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Roberto Bolaño: Amulet

Several people asked me why, in my review of The Savage Detectives, I thought that Auxilio Lacouture was not given a convincing female voice. I didn’t know exactly why, but something about her tough talk seemed too schematic to me, as though Bolaño’s women tended to fall into the categories of wispy crazies or hard-nosed butches. So I hoped to give it some more thought with the very short Amulet, which was written a few years after Detectives and is entirely in Auxilio’s voice.

What I found, though, is that it’s less of an issue here. Amulet, far from delving more deeply into the real horror of the toothless, bitter Auxilio’s two weeks trapped in a Mexican university bathroom while the army occupies the campus, is more ruminative and abstract than her visceral narrative in Detectives. And it reads as a less gendered narrative to me, by which I mean it doesn’t seem to exist in a social space where gender is such a dominant constitutive element. (In contrast, the sex-laden Detectives puts gender front and center.) So while it doesn’t help me figure out the Auxilio of Detectives, it does clarify some of Bolaño’s thematic obsessions.

Amulet draws a much more explicit line between Auxilio and Bolaño’s fictional stand-in Arturo Belano. Belano/Bolaño goes to Chile as a teenager to help “build socialism,” but Pinochet’s coup results in his imprisonment. This event is only mentioned as hearsay in Detectives and Amulet, but Auxilio is quicker to connect the dots in the latter:

What I mean is that Although he was the same Arturo, deep down something had changed or grown, or changed and grown at the same time. What I mean is that people, his friends, began to see him differently, although he was the same as ever. What I mean is that everyone was somehow expecting him to open his mouth and give us the latest news from the Horror Zone, but he said nothing, as if what other people expected had become incomprehensible to him or he simply didn’t give a shit.

And yet Auxilio, who has been through hell herself, doesn’t feel any closer to him; she is just as alienated from him, whom she calls “a child of the sewers,” as his other friends. This is vividly demonstrated in an entertaining sequence where they both track down the dangerous “King of the Rent Boys” in the slums and Belano rather effectively threatens him into releasing his claim on one of their friends. This is the only real narrative episode in the novel, and by the end Auxilio has descended into her own personal nightmare of mythology and history. She says:

I felt as though I was being wheeled into an operating room. I thought: I am in the women’s bathroom in the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature and I am the last person left. I was heading for the operating room. I was heading for the birth of History. And since I’m not a complete idiot, I also thought: It’s over now, the riot police have left the university, the students have died at Tlatelolco, the university has opened again, but I’m still shut up in the fourth-floor bathroom, as if after all my scratching at the moonlit tiles a door had opened, but not the portal of sadness in the continuum of Time.

This is a strange passage, and on its own it’s more striking than anything in The Savage Detectives. And it gives us, I think, Bolaño’s version of historical trauma. We are given, in his works, descriptions of horrific political events experienced on the personal level. They are presented in a more or less opaque fashion. They do not, as one would think, create a shared sense of community and identity, but instead they act as a cleavage of language and self from others. Belano’s poetry, it is implied, becomes so private that it would be useless to share it. (This is, perhaps, Bolaño’s explanation for his own turn to fiction.) Auxilio and Belano do not come together despite having endured similar traumas; Auxilio’s role as the “mother of Mexican poetry” is wholly spiritual, because poetry has become private. Auxilio describes the door that opens to her only negatively: one that is not sad, one that is not in Time, and presumably the same one that Arturo Belano disappears into in Liberia at the end of The Savage Detectives. We only suffer alone and cannot explain.


  1. Wait, isn’t this a hopeful passage? Without context it’s hard for me to say this definitively, but if she sees herself as pregnant with History and about to give birth to it, and that the new door that’s opened isn’t a portal of Sadness, that sounds hopeful to me (despite the hysterical/melancholy tone of the passage).

  2. But what about the ending?! Do you see it as ironic, then? (It may well be.)

  3. Has there been many translations of this author’s work – or can you read in the original language? What translation do you trust?

  4. You wrote:“They do not, as one would think, create a shared sense of community and identity, but instead they act as a cleavage of language and self from others. Belano’s poetry, it is implied, becomes so private that it would be useless to share it.”

    You know, this is remarkably like something that happens in some of Guy Debord’s films: recollection of a revolutionary moment that was not seized properly,
    memories of drunken living on the margins, followed by eulogizing of the ‘lost children’
    ( another motif persistent in Bolano, though in a differnet sense), and finally – some statement about how what you’ve just seen is a private joke.

  5. My guess about the second quote is that the English translation is bullshit, the last part of the sentence does not make any sense. I have the book here in a different translation in a different language and the last part of the sentence is completely different there, the moon is scratching over the floor as if a continuum of time had opened up, or something like that, which actually makes sense with respect to the rest of that passage.

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