Amulet by Roberto Bolaño

BolanoZI read my first Roberto Bolaño book over the weekend – Amulet. What an incredible piece of writing it is.

It’s a one-sitting read; I read it in two (I’m a mum, okay?). The novel is an internal journey through a poet’s mind as she hides from soldiers/police in the ladies toilet of a university building in Mexico. I had to Google the history behind the book, the horrific massacre of hundreds (possibly) of students in 1968. It is set around the notorious Tlatelolco massacre, where soldiers and police, even the special forces established to provide security for the Olympics, opened fire on students protesting against a corrupt government. Auxilio is caught reading poetry on the toilet as the police storm through the university looking to maim, make arrests, or worse.

As you read, it’s easy to forget that this is an internal monologue, as time shifts all over the place, and character and memory merge. Auxilio must be one of the most unreliable narrators in literature.

She refers to herself as the ‘Mother of Mexican Poetry’ – an epithet she has obviously been given by the establishment and one she wears with pride. Thin, blonde and interesting, she is a true bohemian spirit, but not someone I’d like to go for drink with; she is intense and flawed, but I love her bravery. Unknown-1

I’m crazy about the way she acknowledges that she has a reputation for never leaving, and we see her overstay her welcome in the scenes she describes taking place outside the ladies washroom, scenes with poets and students and artists. She crashes dates, sleeps in people’s homes for too long, talks well into the night, missing all the normal social cues to get gone. But she doesn’t leave, that’s the point. She doesn’t leave people and places (until she’s almost forced to), and she doesn’t leave the toilet. I love that detail, that interesting slip of truth.

I am going to reread this book, and soon. I got lost at times; it’s easy to do. Sentences are long and rambling, but always make sense and are tightly controlled despite their length. I worried about my overuse of the comma until I read this book. Each clause inhabits its own space within these long, long sentences and drives forward a fluid, dreamlike narration with little interruption. But it takes some getting used to. I need to revisit now that I’ve read to the end and realised that there was barely anything ‘external’ in the narration: just the toilet, footsteps, the moon on the tiles, what she’s forced to eat.

And it’s sad. As soon as you have it in its historical context, it becomes ‘more’. Although it’s not necessary to give it an historical reading, I think it’s worth doing. I’ll be finding out a bit more about Mexico before I read it again, and the call for revolution in 1968.

I find myself grateful for having Freedom after reading this book. I’ve protested as a student, against the Poll Tax, and another time against racism with the rise of the British National Party back then – (We chanted: *Can you hear the racists sing? – Doo Daah, Doo Daah. Can you hear the racists sing? – I can’t hear a fucking thing! Doo dee doo dah daaaay*) and all that happened afterwards was having to listen to Billy Bragg singing in Hyde Park (I think that’s still a compulsory part of protesting in the UK). Unknown-3

That said, having written that last paragraph rather flippantly, I now remember the riots in the UK  I watched on the news a couple of years ago, those protests which turned bloody with looters and arsonists making a mockery of freedom. But I may be wrong to judge; I’ve been away from the UK for 8 years now and it’s no longer home. I can’t feel the tension from here on the other side of the world, the low morale that must have kicked off that level of anger. How long had it been brewing?

And I am also old enough to remember Thatcher’s appalling police brutality against the striking miners in Britain in the 80’s, and there was little freedom to peacefully protest then too. They were ordinary working men protecting their rights, their ability to provide for their ordinary families – brutalised, arrested, beaten. images-2

The truth is, we never know when it’s our turn to suffer under a government, or where in the world we’ll be when mob anger hits. Auxilio was reading poetry on the toilet. Others would have been brewing tea or teaching or learning – Or, like me, chanting a silly song that they weren’t even taking seriously, until they’re shot. Unknown-2

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