Amulet, By Roberto Bolaño trans Chris Andrews

Reviewed,Boyd Tonkin
Friday 16 October 2009 00:00 BST

With the arrival into English first of the magnum-sized The Savage Detectives and then the jeroboam of stories that is 2666, the late Roberto Bolaño not only recruited an army of fresh followers. He attracted a multitude of hangers-on who felt intrigued by the literary legend – the vagabond Chilean turned Mexican bohemian poet, who crossed the ocean to become, in Catalonia, one of the most original of postwar European novelists - but also wary of the looming bulk of these twin monuments. First published in 1999, this short novel (or fictional fantasia) might promise to act as a curtain-raising taster to the epic of his landmark works. Indeed, its first-person heroine turns up in The Savage Detectives: the Uruguayan immigrant Auxilio Lacouture, not so much a groupie as a protective mother-hen to young poets in Mexico City during and after the rebellions and repressions of 1968.

Yet, as always with Bolaño, this unsettling tale creates a micro-climate of its own. Read it as a straightforward narrative about young hopefuls crushed under the wheels of poverty and power, and the shuffled time-sequences, the visionary interludes and the distracting shifts of mood and tone will disappoint. Bolaño, however, began his career as a poet and never ceased to think of himself as one. This suite of variations on the lives of "the mother of Mexican poetry" and the wannabe bards she cultivates unfolds as semi-hallucinated episodes in a theatre of memory. The intoxicating atmosphere of Amulet has mystery and melancholy to spare, but absolute beginners in Bolaño's world might be best advised to begin with the superbly eclectic short stories of Last Evenings on Earth.

Auxilio is trapped in a fourth-floor ladies' bathroom when, in September 1968, the army invades the university campus where she works as helpmeet and muse for her beloved junior literati. Elsehere in the city, troops massacre hundreds of protesting students but here, hiding out in her solitary tiled vantage-point, she somehow views a panorama of her past and future.

"I didn't know if it was the vale of joy or the vale of tears". But what she glimpses – through the prism of her gossipy milieu - is a Latin American landscape of aspiration and disenchantment, brave ideals and bitter defeats.

In Mexico City, her older poet-mentors have fled Franco's Spain (as so many did). As for the pack of adolescent scribblers, "exposed to the storms" of their continent but yearning for grace and justice, they include the wayward Chilean-born teenager "Arturo Belano": our author's youthful double.

Creators young and old must cherish the flickering flame of art amid the deadly tempests of history. Richly depicted but loosely connected scenes in seedy bars and shabby flats introduce real-life figures from Mexico's exiled bohemia, such as the Salvadorean poet Lilian Serpas – with her mournful artist son Carlos – and the Catalan painter Remedios Varo.

Im microcosm, these characters fight to bring light and life into the "black holes of Mexico and Latin America". As romantic in its aesthetic rapture as in its flavour of encircling doom, the story ends with a double coup. First comes a re-telling of the tale of Orestes that yokes the archetypal conflicts of Greek myth to the fate of these shambolic fantasists and drifters; then Auxilio's vision of a tribe of singing children "heading for the abyss"; "such beauty, although they were marching deathward, shoulder to shoulder".

Since the early 1970s, when many scenes take place, much of Latin America has begun a slow march towards a happier valley. In flashlit fragments, Amulet pays homage to the wild dreams that helped to keep hope alive.

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