Amuletby Roberto Bolaño
A tour de force, Amulet is a highly charged first-person, semi-hallucinatory novel that embodies in one woman's voice the melancholy and violent recent history of Latin America.Amulet is a monologue, like Bolano's acclaimed debut in English, By Night in Chile. The speaker is Auxilio Lacouture, a Uruguayan woman who moved to Mexico in the 1960s, becoming the "Mother… See more details below
A tour de force, Amulet is a highly charged first-person, semi-hallucinatory novel that embodies in one woman's voice the melancholy and violent recent history of Latin America.Amulet is a monologue, like Bolano's acclaimed debut in English, By Night in Chile. The speaker is Auxilio Lacouture, a Uruguayan woman who moved to Mexico in the 1960s, becoming the "Mother of Mexican Poetry," hanging out with the young poets in the cafés and bars of the University. She's tall, thin, and blonde, and her favorite young poet in the 1970s is none other than Arturo Belano (Bolano's fictional stand-in throughout his books).
As well as her young poets, Auxilio recalls three remarkable women: the melancholic young philosopher Elena, the exiled Catalan painter Remedios Varo, and Lilian Serpas, a poet who once slept with Che Guevara. And in the course of her imaginary visit to the house of Remedios Varo, Auxilio sees an uncanny landscape, a kind of chasm. This chasm reappears in a vision at the end of the book: an army of children is marching toward it, singing as they go. The children are the idealistic young Latin Americans who came to maturity in the '70s, and the last words of the novel are: "And that song is our amulet."
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By Roberto Bolaño
New Directions Publishing CorporationCopyright © 1999 Heirs of Roberto Bolaño
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThis is going to be a horror story. A story of murder, detection and horror. But it won't appear to be, for the simple reason that I am the teller. Told by me, it won't seem like that. Although, in fact, it's the story of a terrible crime.
I am a friend to all Mexicans. I could say I am the mother of Mexican poetry, but I better not. I know all the poets and all the poets know me. So I could say it. I could say one mother of a zephyr is blowing down the centuries, but I better not. For example, I could say I knew Arturito Belano when he was a shy seventeen-year-old who wrote plays and poems and couldn't hold his liquor, but in a sense it would be superfluous and I was taught (they taught me with a lash and with a rod of iron) to spurn all superfluities and tell a straightforward story.
What I can say is my name.
My name is Auxilio Lacouture and I am Uruguayan-I come from Montevideo-although when I get nostalgic, when homesickness wells up and overwhelms me, I say I'm a Charrúa, which is more or less the same thing, though not exactly, and it confuses Mexicans and other Latin Americans too.
Anyway, the main thing is that one day I arrived in Mexico without really knowing why or how or when.
I came to Mexico City in 1967, or maybe it was 1965, or 1962. I've got no memory for dates anymore, or exactly where my wanderings took me; all I know is that I came to Mexico and never went back. Hold on, let me try to remember. Let me stretch time out like a plastic surgeon stretching the skin of a patient under anesthesia. Let me see. When I arrived in Mexico León Felipe was still alive-what a giant he was, a force of nature-and León Felipe died in 1968. When I arrived in Mexico Pedro Garfías was still alive-such a great, such a melancholy man-and Don Pedro died in 1967, which means I must have arrived before 1967. So let's just assume I arrived in Mexico in 1965.
Yes, it must have been 1965 (although I could be mistaken, it certainly wouldn't be the first time) and day after day, hour after hour, I orbited around those two great Spaniards, those universal minds, moved by a poet's passion and the boundless devotion of an English nurse or of a little sister looking after her older brothers. Like me, they were wanderers, although for very different reasons; nobody drove me out of Montevideo; one day I simply decided to leave and go to Buenos Aires, and after a few months or maybe a year in Buenos Aires, I decided to keep traveling, because by then I already knew that Mexico was my destiny and I knew that León Felipe was living in Mexico, and although I wasn't sure whether Don Pedro Garfías was living here too, deep down I think I could sense it. Maybe it was madness that impelled me to travel. It could have been madness. I used to say it was culture. Of course culture sometimes is, or involves, a kind of madness. Maybe it was a lack of love that impelled me to travel. Or an overwhelming abundance of love. Maybe it was madness.
If nothing else, this much is clear: I arrived in Mexico in 1965 and turned up at the apartments of León Felipe and Pedro Garfías and said, Here I am, at your service. I guess they liked me: I'm not unlikeable; tiresome sometimes, but never unlikeable. The first thing I did was to find a broom and set about sweeping the floor of their apartments, and then I washed the windows, and, whenever I got the chance, I asked them for money and did their shopping. And they used to say to me, with that distinctive Spanish accent which they never lost, that prickly little music, as if they were circling the zs and the ss, which made the ss seem lonelier and more sensuous, Auxilio, they'd say, that's enough bustling around, Auxilio, leave those papers alone, woman, dust and literature have always gone together. And I would look at them and think, How right they are, dust and literature, from the beginning, and since at the time I was avid for detail, I conjured up wonderful and melancholy scenes, I imagined books sitting quietly on shelves and the dust of the world creeping into libraries, slowly, persistently, unstoppably, and then I came to understand that books are easy prey for dust (I understood this but refused to accept it), I saw whirlwinds, clouds of dust gathering over a plain somewhere deep in my memory, and the clouds advanced until they reached Mexico City, the clouds that had come from my own private plain, which belonged to everyone although many refused to admit it, and those clouds covered everything with dust, the books I had read and those I was planning to read, covered them irrevocably, there was nothing to be done: however heroic my efforts with broom and rag, the dust was never going to go away, since it was an integral part of the books, their way of living or of mimicking something like life.
That was what I saw. That was what I saw, seized by a tremor that only I could feel. Then I opened my eyes and the Mexican sky appeared. I'm in Mexico, I thought, with the tail end of that tremor still slithering through me. Here I am, I thought. And the memory of the dust vanished immediately. I saw the sky through a window. I saw the light of Mexico City shifting over the walls. I saw the Spanish poets and their shining books. And I said to them: Don Pedro, León (how odd, I called the older and more venerable of the two simply by his first name, while the younger one was somehow more intimidating, and I couldn't help calling him Don Pedro!), let me take care of this, you get on with your work, you keep writing, don't mind me, just pretend I'm the invisible woman. And they would laugh, or rather León Felipe would laugh, although to be honest it was hard to tell if he was laughing or clearing his throat or swearing, he was like a volcano, that man, while Don Pedro Garfías would look at me and then look away, and his gaze (that sad gaze of his) would settle on something, I don't know, a vase, or a shelf full of books (that melancholy gaze of his), and I would think: What's so special about that vase or the spines of those books he's gazing at, why are they filling him with such sadness? And sometimes, when he had left the room or stopped looking at me, I began to wonder and even went to look at the vase in question or the aforementioned books and came to the conclusion (a conclusion which, I hasten to add, I promptly rejected) that Hell or one of its secret doors was hidden there in those seemingly inoffensive objects.
Sometimes Don Pedro would catch me looking at his vase or the spines of his books and he'd ask, What are you looking at, Auxilio, and I'd say, Huh? What? and I'd pretend to be dopey or miles away, but sometimes I'd come back with a question that might have seemed out of place, but was relevant, actually, if you thought about it. I'd say to him, Don Pedro, How long have you had this vase? Did someone give it to you? Does it mean something special to you? And he'd just stare at me, at a loss for words. Or he'd say: It's only a vase. Or: No, it doesn't have any special meaning. That's when I should have asked him, So why are you looking at it as if it hid one of the doors to Hell? But I didn't. I'd just say: Aha, aha, which was a tic I'd picked up from someone, sometime during those first months, my first months in Mexico. But no matter how many ahas issued from my mouth, my brain went on working. And once, I can laugh about it now, once when I was alone in Pedrito Garfías's study, I started looking at the vase that had captured that sad gaze of his, and I thought: Maybe it's because he has no flowers, there are hardly ever any flowers here, and I approached the vase and examined it from various angles, and then (I was coming closer and closer, although in a roundabout way, tracing a more or less spiral path toward the object of my observation) I thought: I'm going to put my hand into the vase's dark mouth. That's what I thought. And 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 Hell mouth, and after that I don't know what happened to me, though I do know what could have happened and didn't.
You run risks. That's the plain truth. You run risks and, even in the most unlikely places, you are subject to destiny's whims.
That time with the vase, I started crying. Or rather, the tears welled up and took me by surprise and I had to sit in an armchair, the only armchair Don Pedro had in that room, otherwise I think I would have fainted. 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. The worst thing was that all I could think about was Pedrito Garfías coming in and seeing me in that awful state. Except that I hadn't stopped thinking about the vase; I averted my gaze, but I knew (I'm not completely stupid) that it was there, in the room, standing on a shelf beside a silver frog, a frog whose skin seemed to have absorbed all the madness of the Mexican moon. Then, still shaking, I got up and walked over to that vase again, with, I think, the sensible intention of picking it up and smashing it on the floor, on the green tiles of that floor, and this time the path I traced toward the object of my terror was not a spiral but a straight line, admittedly rather hesitant, but straight nevertheless. And when I was a few feet from the vase, I stopped again and said to myself: If it isn't Hell in there, it's nightmares, and all that is lost, all that causes pain and is better forgotten.
Then I thought: Does Pedrito Garfías know what's hidden in his vase? 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?
That day I couldn't think about anything else. I left earlier than usual and went for a walk in Chapultepec Park. A soothing, pretty place. But however much I walked and admired my surroundings, I couldn't stop thinking about the vase in Pedro Garfías's study and his books and that sad gaze of his that settled sometimes on quite inoffensive things and sometimes on things that were extremely dangerous. And so, while my gaze slid over the walls of Maximiliano and Carlota's palace, or the trees multiplied in the surface of Lake Chapultepec, in my mind's eye all I could see was a Spanish poet looking at a vase with what seemed to be an all-embracing sadness. And that infuriated me. Or rather, it did to begin with. I wondered why he didn't do anything about it. Why did the poet sit there looking at the vase instead of taking two steps (he would have looked so elegant taking those two or three steps in his unbleached linen trousers), picking up the vase with both hands, and smashing it on the floor. But then my anger subsided and, thinking it over as the breeze of Chapultepec Park ("picturesque Chapultepec," to quote Manuel Gutiérrez Náijera) caressed the tip of my nose, I came to realize that, over the years, Pedrito Garfías had already smashed his fair share of vases and other mysterious objects, countless vases, on two continents! So who was I to find fault with him, even if only in my mind, for being so resigned to the one in his study.
Once I was in that frame of mind, I even started looking for reasons to justify the continuing presence of the vase, and sure enough various reasons occurred to me, but what's the point of listing them, what purpose could that serve? All I knew for sure was that the vase was there, although it could also have been sitting on the ledge of an open window in Montevideo or on my father's desk, in Doctor Lacouture's old house, my father the doctor, who died so long ago I've almost forgotten him, and even now the pillars of oblivion are collapsing onto that house and desk.
So all I know for sure is that I visited the apartments of León Felipe and Pedro Garfías and helped them in whatever way I could, dusting their books and sweeping the floors, for example, and when they protested, I'd say to them, Don't mind me, you get on with your writing and let me take care of the logistical support, and León Felipe would laugh, but not Don Pedro, Pedro Gafías, what a melancholy man, he didn't laugh, he looked at me with those eyes like a lake at sundown, like one of those lakes high in the mountains that nobody visits, those terribly sad and tranquil lakes, so tranquil they don't seem to belong to this world, and he would say, Don't bother, Auxilio, or Thank you, Auxilio, and that was all. What a divine man. What an honorable man. He would stand there, motionless, and thank me. That was all and that was enough for me. Because I'm not very demanding. It doesn't take long to work that out. León Felipe used to call me Bonita, he'd say, You're priceless, Auxilio, and try to help me out with a few pesos, but usually when he offered me money I'd kick up an almighty fuss. I'm doing this because I want to, León Felipe, I would say, out of sheer, irresistible admiration. And León Felipe would pause for a moment, pondering my choice of words, while I put the money he had given me on his desk and went on with my work. I used to sing. While I was working I used to sing and it didn't matter to me whether I was paid for my work or not (although it would be hypocritical to say that I wasn't glad to be paid). But with them it was different; I preferred to work for free. I would have paid out of my own pocket simply to be there, among their books and papers, coming and going as I pleased. Although in return I did accept the gifts they offered me. León Felipe used to give me little Mexican clay figurines; where they came from I don't know, because he didn't have many in his apartment. I think he bought them specially for me. Such sad little figurines. They were so pretty. Tiny and pretty. They didn't conceal the gates to Heaven or Hell, they were just figurines made by Indians in Oaxaca, who sold them to traders, who resold them at much higher prices at markets and street stalls in Mexico City. Don Pedro Garfías used to give me philosophy books. I can still remember one by José Gaos, which I tried to read but didn't like. José Gaos was another Spaniard and he died in Mexico too. Poor José Gaos, I should have made more of an effort. When did he die? I think it was in 1968, like León Felipe, no, in 1969, so he might even have died of sadness. Pedrito Garfías died in 1967, in Monterrey. León Felipe died in 1968. One after another I lost all the figurines that León Felipe had given me. Now they're probably sitting on shelves in rooftop rooms or proper apartments in Colonia Náipoles or Colonia Roma or Colonia Hipódromo-Condesa. The ones that didn't get broken, that is. The broken ones must have nourished the dust of Mexico City. I also lost the books Pedro Garfías gave me. First the philosophy books and then, inevitably, the poetry as well.
From time to time I feel as though my books and figurines were with me still. But how could they be? Are they somehow floating around me or over my head? Have the figurines and books that I lost over the years dissolved into the air of Mexico City? Have they become part of the ash that blows through the city from north to south and from east to west? Perhaps. The dark night of the soul advances through the streets of Mexico City sweeping all before it. And now it is rare to hear singing, where once everything was a song. The dust cloud reduces everything to dust. First the poets, then love, then, when it seems to be sated and about to disperse, the cloud returns to hang high over your city or your mind, with a mysterious air that means it has no intention of moving.
Excerpted from Amulet by Roberto Bolaño Copyright © 1999 by Heirs of Roberto Bolaño . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Author of 2666 and many other acclaimed works, Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003) was born in Santiago, Chile, and later lived in Mexico, Paris, and Spain. He has been acclaimed “by far the most exciting writer to come from south of the Rio Grande in a long time” (Ilan Stavans, The Los Angeles Times),” and as “the real thing and the rarest” (Susan Sontag). Among his many prizes are the extremely prestigious Herralde de Novela
Award and the Premio Rómulo Gallegos. He was widely considered to be the greatest Latin American writer of his generation. He wrote nine novels, two story collections, and five books of poetry, before dying in July 2003 at the age of 50.
The poet Chris Andrewsteaches at the University of Western Sydney, Australia, where he is a member of the Writing and Society Research Center. He has translated books by Roberto Bolaño and César Aira for New Directions.
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