Author: Roberto Bolaño, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews

2007, New Directions (English language)

Filed Under: Literary, Historical

Despite all the great things I’ve heard about Bolaño, I’d never read anything by him. The Savage Detectives has long been on my to-read list. After reading Amulet, I wish more that I had read The Savage Detectives; these novels share characters and events, so not only do I now realize what great writing I’ve been missing out on, at times I felt I was perhaps lacking a lot of context.

Still, Amulet paints a stunning picture of a time and place; the revolutionary South America described is rendered vividly. The plot is whole and cogent. I never felt lost or like I was picking up where something left off. I’ve done very little investigating into this book’s relationship with Bolaño’s most popular work (I didn’t want to spoil things for myself) but I suspect this is more akin to a side story, something existing in the same circle of characters but unrelated in consequence.

The book centers around Auxilio, a Uruguayan expatriate living in Mexico City who refers to herself as “the mother of Mexican poetry.” She delivers the narrative from a public bathroom, hiding from the Mexican army as they suppress a student rebellion. From there she relates story of a subculture, describing the poets, artists, and revolutionaries in volatile South America. She is a very interesting character, one who’s difficult to pin down. Yet it’s hard to tell exactly how she fits in. She is at once in the middle of things and on the fringes. She loves poetry–it is a book of poems that helps her keep her vitality while locked in the bathroom without food or drink–but she seems to do more bedding of poets than writing poetry.

I didn’t expect them to read my poems or take an interest in my personal problems, I was just trying to be useful, but that didn’t take up all my time.

Many real artists populate the novel, the most recognizable being Che Guevara. Many of her interactions with them are brief or drug-hazy (a mood that permeates the book) and these build upon each other to tell not only their tale as a group, but the story of Latin America as they see it. Her role, essentially, is to try to be useful. Not a poet, but something borne by these poets and artists, she is a crucial player–at least as she sees it. By hiding out in that bathroom, she becomes something emblematic of their political struggle.

The plot in this book isn’t linear; it paints a picture more than it relates a story and thus is subservient to the excellent writing. Bolaño, like many South American authors I have read, writes with the flair and precision of a poet. I liked this:

I remember Lilian looking at me with her pained, wrinkled doll’s mask, which seemed to be perpetually on the point of dropping to reveal the Queen of the Seas with her cohorts of thunder, yet always remained lifeless.

And phrases like this:

it was a cafeteria to weep for

After reading Amulet, I intend to finally read The Savage Detectives. Auxilio is a complex and intriguing character, and the setting is fascinating. Although I would read Bolaño for his skill with words alone, it is the depth of his books that really deserves attention.

Similar Reads: The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta (Vargas Llosa), The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (Saramago), The Lost Daughter (Ferrante), The Lover (Duras), Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand (Belli)