Amulet by Roberto Bolano


bolano’s characters are some of the most beautiful. they miraculously avoid sentimentality while achieving a too-beautiful-to-speak-of romanticism — though reducing them so is an error, that quality he gets really does tear me up…

his characters remind me of the vow of poverty monastics make. it isn’t a negative vow–at least not for the nun. it is in fact a positive one, one that moves the renunciate closer to the divine. bolano’s poets and losers and mothers are an equal type. and one way to describe his natural, moving, ecstatic and elegiac style is to say that it simultaneously shows the mundane and profoundly human while it recognizes and manifests the divine (or maybe better said: the cosmic).

AMULET is a slowly shifting machine, moving from a narrative built first on a natural and sad and graceful character development into a kind of modernized persephone-in-hell myth then into a creepy symbolic tale (though for what is hard to say) and finally into a long description of an icy, abstract landscape.

i probably didn’t do a good job assigning the sections descriptions–and i missed a few–but there are distinct parts to this novel. and bolano gently leads the reader (and virgil and dante are explicitly mentioned) through these passages, a series of subtle changes. the book is one long song describing the horror story (that the narrator proclaims will not appear to be a horror story, but is, nonetheless) of living through history–in this case latin america’s revolutionary 60s and 70s.

here’s one paragraph, within which bolano seems to convey succinctly and impossibly some of the tumult of that era. a phone call is made asking about arturo (a boy who has gone from mexico to chile in 1973 to ‘take part in the revolution’) (and where he barely escapes execution):

“One night, at a party in Colonia Anzures, propped on my elbows in a sea of tequila, watching a group of friends trying to break open a pinata in the garden, it occurred to me that it was an ideal time to call Arturo’s place. His sister answered the phone. Merry Christmas, I said. Merry Christmas, she replied sleepily. Then she asked where I was. With some friends. What’s with Arturo? He’s coming back to Mexico next month. When exactly? We don’t know. I’d like to go to the airport, I said. Then for a while we said nothing and listened to the party noises coming from the patio. Are you feeling OK, his sister asked. I’m feeling strange. Well that’s normal for you. Not all that normal; most of the time I feel perfectly well. Arturo’s sister was quiet for a bit, then she said that actually she was feeling pretty strange herself. Why’s that? I asked. It was a purely rhetorical question. To tell the truth, both of us had plenty reasons to be feeling strange. I can’t remember what she said in reply. We wished each other a merry Christmas again and hung up.” p.76.

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