Amulet by Roberto Bolaño
He always has something interesting to say: The narrator of Amulet is a woman, Auxilio Lacouture, the Mother of Mexican Poetry:
I started thinking about the teeth I had lost, although at the time, in September 1968, I still had all my teeth, which is odd, to say the least, even on reflection. Nevertheless I thought about them, those four front teeth I lost one by one over the years because I didn’t have the money of the inclination or the time to go to the dentist. And it was strange to be thinking about my teeth, because in a sense I didn’t care that I had lost the four most important teeth in a woman’s mouth, and yet in another sense their loss had left a deep wound in my being, a burning wound that was necessary and unnecessary, absurd. Even now when I think about it, I still can’t understand. Anyway, I lost my teeth in Mexico, where I had lost so many other things and although from time to time friendly or at least well-meaning voices would say to me, Get some dentures, Auxilio, we’ll take up a collection to buy you some, Auxilio, I always knew that the gap would go on gaping to the end like a wound, and I didn’t pay them much attention, although I didn’t refuse outright.
The loss gave rise to a new habit. From then on, whenever I talked or laughed, I covered my depleted mouth with the palm of my hand, a gesture that, as I soon discovered, was taken up and imitated in certain circles. I lost my teeth but not my discretion, my tact, my sense of propriety. The Empress Josephine, it is said, had enormous black cavities in her back teeth, but that did not diminish her charm by one iota. She covered her mouth with a handkerchief or a fan. In my lowlier station as a denizen of Mexico DF, that skyward and subterranean city, I placed the palm of my hand before my lips and laughed and spoke freely throughout the long Mexican nights. For those who made my acquaintance at the time, I must have seemed like a conspirator or some strange creature, half Shulamite, half albino bat. But that didn’t matter to me. There’s Auxilio, said the poets, and there I was, sitting at the table of a novelist with delirium tremens, or of a suicidal journalist, laughing and talking, whispering and gossiping, and no one could say: I have seen the wounded mouth of the woman from Uruguay, I have seen the bare gums of the only person who stayed in the university when it was occupied by the riot police in September 1968. They could say: Auxilio talks like a conspirator, bending close and covering her mouth. They could say: Auxilio looks you in the eyes when she speaks. They could say (with a laugh): How is it that Auxilio who is constantly fiddling with a book or a glass of tequila, always manages to raise one hand to her mouth, in that spontaneous, natural-seeming way? What’s the secret of her prodigious dexterity? Now, since I’m not planning to take that secret to the grave (where there’s no point taking anything), I’ll tell you, my friends: it’s all in the nerves. The nerves that tense and relax as you approach the edges of companionship and love. The razor-sharp edges of companionship and love.
Amulet is a slim book but a major achievement. Auxilio Lacouture, a Uruguayan living illegally in Mexico, finds herself in the bathroom during the Mexican army’s occupation of the National University of Mexico in the days preceding the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre. As the only person still on campus, she hides in the women’s loo with a book of poems. As the violence escalates outside, poetry and memory supply her with nourishment and become her sole connection with the world.
Lacouture is a great character. She is in no sense spunky or brash, and, missing her front teeth, is not too attractive. Nor is she young. But neither is she a victim, and Bolaño never falls into the trap of sentimentalizing her. She is an extraordinarily ordinary woman scooped up by cicumstances way beyond her control.
An amulet is an object that protects a person from trouble. Some Carlist soldiers wore a medal of the Sacred Heart of Jesus with the inscription ¡Detente bala! (“Stop, bullet!”). For Auxilio Lacouture the amulet of her generation is a song of courage and desire.
Throughout, Bolaño’s prose is spare and beautiful, and he evokes atmosphere through memory and poetry. Whatever it is that our heroine is trying to say, is is always about recall rather than predicament, even when she recalls events in the distant future.
The ending of the novel is disappointing. Bolaño deals with real life and fiction hand in hand and after all bis striving he can only hand us back to these twin monsters. He’s not going to lie to us, not intentionally, anyway; we have what we have, we have lost whatever it cost us along the way. And it’s not all pain, and it’s important to remember that, there is pleasure along the way, too.