Monday 7 September 2009

'I am the memory'

by Roberto Bolaño

Because of my section by section review of 2666 Roberto Bolaño is the most reviewed author on this blog. Which is ironic as I fear we may have just fallen out with each other. My first experience of his writing was the riotous road-movie of a novel that was The Savage Detectives. It was due to my enthusiastic review of that novel that I was sent a proof of Amulet after publishers Picador ran a competition on their blog. I would have needed some prompting to get back into bed with Bolaño after struggling through his posthumous opus at the beginning of the year and I'm afraid that my latest experience may have soured things beyond repair.

It needn't have been that way. Amulet is narrated by Auxilio Lacouture, the self styled 'mother of Mexican poetry', who is really more of a ligger on the periphery around the young poets of Mexico in the late 60's and early 70's. Described as a female DonQuixote by Pedro Garfias, she makes a memorable cameo appearance in The Savage Detectives describing her incarceration in the women's toilets on the fourth floor of the University building whilst army troops rounded up student protesters during the demonstrations of 1968 (leading to a massacre of at least thirty but perhaps as many as two or three hundred protesters in Tlatelolco) . Her brief contributions to that book are energised and romantic but in Amulet she is given 184 pages of loose, dream-like prose, still using that siege in the 4th floor bathroom as a locale if you like, an experimental vantage point which I will leave her to explain.

Then I began to think about my past as I am doing now. As I went back through the dates, the rhombus shattered in a space of speculative desperation, images rose from the bottom of the lake, no one could stop them emerging from that pitiful body of water, unlit by the sun or moon, and time folded and unfolded itself like a dream. 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. I mean: I started thinking about my past, all mixed together and dormant in the one tepid egg, the enormous egg of some inner bird (an archaeopteryx?) nestled on a bed of smoking rubble.


It is left for the reader to try and assemble some kind of narrative structure to the increasingly chaotic ramblings of Lacouture. There are episodes which are clear enough, such as the moment where Arturo Belano and Ernesto San Epifanio (both of whom also feature in The Savage Detectives) go to visit The King of the Rent Boys in order to extricate Ernesto from the kingpin's clutches. But all too often the erratic nature of the time-shifting delivery and the soft focus of the dream-like remembrances take away from any sense of development. Themes and images seem to repeat rather than echo one another and I for one was left scratching my head at the end.

In one section Lacouture has a conversation with the reclusive artist son of one her friends. He tells her the myth of Orestes and Erigone, going into great detail and leaving her baffled as to what her reaction should be. Should she perhaps 'act as though I had understood his story (although I hadn't)' ? In the end, she does nothing. I think I might do the same because I can't pretend that to understand.

I realise this kind of review isn't hugely helpful (apart from helping you to cross a potential book off the list if it doesn't sound like a starter) so if you would like to read something more positive may I recommend Scott Bryan Wilson's review from Quarterly Conversation.


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