The Gravity of Holes
Roberto Bolaño’s reason for writing Amulet is unclear. Perhaps he wrote this short novel for the challenge of turning slightness into surplus, a literary loaves-and-fishes trick. Perhaps he wrote it because both premise and prose were partly ready-made: entire pages are ripped wholesale from The Savage Detectives, as is the setting, the self-mythologizing Mexico City poetry scene of the 60s and 70s. Or perhaps Bolaño meant to toy with the well-worn notion that everyone is the main character of the drama of his or her own life. We’ll never know for sure; Bolaño died of liver failure in 2003.
The author’s conspicuous absence from the now-global discussion of his works oddly mirrors his novels’ motifs of elision, disappearance, and other gashes in life and narrative. Originally published in Spanish a year after the magnificent, polyphonic The Savage Detectives, Amulet tells the story of one of the most minor Detectives characters, Auxilio Lacouture. It is a novel about black holes, voids of incredible attraction where even time and space bend before the gravity of a gaping zero. Through the recurrent metaphors of hellmouth and abyss, Bolaño attempts to argue that the gaps in a story amplify, rather than diminish, its overall force.
This novel’s holes are numerous, beginning with Auxilio’s narration, which is unreliable to the point of effacing other characters’ perspectives. Auxilio is irritating and delusional, a parasitic groupie who considers herself “the mother of Mexican poetry” but lives off the charity of poets, crashing their parties, their homes, and sometimes their dates. Here Bolaño retreads familiar ground, exploring the transactions and presumptions at the margins of literary culture.
Auxilio’s untrustworthiness is at least partly involuntary, a symptom of psychological trauma. Over the course of the novel, we learn that she was a student at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, a school with theoretical autonomy from the surrounding city and nation (it has been compared to Vatican City) which was brutally occupied by police and the military in 1968. During the horror now known as the Tlatelolco Massacre, Auxilio hid in a bathroom stall for 12 days as government forces killed hundreds of students. Her narration in Amulet, years after the massacre, enumerates the memories that floated through her head during those delirious hours in her bathroom prison. We are thus reading memories of memories of perceptions that were perhaps inaccurate in the first place. Through this startling remoteness from objective fact, Bolaño constructs an unsettling metaphor for collective national and Latin American memory.
Aside from these few scenes in the university bathroom, the bulk of the military occupation is unseen, unheard, and undiscussed. Instead, we sense its force through the derailment of Auxilio’s mind. It is a black hole capable of warping time itself; Auxilio claims that during the occupation she could “remember” the future as well as the past, that “the year 1968 became the year 1964 and the year 1960 became the year 1956. But it also became the years 1970 and 1973 and the years 1975 and 1976. As if I had died and was viewing the years from an unaccustomed vantage point.”
This sort of retrospective self-consciousness menaces Auxilio’s story from the novel’s opening scene, in which she is wracked by hysterics at the sight of an empty vase:
I saw my hand move forward, away from my body, and rise and hover over the vase’s dark mouth, approaching its enameled lip, at which point a little voice inside me said: Hey, Auxilio, what are you doing, you crazy woman, and that was what saved me, I think, because straight away my arm froze and my hand hung limp, like a dead ballerina’s, a few inches from that Hellmouth… I started crying… I know my vision blurred at one point, anyway, and my legs began to give. And once seated, I was seized by a violent shaking, as if I was about to have some kind of attack…
A different hellmouth looms in her final hallucination, in which crowds of ghostly children swarm, singing into “a bottomless abyss.” The children, Auxilio tells us with irksome over-explication, are emblematic of the young poets and “a whole generation of Latin Americans led to sacrifice” who are “united only by their generosity and courage.” It would be a mistake to assume that such heavy-handed assertions, typical in Auxilio’s narration, are Bolaño’s as well. She speaks from a dark void of her own (she is, in fact, missing her four front teeth) and her interpretation is another lure toward conclusions that obscure rather than illuminate.
Forget, then, the singing innocents; the novel’s most interesting black hole is poetry itself. Amulet’s preoccupation with what happens to time, memory, and history at the brink of a powerful void is largely a way of coming to terms with a nagging structural issue in much of Bolaño’s work: whether (and how) fiction about poets can make sense without their poetry.
This might be an unfair question—after all, most readers of a novel about painters do not demand illustrations. But since poetry and prose share the same medium, Bolaño’s exclusion of nearly all traces of the poetry that constitutes his characters’ lives is noteworthy and bizarre. (The only poem featured after the first chapter of The Savage Detectives is a wordless diagram.) Ultimately, Auxilio’s flirtation with the void mimics Bolaño’s own attraction to riddled narrative structures.
After reaching for the vase at the start of the novel, Auxilio asks herself: “Do poets have any idea what lurks in the bottomless maws of their vases? And if they know, why don’t they take it upon themselves to destroy them?” The bottomless maws in poetry and fiction—the alluring instabilities that resist easy conclusion and continually open onto new argument—can be deep and enthralling indeed, and Auxilio is probably right that we gamble with our serenity and self-assurance as long as these maws remain undestroyed. But of course, they remain intact and attractive as ever.
Laura Kolbe received her MPhil in American Literature from Jesus College, Cambridge. She lives in New York.