in the literary and political revolutions in both countries.
If we think of him in these terms, his recently released Amulet appears on the scene, not long before the much-anticipated translation of his unfinished opus, 2066, as perhaps the über-Bolaño, or the ultra-Bolaño, taking as not only its backdrop or its context but its very specific subject the converging literary and political upheavals of his Latin American youth. Its narrator, who calls herself “the mother of Mexican poetry,” tells her story -- a story that extends in both directions, into the past and into the future, from her rather confined narrative present -- ensconced in a bathroom at the Faculty of Literature and Philosophy in the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City while the university is taken by military force, all of its occupants -- except her -- arrested and imprisoned. The bi-focal story that departs from this bathroom hideaway is comprised of a series of encounters with literary figures, real and invented, of 1960s Mexico City, among them exiled Spanish writers, young unknown poets -- the so-called “new poets” -- and, in particular, one of Bolaño’s own recurring literary doppelgangers, the teenaged Arturo Belano. But despite its rather unequivocal appearances as very much a Latin American novel, Amulet, at least in certain respects, reminds me more of the meta-fiction of British postmodernists writing under the influence of Latin American magical realism -- writers like Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie -- than it does of the work of Bolaño’s actual Latin American predecessors. Take Amulet’s opening salvo as an example: “This is going to be a horror story,” the mother of Mexican poetry tells us. “A story of murder, detection, and horror. But it won’t appear to be, for the simple reason that I am the teller.” Now listen to the opening sentences of Martin Amis’ 1989 London Fields: “This is a true story but I can’t believe it’s really happening. It’s a murder story, too… And a love story, of all the strange things, so late in the century, so late in the goddamned day.” As is the case with Amulet’s matriarch, the narrator of London Fields knows the future of his narrative, from the strange confines of his narrative present, at least as well as he knows its past. He is a narrator for whom the story has already revealed itself in its entirety, and for whom, therefore, the matter at hand is not to discover it but only to tell it. “Mine is the story of a fall from grace,” announces the narrator of Rushdie’s 1996 The Moor’s Last Sigh, arguably that author’s last great work before his own fall from literary grace, and before that story is over we will discover -- if we have not intuited it already -- that the narrator who there begins his narrative speaks from its final pages, from the very moments of its pre-ordained conclusion, and that what therefore appeared at the outset as a prediction was in fact something more like a promise or a guarantee.
The contemporary Spanish writer Juan José Millás may describe as succinctly as anyone the invisible filament by which narrator and author are most often linked in the fictional text: each undertakes his work, Millás writes, “without the guarantee of finishing it, or that it will be good.” Thus, for both author and narrator, the undertaking becomes a gamble, and moreover one that, like any gamble, entails the possibility of total loss: if his narrative is never finished, or if, when it is, it turns out not to have been good, the time and energy he has put into making it will have been wasted. More than mere daring is at stake in such an uncertain wager. Rather, it is precisely insofar as it does not know itself in its entirety from the outset that it becomes possible for a narrative to invent, in the course of its becoming, that which was not possible at that outset, and in so exceeding its own limits achieve the kind of transcendence that we associate with the most abiding art and literature. The great susceptibility, conversely, of the kind of narrative whose structure I have described above -- narrative of the Rushdie/Amis/Bolaño sort -- is that, in knowing itself in its entirety from the outset, it cannot, in the course of its becoming, invent anything in excess of its own initial possibilities. Such a literature, no matter how adept its technique, would always lapse into triviality, perhaps unless it could find some other unknown on which to risk everything.
Reading Amulet -- which, like the best work of Rushdie and Amis, is not trivial at all -- it occurred to me that perhaps Arturo Belano is the only literary stand-in in the book. While Bolaño has been embraced in the United States by critics who fantasize that he is offering them, and us, a glimpse into the secret interior of the Latin America of the second half of the Twentieth Century (“Reading Bolaño is like hearing [a] secret story,” Francine Prose writes for the New York Times) -- a Latin America that was, perhaps not coincidentally, for much of the second half of that century the object of relentless imperialist and pseudo-imperialist incursions on the part of the United States -- it seems clear to me that the Latin America Bolaño offers us in this book, quintessentially Latin American at first glance, is at best a feint and perhaps even an utter fraud. “Ah, my friends,” Amulet’s narrator announces at a certain moment in the novel. “Now there’s a recurring and terribly Latin American nightmare: being unable to find your weapon; you know where you put it but it’s not there.” And later: “In Latin America no one is ashamed of being poor.” And still later: “Death is the staff of Latin America and Latin America cannot walk without its staff.” It came as something of an epiphany the first time I realized that Mexicans, as one example among many, do not eat Mexican food -- they are, that is, simply eating food -- and I think it is equally the case that Latin Americans don’t make broad, sweeping, and at times almost caricaturish generalizations about Latin America, at least not unless they are already, like Bolaño’s eager Anglo readers certainly are, outsiders imagining an inside to which their access is structurally impossible because their very imaginative faculty exteriorizes them from that whose very interior they would deign to imagine. These moments of fanciful generalization seem to suggest that Bolaño’s Latin America, or at the very least the Latin America of his self-consciously Latin American narrator in Amulet, is a fake, a doppelganger, as much an imagined or invented Latin America as Arturo Belano is an imagined or invented Roberto Bolaño, and moreover one that, just as Arturo Belano stands between the reader and the real Roberto Bolaño precisely insofar as he stands for the real Roberto Bolaño, stands just as firmly between the reader and the real Latin America he might fantasize that he is discovering in Amulet.
I would not go so far as to suggest that he is in the last moment replacing what would be the image of one of our countless others with yet another image of ourselves in order to befuddle our almost colonialist eagerness to “discover” his real Latin America. Nonetheless, one imagines that, if he had wanted, it should not have been so difficult for him to do exactly that. At least as much as a writer like Rushdie, Bolaño stood on both sides of the very unbreachable cultural divide through which his work can often and perhaps too easily be mistaken for a means of passage. Although he grew up in Chile and Mexico and then Chile again, Bolaño spent nearly all of his adult writing life -- and all of his life as a publishing writer -- living in Spain, in a beach town outside of Barcelona, and during that time very much circulated within the contemporary Spanish literary scene (he was especially proud, it is said, of having been included as a character in Javier Cercas’ pseudo-autobiographical meta-novel, Los Soldados de Salamina). Thus, if Bolaño doubtlessly had the ability to evoke for his non-Latin American readers the real Latin America that was his birthright, he was almost certainly just as capable of seeing that Latin America, and imagining it and evoking it, from their own non-Latin American vantage point.
If we were to begin our reading of Amulet by thus placing Bolaño -- or at least the Bolaño of Amulet -- within the contemporary Spanish literary tradition, we might think again of one of that tradition’s most important and influential practitioners, the same Juan José Millás who years ago offered his readers, in a Christmas Eve newspaper column for El País newspaper, a rather beguiling set of instructions: “Tonight,” he told them, “imagine that it is Christmas Eve… I know it is Christmas Eve, but that doesn’t matter… Tonight, imagine that Christmas is finally here and that the tree is in the living room, and that all of your loved ones have come to dinner. You’ll see,” he writes, “how imagining it is different.” There are rarely words to waste in the short form of the newspaper column, but these, apparently, are important enough to Millás to bear repeating. “Pay attention to me,” he insists at the beginning of the column’s final, brief paragraph. “Close your eyes. Imagine that it’s Christmas Eve and that you have the whole family there in front of you. Then open them slowly, very slowly, and you’ll see what an experience it will be.” What is important to notice, here, is that Millás is proposing a gamble to his readers, one that, like any gamble, entails the possibility of total loss. It is not on any old evening that he instructs his readers to imagine that it is Christmas Eve -- not Easter or New Year’s -- but on Christmas Eve itself, such that if his implied promise that an imagined Christmas Eve is better than the real thing doesn’t come true, the readers who took him up on it will have lost their chance at that real thing. This, then, is where it starts to become clear that what we are encountering is not only an experiment perhaps good for nothing more than to abate the inevitable boredom of the yearly holiday celebration, but in fact an alternative to Millás’s other formula for literary risk -- to undertake a narrative uncertain whether you will finish it, or, if you do, whether it will turn out to have been worth it -- and, by extension, literary transcendence. In this formula, it is not the contents of the narrative that are yet to be discovered in their entirety, but its very subject, one which might turn out to not have been worth writing about in the first place.
It is precisely this formula, I would argue, that Bolaño performs in what would appear, at first glance, to be his most quintessentially Latin American novel, and if I am reluctant to argue that, in exchanging real for imagined or interior for exterior, that novel somehow constituted Bolaño’s confounding response to those in Europe and the United States who would fancy to “discover” in his work the real or secret Latin America theretofore inaccessible to them, I am much less so to suggest that the novel might be at its best when it is read, or encountered, in exactly that way. Then we who would constitute the target of the blow might allow ourselves to be struck by the true magnitude of the fact that in this most late Twentieth Century Latin American of late Twentieth Century Latin American novels, narrated literally and figuratively from the crossroads and point of intersection of late Twentieth Century Latin America’s literary and political revolutionary upheavals -- from inside the bathroom of UNAM’S Faculty of Philosophy and Literature while the university is under military assault -- Roberto Bolaño, the non-Latin American world’s next great Latin American writer, has quite literally sacrificed the real Latin America, to which he has the privileged access of birthright, to an invented Latin America of his own very non-Latin American imagination. Upon recovering our senses we might realize that in thus placing his bets on the imaginary, at the risk of total loss, he who might have been our next great Latin American writer became, instead, nothing more than a great writer, according to no other terms but his own.
Amulet by Roberto Bolaño