amulet – Roberto Bolaño (translated by Chris Andrews)

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Every time I read and review a book that has been around for a number of years, I am confronted with a dilemma, is my view adding anything worthwhile to the plethora of other reviews that happen to be in the public domain? Will my views sway anybody into a purchase or an avoidance? Am I just posting here to say “I read this book too”?

I personally own all of Bolaño’s novels, short story collections and poetry collections, so why I decided to pick up “amulet” is now a blur. I have some vague recollection of glancing at Wikipedia and thinking it was an early work so I’d start with it. Having a look at Wikipedia now I notice it makes no mention of “Monsieur Pain” on the main Bolaño page, so a bit of work needs to be done on that page.

“amulet” is not an early work, it was published soon after “The Savage Detectives” and contains a number of links to that work (more on them later).

A first person narration by Auxilia Lacouture, she could say she is “the mother of Mexican poetry”;

By day I busied myself at the university; by night I led a bohemian life, and slept, and gradually scattered my few belongings, leaving them in the houses and apartments of friends: my clothes, my books, my magazines, my photos. I, Remedios Varo, I, Leonora Carrington, I, Eunice Odio, I, Lilian Serpas (ah, poor Lilian Serpas, I still have to tell you about her). And my friends, of course, would eventually get tired of me and ask me to leave. I would try and make light of it and leave. I would hang my head and leave. I would give them a kiss on the cheek and say thanks and leave.

Auxilio Lacouture is locked in the bathroom of the university in 1968 whilst it is raided by the military and the police, an historical moment in Mexican history, known as “Mexico 68” and leading up to the Olympic Games in Mexico City, brought on by ideological and political clashes. The narration takes place from the bathroom as Auxillo talks of the past, the future and a little of the present.

I don’t know why I remember that afternoon. That afternoon of 1971 or 1972. And the strangest thing is that I remember it prospectively, from 1968. From my watchtower, my bloody subway carriage, from my gigantic rainy day. From the women’s bathroom on the fourth floor of the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature, the timeship from which I can observe the entire life and times of Auxilio Lacouture, such as they are.

Besides Bolaño’s style, which of course I adore, why else would I own every book he wrote (those translated into English that is), this novel has a number of interesting connections to other works. Besides the common recurring Bolaño alter ego Arturo Belano, about half way through the book we come across Ernesto San Epifanio, who had earlier appeared in “The Savage Detectives” . Of course Auxilio also appeared in “The Savage Detectives” in Part II Chapter four, a full 10 page single paragraph that is almost replicated word for word as the opening to “amulet”. The short novella a little more polished in my opinion. Back to Ernesto;

Then we walked down the Avenida Guerrero; they weren’t stepping so lightly any more, and I wasn’t feeling too enthusiastic either. Guerro, at that time of the night, is more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or in 1968, or in 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else.

After a long drunken night, Ernesto and Arturo “why still hadn’t turned twenty-one” travel “down that turbulent river that was and is the Avenida Guerro”, crossing the metaphorical River Styx into hell, “into the kingdom of the King of the Rent Boys”, where Arturo is going to negotiate the release of Ernesto’s “body and soul”.

Another interesting reference is, of course, (apparently Bolaño’s only reference) to 2666.

As Auxilio, locked in the bathroom, moves from time and place to time and place it is as though a dreamlike fog has descended upon her tale. Surrealist painters emerge, obscure poets, mothers of painters, promiscuous characters move in and out of the spotlight. The references to real characters are vast, unfortunately not a lot of their work is available in English.

To complete the surrealist picture, Auxilio is taken on an operating table to attend the birth of History. A reference to the permanent social change that occurred as a result of the student sacrifice and protest.

Another interesting work from one of my favourite writers, the references coming thick and fast, giving me reading lists to keep me going well beyond the grave, the mythological links, and the links to other works of his own, all part of the melting pot that is Roberto Bolaño.

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A Brief History of Portable Literature – Enrique Vila-Matas (translated by Anne McLean and Thomas Bunstead)

As regular readers of this blog, and especially my followers on Twitter, would know, I have an obsession with Enrique Vila-Matas, so when his latest book was released I was all ready to attack a newly translated work of his. This work was released in 1985 in Spanish so it has taken a long time to be translated into English. Unfortunately the book turned up at the start of August, which is Women In Translation Month, so my obsession had to wait another month, then in September other more pressing books made it to the top of the “to be read” pile, so it was with great joy that I picked this slim work up on the weekend and settled down to another dose of the enigmatic Vila-Matas.

This work was written fifteen years before Bartleby & Co, however it was translated into English and released eleven years after that work. And the similarities are numerous, whilst “Bartleby & Co.” explored the “literature of the No”, this work looks at “portable literature”.
What is “portable literature”? As a reader you travel into the world of “portable literature” via the Shandies, from Laurence Sterne’s “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy”, via “non-existent literature, seeing as none of the Shandies knew what it consisted of (though paradoxically this was what made it possible). It was a literature to whose rhythm the members of the secret society danced, conspiring for the sake of – and on the basis of – nothing.”
Yes this is a book that explored the history of a non-existent literature. Another of Enrique Vila-Matas’ red herrings. Our book shows an utter disdain for what is considered important, even portable literature’s history isn’t.
As per a number of Vila-Matas’ other works, this one contains mysteries, are we reading his book? Or are we reading an imaginary book written by somebody else?
“I’ve managed to find out that Tristan Tzara has begun writing a brief history of portable literature: a kind of literature that, by his reckoning, is characterized by having no system to impose, only an art of living. In a sense, it’s more life than literature. For Tzara, his book contains the only literary construction possible; it is a transcription made by someone unconvinced by the authenticity of History and the metaphorical historicity of the Novel. Employing greater originality than most novels, the book will offer sketches of the Shandy customs and life. Tzara’s aim is to cultivate the imaginary portrait (a form of literary fantasia concealing a reflection in its capriciousness), to endeavour in the imaginary portrait’s ornamentation.”
This is supposedly taken from a postcard written by Aleister Crowley, the famed occultists, novelist, ceremonial magician, poet, painter and mountaineer. However it reads as though it is a precursor to the work we are actually reading, which is a set of “sketches of the Shandies customs and life”.
This is a very slim book, weighing in at only eighty-six pages (including the “essential bibliography”), but “to miniaturize is to make portable, and for a vagrant and an exile, that is the best way of owning things.”
Larbaud was also a traveler of words: “I fixate on winding clocks to make sure they tell the right time, putting things where they belong, polishing those things that have gotten tarnished, bringing to light things relegated to the shadows, mending and cleaning old toys from forgotten civilizations in people’s lofts…” It was in one such lift that Larbaud decided on the phrase that came to be used to swear in new members to the secret society, a definition from Tristram Shandy: “Gravity: a mysterious carriage of the body to cover the defects of the mind.”
As per a number of other books by Vila-Matas, there are innumerable references to other writers, other books, even F. Scott Fitgerald makes an appearance, with a story containing drugs that leads to the creation of an insignificant quote from “The Great Gatsby”.  Salvador Dali, Jorge Luis Borges, Laurence Sterne, Paul Klee and a plethora of others appear.  Yet another work that can lead you down many a rabbit burrow.
We have the recurrence of the number twenty-seven and other McGuffins (see my review of “The Illogic Of Kassel” to understand what that means).
This book reads like an early work, the ideas and concepts are all there, the whole just seems to be missing, whereas “Bartleby & Co.” explored “literature of the No” through footnotes on an imagined text, the narrative style of this book is a little broken at times and seems out of place. The tricks that Vila-Matas performs are all here, Shandies, misleading plot lines, footnotes, but at times it felt a little rambling, with no core.

However as a work that is exploring the insignificant, it is possibly perfect in doing so, given it is actually an insignificant work. Similar to Milan Kundera’s latest work “The Festival of Insignificance” this book also explores the minute, the not required, the insignificant. Personally I feel this one explores such in a better manner, but then of course I would, an unabashed Enrique Vila-Matas fan. So much so that I may have a few lazy $$$ as a bet on him to pick up this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature at the 60/1 – award is going to be announced this Thursday!!!
Source – personal copy.

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Bartleby & Co – Enrique Vila-Matas (translated by Johnathan Dunne)

As regular visitors to this blog would know, I’ve recently developed a bit of an Enrique Vila-Matas fetish, although I’d read and enjoyed the 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlisted “Dublinesque” (translated by Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean),  my “obsession” came about with the recent reading of “The Illogic Of Kassel” (translated by Anne McLean and Anna Milsom). This experience of being physically involved with a book led to a flurry of reading of shorter pieces (his introduction to Sergio Pitol’s “The Art Of Flight” – I’ll review this book art some later stage – his introduction to the Dalkey Archive collection “Best European Fiction 2015, his contribution to their 2011 edition, and the selection of his work included in “A Thousand Forests in One Acorn” anthology of Spanish literature published by Open Letter Books). There was method in this madness, I was awaiting the missing English translations of his longer works from my collection and I was awaiting their arrival by post. First cab off the rank was the 2005 novel “Bartleby & Co.”
It is 1999 and our first person narrator is writing a book of footnotes commenting on an invisible text. Yes the world of Enrique Vila-Matas can be a strange world to enter.
Literature, as much as we delight in denying it, allows us to recall from oblivion all that which the contemporary eye, more immoral every day, endeavours to pass over with absolute indifference.
Bartleby’s are “beings inhabited by a profound denial of the world”, named after a clerk in the story “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story Of Wall-street”” by Herman Melville.
So the modern spectacle of all these people paralysed before the absolute dimensions required by all creation has a long history. But, paradoxically, those who shun the pen constitute literature as well. As Marcel Bénabou writes in Why I Have Not Written Any Of My Books, “Above all, dear reader, do not believe that the books I have not written are pure nothingness. On the contrary (let it be clear once and for all), they are held in suspension in universal literature.”
Our story is an exploration for and the noting of writers who have given up their craft, they are Bartleby’s, they constitute the “literature of the No”. With a plethora of writers referenced, quotes for innumerable books, the search from Walser to Tolstoy via Beckett and Salinger (throw in another few hundred names and you’d not even touch the tip of the iceberg), you know that our author is a very well read man.  A work that by searching for the deconstruction of literature is actually contributing to it, as per a number of Vila-Matas works, the conundrum is always there.
What I most admire about him is that he was a first-rate trickster.
It may be a quote from this book, but it captures what I also admire about Vila-Matas, the tricks, the way that he makes you, the reader, complicit in his ramblings, the literal involvement that you have whilst reading makes his books not just a novel, not just fiction, but more a work of art. The questioning of what labyrinth you are now trapped in is palpable. With this novel I had some misguided belief that taking notes of the various writers mentioned would allow me to see into the crystal ball, after 15 pages I gave up, I was distracting myself having to stop every paragraph and take notes, I’ve committed to a re-read with a notebook, plenty of ink and silence erequired.
To comment on this work using a linear narrative description is just about impossible, I could speak of our scribbler and his search for nothing, his journeys, his seclusion but it wouldn’t amount to a lot and would give you zero understanding of the book. Our hunchback writer, Marcelo, has suffered writer’s block for the last twenty-five years, since having his story on the impossibility of love being published. Marcelo takes extended leave from his employment at a publishing house to commence his book of footnotes on the “labyrinth of the No”.
We then have eighty-six footnotes of writers who have stopped writing, some for more obvious reasons (suicide is mentioned but dismissed as an avenue to stop writing) through to some very strange ones indeed. A work which could be seen as part essay, part research, part fiction it is a delight to be involved in the revelation that is Vila-Matas:
These footnotes cannot have an essence, neither can literature, because the essence of any text consists precisely in evading any essential classification, any assertion that establishes or claims it.

Where do I go after that?

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