October 13, 2014
demanding the impossible…
Literature and Political Imagination (Amuleto, 1968 in the Nineties)
By (Princeton University)


The call for submissions for this special issue poses an intriguing and difficult question: “What role, if any, do discussions of the literary, and of the work of art more generally, … play within Latin American studies today?” At a time when literature seems to vacillate between an almost mindless market-driven mechanism (the best-seller) or a moribund state (the apparent absence of any social role), the question challenges us to move into complex territories involving not only the possibility of saying something new or different about art, but also examining the way in which certain works become questions about themselves, about what they can do or achieve.

In this sense, I am interested in dealing with what Derrida calls “literary acts” (or “acts of literature”) because they allow us to explore the performative aspect of literature—its practical expressions. In the opening interview of Acts of Literature, Derrida argues that literature’s power lies in the fact that it configures speech from a place that differs from other discourses [in]

[being] the institution which allows one to say everything, in every way. The space of literature is not only that of an instituted fiction but also a fictive institution which in principle allows one to say everything. […] The institution of literature in the West, in its relatively modern form, is linked to an authorization to say everything, and doubtless too to the coming about of a modern idea of democracy. Not that it depends on a democracy in place, but it seems inseparable to me from what calls forth a democracy, in the most open (and doubtless itself to come) sense of democracy.1

It is perhaps in this link between the open structure of a fictional institution and a potential democracy that literature connects to a form of promise—in other words, to the fact of being able to create a space in what is instituted as a given (as “non-fiction”) so as to translate it into other modes of being. In this act of opening, which suspends the limitation or reduction of language to its referential form, another possibility emerges: “to invent something new in the form of acts of writing which no longer consist in a theoretical knowledge, in new constative statements, to give oneself to a poetic-literary performativity at least analogous to that of promises, orders, or acts of constitution or legislation which do not only change language, or which, in changing language, change more than language. It is always more interesting than to repeat.”2 This is connected to the idea that emerges in Martin Heidegger’s texts on art as a poetic dwelling that is connected to a “measure” that corresponds to the incommensurable (that which affects, inhabits, or questions thought).3 Its power resides in the effort power to interpellate us from the non-measurable, and thus from what becomes incommensurable to our present, and to question, test, and critique it.

It is curious to note that on the current literary map it is the best-selling and most heavily marketed Latin American author, Roberto Bolaño, whose work is apparently obsessed with dramatizing the different relations between aesthetics and politics that are linked to Latin American literary endeavors. Various texts by the Chilean author raise the question of another place to think about literary intervention and how it connects to the political horizon, proposing a an interstice that extends the usual figures historically articulated by aesthetics and politics. By this I mean either the ideal of autonomy or art for art’s sake, with the figure of the activist artist who transmits a message, or the notion of a vanguard as the group of forerunners who lead or guide the masses. Likewise, the fact that he articulates the question about aesthetics and politics differently challenges us to rethink each of those spheres in a way that questions the relationships between the specific spheres of production characteristic of art and politics: for example, the notion of the writer linked to the university or to state institutions and therefore entangled in a given politics, already stereotyped by the limitations of the state. Nocturno de Chile (2000), like Amuleto (1998) or Los detectives salvajes (1998), dramatizes the crisis of a certain type of intellectual and writer, proposing a retreat from the institutional organization of the art of writing. However, in proposing this withdrawal, we have to consider or wonder about the type of fabulation the text can create or assume once it is disconnected from that which traditionally linked it to certain power organizations.

Amuleto plays at transferring the question of the literary to another type of archive, one that is capable of making us reconfigure the past based on its promises, instead of factual archives. It signals the possibility of opening up a space for imagining not the configuration of fact through the factual, but through what did not happen (could not be). Interestingly, the text becomes the place where a way of articulating the promise of the literary emerges from a concrete objective that refers to thinking, introducing, and expressing another type of memory of 68. The fact that this is the date that crystallizes the text is not coincidental, since it is thanks to the market’s appropriation of the imagination of 68 and its cognitive work that the novel acquires another meaning by insisting on opening up histories after 68 about what did not happen.4 Thus, the drama bequeathed by the post-boom is augmented by the possibility of what Brett Levinson in The Ends of Literature calls “an effort to occupy an imaginary hybrid site between aestheticism and empiricism,” perhaps a way of being able to move in the space of co-implication of both.5 Bolaño provides a condensed response to the anxiety about the end of the literary and at the same time, he is doing something that causes us to roll the dice again, to bring in what might be called the specter of the literary, its promise—its “place.” I wish to discuss Amuleto because I believe it shows one of the possible potentials still remaining in literature, the ability to imagine what did not happen, which allows me to respond to the question in the call for submissions with a reply that also coincides with an act of literary interpretation.

Amuleto, 1968 Otherwise

Playing with 68’s great crisis of functionality and its critique of knowledge-producing institutions, the novel signals a withdrawal from the authority of academic knowledge—in Amuleto literature passes through another site, constructs another place (we go from the classroom to the bathroom).6 Bolaño appropriates a rumor and constructs a story: when the Spanish poet, León Felipe, died, a recording of him reading his poems was played in the Facultad de Filosofía y Letras. According to Martín Dorsal, the sound of Felipe’s voice was followed by the tramp of boots as the riot police seized the building.7 Poetry and activism are linked in the first major moment of violation of the Mexican university autonomy, which crystallized in a curious image of military boots filling the physical and auditory space of the building, leading to the fact that poetry ended up being crushed by military force. This comes into Amuleto with an evocation of the event in an anecdote that apparently circulated around the university, in bars, and in intellectual and artistic circles: Auxilio Lacouture, who is shut up in a bathroom stall during the occupation, reads poetry and resists until she faints. A poet with no published work, she emerges as a 68 character who inhabits only the memory of those who remember her; she did not leave a great work and yet she emerges in almost all the texts that in one way or another attempt to recapture the scene at the time.8 The question that arises is why the memory of one of the most extraordinary moments in the politics and culture of Mexican history should focus on this character, who seems not to belong anywhere: an undocumented Uruguayan in Mexico who is neither an activist nor a student becomes the stage for a moment in time. To my mind, the choice of this particular memory site tells us something about the relationships between the aesthetic, the historical and the political, something that recurs throughout almost all of the author’s works, but is seen at its most intense in this short novel.

It is interesting that Bolaño’s longest texts are the ones that have drawn the greatest attention from readers on an international level. Perhaps it is not too far from the mark to claim that the Bolaño boom that has been going on ever since the English translation of Los detectives salvajes reflects an anxiety about the death of a notion of literature that Bolaño explores intensely and incessantly. According to Sergio Villalobos-Ruminott, Bolaño situates us in a universe in which literature and horror appear in a story of police complicity, forcing us to think about the bankruptcy of the scholarly and literary endeavors typical of the Enlightenment.9 In a similar vein, Patrick Dove stresses that Bolaño confronts us with the paradox of an aesthetic which, rather than opening up possibilities for critically enriching the senses, ends up creating an anesthesia, a critical and sensory “blindness.”10 Dove is referring to the scene close to the end of Nocturno de Chile, in which we are told that in one of the literary salons held in the home of María Canales, the wife of a CIA-DINA agent, someone gets lost in the basement corridors and comes across the body of a detainee who has been tortured and is waiting for his “transfer” or death. In this scene that the text reconstructs again and again, a powerful critique is mounted against a certain type of “vanguard” literary criticism which, rather than opening up ways to “see” differently, blinds the senses. Here the notion of Enlightenment as “illumination” overlaps with a gradual darkening, since each description of the event emphasizes that as before the person who saw horror returns to the living room where the literary-artistic group is meeting, he carefully switches off all the lights he turned on as he went down to the basement. The question is, therefore, how to link the critique of Enlightenment scholarly endeavors within which literature has operated in the history of Latin American letters and the place from which this critical gesture is constructed (Bolaño’s literary work). In other words, how should we approach the literary act that constitutes the work when the text is intended to problematize literary history and all that relates to it (Enlightenment endeavors and the limitations of their idea of a public sphere for the circulation of knowledge and their different educational endeavors?) In this sense, I am interested in examining what is put in place of a certain literature (or perhaps certain literature) and of a promise of another type of “articulation” between literature and Enlightenment that Bolaño interpellates critically and irreverently from within literature about literature. Thus, a question arises as to whether it is possible to re-think or re-imagine literature when, along with the criticism of a certain history of this practice, one is intervening in what remains unthought in that past. Along these lines, my text follows a Benjaminian vein in attempting to pose a constellation of fragments that recreate the “song” that Auxilio Lacoutoure hears as “echoes,” an act of listening that the text proposes to narrate using an unusual, foreign female figure, who represents a curious repetition of 68 as a political and life event beyond and closer to us than the massacre. That is to say, I believe that the way this text is structured encourages us to think about how “68” is being reproduced as a “gesture” and how the promise of a 68 that never happened can be inherited, a 68 that could not happen or that might not have happened—a wake left by 68 beyond its own time period, a wake that connects it to a broader history of events and exclusions.

Literature and the Othering of Political Imagination

As Raúl Rodríguez Freire argues, the last few decades have confronted us with a process of transition in which political interest in the figure of revolution has been gradually displaced (substituted) by a growing obsession with memory and its politics. However, says Rodríguez Freire, even assuming that the interest of “the left” is being reduced to the practice of remembrance, the left needs to create its own memory politics, and even more, “to realize that it is standing on the same historicist and metaphysical ground as the right”11 (2) Thus, the problem that arises is not merely the act of naturalizing the substitution of interest in social transformation for interest in practices of remembrance, but also the fact that memory itself needs a critical approach able to re-articulate a question about the historicity in which the configuration of the past is being carried out. Within this context, one of Bolaño’s literary interests seems to be suggesting a different version of the relationship between memory and politics, one that could create a possible view of the past as a critical, creative act. In this sense, Amuleto is one of the works that goes the furthest in terms of dramatizing a reflection on the construction of political memory, seen in the protagonist’s obsession with imagining “encounters that never occurred” (63).12 Thus, the act of remembering comes from opening up an impossibility in the past: imagining the memory of what did not happen, the unfulfilled promise and also the potential. This act of remembering is what allows the protagonist to stay in the bathroom on the fourth floor of the Facultad de Filosofía y Letras as the riot police are invading the university, and thence to defend-resist university autonomy. This incommensurable “rescue” of university autonomy, the starting point for the student movement and 68 in Mexico, starts with an unusual gesture in which the form of remembrance is explicitly directed towards creating images of a past “that did not happen.” Thus, we may ask ourselves what exactly 68 represents when Bolaño recreates it as an image three decades later; that is, how this fictionalization addresses a political and artistic past in the text, as well as the “urgency” of its present. In Benjaminian terms, if the present becomes “critique” thanks to the threat not just that the status quo will be preserved but also that the memory of the past will be erased, what type of “rescue” and alert configures this peculiar way of posing the problem? It would seem that one of the keys to Amuleto lies in the text’s destabilization of all notions of linear progress in time, making us think of the peculiarity of the ways of making history perceptible. It draws attention to the leap involved in the passage from experience to narrative retelling. From the moment the text encourages us to enter the universe of what did not happen, the timescale of politics opens up to a different mode, with various spatio-temporal layers or plateaus, each dissymmetrical to the others. Perhaps it is in this way of approaching and entering the past that Bolaño offers a subtle commentary on ways of opening up the political and creating a space in/for it in the sense of avoiding fixing or transcendentalizing certain meanings that the military dictatorships had sealed shut. It would seem as if Amuleto moves in a terrain that cannot be reduced to the two most dominant dialectical poles in terms of framing the political past in a critical narrative: the paradigm of defeat or the paradigm of growing up, maturing. Both involve a moral of learning that presumes a temporality that is too tinged with progress, that is, a time that moves in stages without questioning how defeat is narrated and temporalized or what type of subject is presumed to have matured with respect to the politics of the past, which are seen as a “childhood illness” the dictatorships came to “cure.”

In his book Marx For Our Times, Miguel Bensaïd argues that “to de-moralize history … is to politicize it and open it up to strategic conceptualization,” which can “disentangle tendencies and temporalities that counteract without abolishing each other.”13 This raises the possibility of thinking about politics as “the point where discordant times intersect.”14 Furthermore, I would argue that the whole exercise of unsettling time that seems to be the starting point for Amuleto is a literary dramatization of a suggestion Bolaño made in an essay “A Modest Proposal” about re-thinking the political in a way that is not only critical of its supposed past but also of the way its narrative is constantly co-implicating itself with what supposedly cancels it out. It is a simple question that urges us to overturn or question the naturalized order of historical events: What would have happened if…?

Sometimes I have the feeling that the animal is trying to tame me. … Sometimes I get the feeling that September 11 wants to break us. Sometimes I get the feeling that September 11 has already irrevocably broken us. What would have happened if September 11 had never existed? It’s a silly question, but sometimes it’s necessary to ask silly questions, or it’s inevitable, or it suits our natural laziness. What would have happened?15

This passage situates us in a crucial framework inside Bolaño’s cynical horizon and his particular view of politics and art, encouraging us to ask about something that both the left and the right continue to exclude from the map: what would have happened if September 11 had not happened? Or if October 2, 1968, had not happened? As Bolaño´s essay tries to make clear in the text, these questions do not mean idealizing the left, but simply glancing away from the dialectical moral of defeat and/or a lesson learned, starting with a question that overturns the timeframe of dominant policy—the very horizon of the question about the past and the wake it leaves in other modes of imagining it in the present. Thus, he encourages us to take the paths of other truncated histories that point to the potential (what did not happen), opening up a unique space in which the critical gaze urges us to re-create the political imagination without reducing it to the primacy of the “now” (what actually happened). That is, it points us towards a way in which the “now” of history (the fiction of facts) is co-implicated in annulling the potential of what did not happen that the “now” attempts to silence, displace, and even exclude altogether.

We could say, therefore, that Amuleto moves from a way of imagining 68 that has been fixed in the imagination as a “bath of horror” ever since the massacre of Tlatelolco and instead focuses our attention on another bath/room (the one on the fourth floor of the Facultad de Filosofía y Letras at UNAM), which shows us a “modest proposition” with the imaginary voyage of Auxilio, who, just like Bolaño with Chile, is obsessed with “rescuing” what was not possible in the past, the “impossible encounters.” Thus, the question underlying the “modest proposition” is dramatized as the structural force of the novel, the idea of imagining what did not happen. The question of how the truncated past connects past and future plays with the possibility of imagining the political in a way that does not emerge as a prediction of a future in the past, but as an open promise, the unfulfilled that insists and subsists as a question (“What would have happened if….?”). Thus, the text is organized as a way of repeating 68 as a gesture that displaces the primacy of the narrative focused on the positivism of “the facts” or political “realism” as a lesson from the dictatorship. It therefore urges us to open our eyes to a politics that, cynically but no less pretentiously, does not presume or assume an exclusive disjunction (success-failure) but forces us to think of how to dig around in the past from the point of view of what is not constituted as “given.” In this way, the structure insists, a priori, on a challenge to the way of envisaging the relationship between historical imagination and politics, dismissing the idea of faithful testimony to what is given (the “facts”) and setting up a faithfulness to the event (Mexico’s “68,” Chile’s “70,” etc.) from the open structure of a promise (from the impossible past as promise).

“Y ese canto es nuestro amulet/And that song is our amulet”

“And then I kept quiet while they went on badmouthing the poets of Mexico, the ones they were going to blow out of the water, and I thought about the dead poets, like Darío and Huidobro, and about all the encounters that never occurred. The truth is that our history is full of encounters that never occurred.…” says Auxilio, situating us in the dynamic that governs the possibility of another way of writing and conceptualizing history.16 In his introduction to the Spanish translation of “Convolute N” of Benjamin’s Arcades Project, Pablo Oyarzún proposes that the truncated past is that which could not occur in its present, and he contrasts it both to the “weak” force, to the structure of a promise (unfulfilled), and to the dominant force represented by the fantasy of administering time and managing politics (the obsession with remembrance/memorializing) that has permeated the dominant discourses of the left and the right ever since the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the dictatorships as the imagination of the “end” of (a certain) history.17 In a way, I believe this is the vein in which Amuleto seems to evoke (or write itself) as a unique “remembrance” of the event of “68,” without proposing that its homage is a way of evoking the referentiality of a “fact.” Instead, it traces the modality of a time frame that differs from the political, since time is muddled and multiform in the text, a constellation of dreams of nightmares. By organizing Auxilio’s interior monologue based on the image of impossible encounters and the weight of reflexivity that this imposes regarding a temporal imagination, Bolaño seems to point to a need to think about the figurability of politics in other ways, ones that diverge from the narratives of the left and the right, which are trapped in historicism and what the writer calls the invisible and introjected gaze of the jailers.

Amuleto generates an unusual “fold” which shows, perhaps, another way of thinking about political and artistic vanguard(s), or rather of thinking about the connection between the critique of certain stereotypes of the vanguard (emphasizing the “break” or cut necessary in order to reach the future—from that future) and their insistence on imagining an unknown university. This emerges not so much in relation to the notion of an artistic vanguard or neo-vanguard able to emphasize the “cut-off” or “shock,” nor in relation to a political vanguard as the organization of a leading leadership. It would be interesting to think about this gesture in connection with what Willy Thayer proposes in “The Coup as Consummation of the Vanguard,” given that it would seem that in Bolaño two lines emerge: one associates the vanguard with a cut-off point, a golpe or coup (meaning “blow”).18 Thus, the artistic vanguard of both the left and the right (a shared desire) emerges in certain works as part of the fascist imagination in the sense that Thayer emphasizes, with the idea of the Coup as a cutting off. However, Bolaño also articulates a need to rethink the vanguard from the horizon of projects which emphasized a possibility for social, political or institutional transformation. Amuleto thematizes this possibility from the structure of an emphasis on thinking of a non-existent vanguard that would seem to go hand in hand with an “unknown university”—both as an open promise in the dreams and nightmares of 1968, 1973, etc. In this sense, the “What would have happened if…?” could be approached as an attempt to think of the constructive moment of the work of social transformation—in Chile’s case, the complicated web of the leftist coalition Unidad Popular, and in the case of Mexico, the multiplicity of 68 as an instance of a unique blending of voices of students, academics, peasants, and railway workers. From this critical perspective, it could be said that a problem emerges here that is no less important in terms of the vanguard in Bolaño, which is always split or torn between the political and the artistic. However, it would seem that in different texts, but more noticeably perhaps in Amuleto, there is an instance of decentralization of each of the poles from the notion of the unknown vanguard, the one that could not take place, the one that perhaps remains to be thought.

Perhaps it is here that the novel’s focus on the figure of Auxilio starts to make more sense, because it makes us see and read a series of historical layers with a gaze that is oblique and dissymmetrical, which, within the novel´s political and artistic horizon, gives us the figure of the “sister” or the “mother” who suspends the horizon of a fraternity that thinks of politics from and for “brothers” (something that the protagonist reiterates cynically as the world of “Latin American machitos”). Undocumented, with no residence papers, and homeless, Auxilio becomes the place of a singular gaze that, instead of trying to remember a past that has supposedly “been,” is obsessed with reconstructing what could not be. The first time this obsession arises suggests a way of thinking about a vanguard that did not occur (she calls it the “non-existent vanguard”), where instead of being something that goes “before,” the vanguard is posited as something that is muddled up in terms of time. That is, from the framework that the text creates with its muddling of time, the distinction between what goes ahead and what lags behind, the “avant-garde” or “arrière-garde” loses meaning (how do we mark a vanguard or a rearguard when the timescales intersect, mingle, open and close upon one another?). At the same time, in this muddling we can glimpse that possible impossible vanguard (non-existent in terms of happening “now”) that implies an intriguing aporetic gesture in which the vanguard itself lies in the impossible voyage through what has not happened. It is as if going between-times involved a performance or demonstration of that vanguard that is waiting to be thought, seized, and/or re-configured. Thus, Auxilio demands that we imagine another kind of vanguard where the muddling of time overturns the order of events (those happening now and those potentially happening from their irreducibility and co-implication) and tests an essential theme for thinking about the political: the question of how to think about the perceptibility of history itself. Perhaps this is linked to what in “Literature + illness = illness” Bolaño posited as the possibility of recognizing the new as something “which has been there all along” based on the idea of following “paths that lead nowhere except to the loss of the self, and yet they must be followed and the self must be lost, in order to find it again, or to find something, whatever it may be—a book, an expression, a misplaced object—in order to find anything at all, a method, perhaps, and, with a bit of luck, the new, which has been there all along.”19 This type of gaze posits a novelty that does not appear to be governed by the possibility of uniting the present and the future (the anxiety of futurity, the cut-off point and novelty of the vanguard) but rather the idea of being able to look back and thus perform a revolutionary gesture.

The first impossible encounter that Auxilio proposes to think about begins with a kind of reflection on friendship and love. The poet says: “That’s the way love is, my friends; I speak as the mother of all poets. That’s the way love is, and slang, and the streets, and sonnets. And the sky at five in morning. But friendship is something different. If you have friends you’re never alone” (59). She goes on to speak about her situation as a kind of hinge between groups that could not communicate with each other, generations that spoke different literary “languages”: “I was friends with León Felipe and Don Pedro Garfías, but also with the youngest poets, the kids who lived in a lonely world of love and slang” (59). In these passages, Bolaño seems to be insisting on a kind of double structure based on a counterpoint between what is “like that” (love, slang, the streets, the time of day) and what derails all that (the declaration of what is affirmed as immutable and is nothing less than friendship as an instance in which one is not alone). At this moment, Auxilio meditates on young poets’ inability to understand other generations, and the lack of communication between artistic and political languages that the massacre of Tlatelolco bequeathed as a wound that split history in two. It would seem that the notion of friendship as that which is not governed by the logic of what is “like that” (the regime of now), that is, what could be or could have been different from what it is, is linked to the idea of thinking about hypothetical past encounters and exploring those possibilities. In this possibility, we see for the first time in the text the problem of imagining another vanguard, one that the protagonist can think of as “the non-existent avant-garde” and that is immediately exemplified by a kind of university-other. This is suggested through a specific case in which Auxilio meditates on something she remembers the Mexican poet, José Emilio Pacheco, saying about how much Latin American poetry had lost because of the meeting and possible friendship that never took place between Rubén Darío and Vicente Huidobro. And she adds that this event that the young poets cannot imagine would have caused something unique that muddles the timeframes of art and the way of thinking about education, both of which are linked to a curious form of non-existent vanguard that would have implied a divergent route from the usual way of narrating the steps between modernism and vanguard.

Because Darío, I dare say, would have taught Huidobro a great deal, but Huidobro would also have taught Darío a thing or two. That’s how the relationship between master and disciple works: it is not only the disciple who learns. And since we’re speculating, I believe, and so did Pacheco … that, of the two, Darío would have learned more; he would have been able to bring Hispanic modernism to a close and begin something new, not the avant-garde as such, but an island, say, between modernism and the avant-garde, what we might now call the non-existent island, an island of words that never were, and could only have come into being (granted that this were even possible) after the imaginary encounter between Darío and Huidobro; and Huidobro himself, after his fruitful encounter with Darío, would have been able to found an even more vigorous avant-garde, what we might name the non-existent avant-garde, which, had it existed, would have transformed us and changed our lives. (62)

This passage places us in the mixing-up not just of literary history (as a linear route in which vanguard follows modernism) but also of a form of learning in which the relations between pupil and disciple mingle, co-implicating themselves in an other-process.

Clearly, in this route, her own figure seems to place her as part of that island (isolation) inhabited by the impossible memory of the echoes that the young poets cannot now “hear” or translate, and that lead them to see Auxilio as the figure of a woman who is drunk or crazy. This emerges with a play on voices in which the young poets “recite” their poetry like a song with no relation to a past or a future that provoked rejection in the protagonist. Thus, it would seem that this island (limbo) between modernism and vanguard is also the site from which a dissymmetrical gaze on history emerges. From the aporia organized by the text (the impossibility of imagining what did not happen), Auxilio is positioned as a kind of link that tries unsuccessfully to connect the world before the massacre and the later world of young poets who, born out of the wound of Tlatelolco, emerge in her gaze as beings uninterested in thinking of another university, another perceptibility of history. Thus, if the protagonist on whom the text focuses is also a name and a place of remembrance, we may argue that this muddling involved in the idea of imagining what did not happen is opening up an insistence on a genealogy of history’s silenced voices. The game that imposes this inability to inherit the promises of what did not happen would seem to speak of a literature that is perhaps unknown, since with this fictionalization of a type of memory (that is neither memoir nor testimonial), what appears in the text as delirium is the fact that the memory is being fabricated. Thus, Amuleto would seem to open up that peculiar mode of articulating pasts and futures, a way of thinking about the writing of history that, in Benjaminian terms, demands a different prose—an act of imagination that seems to remind us that any memory of the past is actually an act of fictionalizing that past, an almost impossible translation of erased voices—a ghostly form of listening that in the text perhaps responds to the question of what type of construction of 68 can be performed in 1998, how to inherit its promise and repeat the gesture without trying to copy it.

It is thus not accidental that on returning from the journey in this section through an unknown vanguard, Auxilio then turns to an encounter in which she herself is the protagonist and which involves an impossible conversation with Remedios Varo, a Catalan artist exiled in Mexico. Thus we pass from the impossible encounter between two poets whose names represent modernism and vanguard, the telos of literary historicization (Darío – Huidobro), to the impossible encounter that is made up in the bathroom on the fourth floor of the Facultad de Filosofía y Letras, a dream that brings in elements that are key to the rest of the text, in the future of its narrative possibility: the idea of her obsession with the (unknown) university linked to the notion of an impossible “fraternity, liberty, and equality.”


…someone opens the door and it is Remedios Varo . . . she says she has given up smoking, that her lungs are delicate now, and although she doesn’t look like she has bad lungs, or has even seen anything bad in her life, I know that she has seen many bad things, the ascension of the devil, the unstoppable procession of termites climbing the Tree of Life, the conflict between the Enlightenment and the Shadow or the Empire or the Kingdom of Order, which are all proper names of the irrational stain that is bent on turning us into beasts or robots, and which has been fighting against the Enlightenment since the beginning of time . . . I know that she has seen things that very few women know they have seen  . . . It is time for me to go. I don’t know whether to shake her hand or kiss her on both cheeks. Latin American women, as far as I know, give just the one kiss. On one cheek. Spanish women give two. And French women three. When I was a girl I used to think that the three kisses stood for Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. Now I know they don’t, but I still like to think they do. So I give her three kisses and she looks at me as if she too, at some point, had shared my theory. (…) And Remedios Varo looks at me and her eyes say, Don’t worry, Auxilio, you’re not going to die, you’re not going to go crazy, you’re upholding academic independence, you’re defending the honor of our American universities. (107-9; 113-4).

In this long passage we see virtual syntheses of the problems the novel explores from the dissymmetrical gaze that involves a relationship between the Enlightenment endeavor and its raison d’être, the emancipatory legacy of the French Revolution and its motto, and the defense of academic freedom. We also contemplate the horror of those promises and the insistence on decentering, which starts with that impossible encounter during which the text’s characteristically enormous incommensurability turns insistently, like a spotlight, on that farewell and the three kisses. These are translated in Auxilio’s mind into a sort of “gesture” that is indebted to the emancipatory promise of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” which is now exposed by an impossible fraternity (among sisters who know they saw) and that is linked to the earlier difference between enlightened reason and the “stain” of an irrational order, a distinction that is posited in a delirious way as an artistic vision. In this encounter we see a groove or fissure in the imagination of fraternity in which Auxilio imagines a different path of non-masculine fraternity, that is, an impossible divergence from the meaning of the word. Thus, with this “seeing” that encourages us to imagine what we cannot “see,” there is a gesture towards another form of fraternity, one that exposes the traditional framing that has operated, as Derrida shows, in the framework of masculine brotherhood and the type of political fiction that it sets up within a political imagination based on isomorphism of the self as a way of inscribing equality. However, this leaves out of the sphere the dissymmetrical element that would implicate its impossibility and that would seem to correspond to an impossible insistence on what did not happen and to the possibility of expanding the frame of this politics. By insisting on linking the “university” to the idea of liberty, fraternity, and equality, it would seem that the text is confronting us with a question about the act of naming in history, insisting on a name when it is being emptied and questioned, as Derrida posits in the Politics of Friendship about the word-name “democracy,” which is insisted upon even when its history, its premises, and its predicates are being deconstructed.20 That is, when he asks (just as Bolaño is perhaps urging us to ask) what it is that insists when we maintain those names as sites in which a history is being deconstructed and where we are urged to reiterate a gesture of meaning, an act of reading in which the name operates as the very site of a promise. In Amuleto liberty-equality-fraternity and vanguard would seem to follow this impossible logic, urging us to think about what remains to be thought in the worn-out words history, testimonies, surfeits.

Beginning with this encounter, Auxilio imagines a past whose echoes she hears in the form of a valley split by a bottomless abyss and she expresses the double-sidedness [doblez] of that abyss as what separates “her” obsession with the university and the post-massacre literary life of the young poets born from the wound (the abyss) left by Tlatelolco. This is clear when she says, “The truth is, young poets usually end up as old, failed journalists. And the university, my beloved university, is lurking in the sewers underneath the Avenida Bucareli, waiting for its day to come” (122). Here it is worth asking what this insistence on the university means, and, even more, what type of “university” is imagined by this character who functions as a site able to transform the echoes of a past into figure and amulet. And, further, how is that university linked to the tapestry that Auxilio can “paint” finally in her imagination as if it were a portrait of Remedios Varo and that refers, in this context, to the impossible fictionalization of another vanguard and another imagination of the Enlightenment? By this I mean, with an imagination that, like the “university” that lies hidden in a non-visible zone, in the “sewers” of history, and that is included in its impossibility like those three imaginary kisses that would open up a world of liberty-equality-and-fraternity, now thought from what was historically and philosophically dissymmetrical to it—the impossible outside that sustains a certain Enlightenment imagination.

On the other hand, we can also see that this “tapestry” or final portrait invented in the text resembles the first testimonial given by Elena Poniatowska in La noche de Tlatelolco (1971), where she describes a group or mass of individuals who are walking to their deaths. It is as if this tapestry that is painted at the end of Amuleto repeats (cites) in a distorted way that first narrative circuit about the massacre (the monument-work of 68) with the image of young people walking towards the writer, young people whom we see becoming corpses, ghosts, and finally, as in Amuleto, “kids” who are walking unknowingly towards the abyss. Clearly, this is perhaps the work of Bolaño himself who is constructing this “university” in which horror and hope emerge as co-implicated within the “gesture” of imagining what is left out of “History” and attempting to imagine how it can be made “perceptible.” Thus, the tapestry seems to introduce that instant of “insanity” that raises a question about how to think, represent, and imagine history from the dissymmetry that it was not, that was erased, that was truncated. To a certain extent, the call to think about “Tlatelolco” three decades later from this incommensurable act of imagining what is imagined by this woman who defends university autonomy and resists the massacre from inside a bathroom and the work of her imagination (acts that refer, once again, to La noche de Tlatelolco which mentions a woman who passed out in a bathroom), seems to play with the possibility of writing a past from the impossible. This situates us in a zone that matches the idea of insanity that is judged in the “saying” that emphasizes the contradictory, impossible, or unsayable as an act of remembering what did not happen (the unrememberable), the insistence on “the community of those who have no community,” etc.—all ways of thinking about the force that opens up an aporetic structure without which the political, as Derrida says, would be determined as an automatic program.21 In the attempt to think the unthinkable and from there trace another way of making historicity perceptible, there is a gesture towards the possibility of an “other” Enlightenment that remains to be thought from this asymmetrical point of the unknown university, what does not qualify as a recognizable brother in this story (the story of that horror and hope that comes not from the classroom but from the bathroom, from the excrement of history, from the sewers, but that insists on teaching). Thus Auxilio’s narrative voice becomes more interesting as it opens up an attempt to think about history against the grain, from the point at which all that was excluded demands to be “represented” in other terms.


The epigraph of Amuleto is based on a quotation from Petronius that reads: “In our misery we wanted to scream for help, but there was no one there to come to our aid.” In what follows, the word “help” (auxilio) re-emerges not as a noun but as a proper name: “My name is Auxilio Lacouture and I am Uruguayan…” (2). When defining this generation of frustrated children, it is clear that what emerges after the massacre is a de-politicization or at least a separation of what would have been an attempt to articulate a political amalgam (questioning the typical notion of political vanguard) and a poetic vanguard. In this sense, we could say that through this character who emerges three decades later in response to a call for “help” we see an incommensurable (immense) act in which literature and university autonomy emerge as an act of reading and imagination. The defense of this university that has been forgotten by the bohemian poets, the failed critics of the future, seems to be posited as a “reminder” of a possibility not just to differentiate political crime from the political that Tlatelolco seals as a place (the name of history), but also to put forward a question about the status of the public and the notion of academic freedom as a different type of knowledge that the text posits as a retrospective imagination, appealing to the ambiguity between the terrain of the literary and the political, where “university” and “vanguard” intermingle to be rethought.22

In a sense, this would imply the possibility of redirecting the character’s insanity towards the possibility of that insanity speaking of a dissymmetry, of an equality in dissymmetry excluded by the logic of fraternity as its impossible-to-foresee other (insanity in the sense of unpredictability, of unsubsumable speech). Bolaño seems here to be structuring the passage on the juxtaposition between the noun “help” in the epigraph, a request for aid or assistance, and the proper name “Auxilio” (help, aid, assistance), as a response that emerges and that perhaps can only emerge from the textual space from which that help arrives, three decades later, imagined in this singular form of a foreign consciousness in which “memory” is connected to universes that are obviously improper: a woman with no home, no property, and no documentation who is nevertheless the mother and younger sister of those who walked and are walking towards the abyss.

Various poems published in The Unknown University dating from a period prior to the writing of Amuleto foreground the most important tropes in the latter, placing us on a problematic horizon that permeates all of Bolaño´s literary work: the abyss, the horror, the perspective granted by light (gaze, vision, image), and the search for political activism:

The vases conceal
The door to Hell

With a particular light
And at a certain time

You suddenly realize:
That object is terror.23

In Amuleto, the vase constitutes the problematic nexus of the novel´s first part in which Auxilio narrates her relationship with the two exiled Spanish poets, Pedro Garfías and León Felipe. At the same time, this relevance of light and the time of day create a singular figure combining “vase” and hell, which emerges later on in the novel as the key to the protagonist’s relationship with the temporal and with horror. The protagonist says: “Now I believe, if you’ll excuse a brief digression, that life is full of enigmas, minimal events that, at the slightest thought or glance, set off chains of consequences, which, viewed through the prism of time, invariably inspire astonishment or fear” (23). In this double articulation of affect (amazement and terror, horror and hope), we see perhaps an attempt to write the unknown as a gesture made from a non-existent vanguard. It is in this vacuum of the non-existent that Amuleto perhaps opens up as a kind of abyss, a hallucinatory and persistent obsession that is clearly rooted in the movement’s essence: trying to imagine the impossible, not as a Kantian regulative ideal (the impossible, untouchable ideal) but rather as a way of leading the imagination to a question about the type of assumptions that this very imagination failed to question. The question would be how and to what extent this insistence on introducing that impossible voice would modify the essential position of the text as a meditation on an impossible ideal of democracy, one that skirts the need to redefine the public, from a (“public”) bathroom no less. At this point, the treatment of politics in Amuleto becomes a shade delirious (the “craziness” of Auxilio’s gaze is emphasized by critics), but that insanity nevertheless constitutes an important political critique of politics. That is, an insistence on thinking about what a future democracy would be like in the Derridian sense of a “promise” and not a “presentness” of political projects in the past and present. In this sense, the assumed “insanity” that the narrative site recreates seems to be linked to an (im)possible notion of fraternity that does not assume the “brotherly” to be “given” (the familiar notion of a symmetrical masculine fraternity) or at least it crosses it out when writing it. This is where Derrida’s analysis of the figure of impossible fraternity seems helpful in thinking about the figure of the protagonist without limiting ourselves to reading “Auxilio” as the stereotypically delirious “crazy” woman, which, as Rodríguez Freire points out, has been the unilateral critical response.

We need to ask how the stigmatization of the character as “delirious” relates to the impossibility of subsuming the text in a sub-genre, given that as a “homage” to 68, Amuleto would seem to appeal to a reconstruction of the past that simultaneously deconstructs the types of polarization characteristic of recollections of political activism: the subjective memory or the hyper-collective memory, the “memoir” and the documentary testimony, the kingdom of emotion or the kingdom of political activism rationalized as a system of a reading apparatus. Without resorting to these figures, but playing with their forms, the novel seems to generate an appeal for a different way of reconfiguring memory with its insistence on an impossible but insistent “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” Thus, we could conclude that the novel seems to emphasize that place in which names are mixed up and re-created out of an inability perhaps to differentiate clearly between what was and what did not happen in terms of the themes that dominate the text -that is, political and artistic vanguards, the language of civic responsibility (after the massacre) and the “language” (babble perhaps) of affect, the memory of a turbulent past and the representation of its promise (the translation of that past into a present and vice versa). In this movement of co-implicated elements that the text mingles and extrapolates in the imagination, we can see how this novel articulates an obsession with thinking about the political and friendship in a complex and multi-layered way. “Auxilio” does not belong either to the Student Movement as a thinker (how few women theorists there were), nor to what she calls the “Latin American “machitos.” While she flirts with all possibilities, she does not “belong” to any of them and yet she inscribes herself within them in such a way that her “not fitting” into any category seems to introduce an image that stresses another type of figuration of the relationship between imagination and politics. The proper name becomes a place for thinking about and imagining everything that “Auxilio” briefly summarizes when she confesses her overriding obsession: that of imagining impossible encounters, muddling time periods, jumbling them to create constellations that alarm her—constellations that were perhaps erased in the 90s (when Tlatelolco is re-written from Auxilio’s point of view).

Returning to the point at which my text started, and thus to the issue of how to read Bolaño’s demand that we think about the past against the grain, about what did not happen in what did, we also need to ask ourselves what type of memory emerges in Amuleto’s final image. The encounter with Remedios Varo leads to the final figure of the text: the valley split by the abyss (of time and of horror), where ghosts walk (without flying), singing a song whose echoes Auxilio can hear and translate as an “amulet” (the title-name of the text). In that painting, the crowd of ghosts walking towards what would become the massacre is characterized by being irreducible to the idea of a homogeneous activist subject that is ideal, or stigmatized, which the protagonist also mocks as the typical “value” of the “Latin American machito”—that which characterizes Belano on his return after the Chilean coup. Instead, the final painting is composed of an image of the past that becomes polyvocal, in which the voices are not limited to just one or to one single program but rather seem to trace a portrait of heterogeneous, irreducible, polyphonic voices.

I also realized that although they were walking together they did not constitute what is commonly known as a mass: their destinies were not oriented by a common idea. They were united only by their generosity and courage. … They were walking toward the abyss. I think I realized that as soon as I saw them. … And I heard them sing. I hear them singing still, faintly, even now that I am no longer in the valley, a barely audible murmur, the prettiest children of Latin America, the ill-fed and the well-fed children, those who had everything and those who had nothing … The only thing I could do was to stand up, trembling, and listen to their song, go on listening to their song right up to the last breath, because, although they were swallowed by the abyss, the song remained in the air of the valley, in the mist of the valley rising toward the mountainsides . . . (181-4)

In this gesture, we reach a point at which the tapestry confronts us with both horror and pleasure. It is as if hearing these echoes required positing another way of con-figuring the past, both the catastrophe and the multiple, open process of composition, the figure of a “mass” composed of a heterogeneous, irreducible multiplicity. Thus, the final vision of 68 seen in this valley composed of the elements Auxilio imagines in the impossible encounter with Remedios Varo seems to introduce a way of ‘spacing’ an event that nowadays is hyper-stigmatized (68, the Student Movement) from a position that cannot be reduced to the homogeneity of a coherent political subject. It is from this impossibility of homogenizing the past that the text (Amuleto) perhaps posits itself as an “amulet,” a way of urging us to think about, insist on, and figure the past from that impossible gaze of the sister who defends her obsession with a “University” unknown until now, a “democracy” that is unknown and mutilated (truncated). Along with Nocturno de Chile, Amuleto is perhaps the novel in which Bolaño most develops the problematic of an other-politics linked to making history perceptible, the possibility of an alternative universe in which memory, affect, and imagination are directed towards a critical universe of change and denunciation of injustice, with an emphasis on language as the strategic space of possible and impossible encounters. What I find most curious is perhaps that in readings of Bolaño, or in the commercial success of his work, there is always a lack of attention to the manifestation of desire linked to what did not happen (the vacuum of those poets without publications), the dream of the unknown, a dream of finding some other way to think about what, for lack of a better “sister”-word, I must call the political universe.


1.  Jacques Derrida, “This Strange Institution Called Literature: An interview with Jacques Derrida,” in Acts of Literature, ed. Derek Attridge (New York: Routledge, 1991), 36-7; emphasis mine. Further references are cited parenthetically in the text.
2.  Ibid., 55.
3.  While this idea is developed throughout his essays in Poetry, Language, Thought (New York: Perennial Classics, 2001), I refer particularly to “Building dwelling thinking” and “Poetically man dwells.”
4.  For an analysis of the market’s appropriations of 68, I refer to Emmanuel Rodríguez’ recent work, Hipótesis democracia: quince tesis para la revolución anunciada (Madrid: Traficantes de sueños, 2013).
5.  Brett Levinson, The Ends of Literature: The Latin American Boom in the Neoliberal Marketplace (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 190.
6.  Regarding 68 as the irruption of a wholesale crisis in terms of social functioning, see Kristin Ross, May 68 and Its Afterlives, (Chicago:  U of Chicago P, 2002). For an analysis of the 60s as a time of questioning of knowledge institutions, see Frederic Jameson, “Periodizing the 60s” in Social Text 9/10 (Spring-Summer 1984), 178-209.
7.  Personal conversation with Martín Dorsal.
8.  Auxilio emerges in parts of Elena Poniatowska’s La noche de Tlatelolco, 2nd Ed. (Mexico City: Ediciones Era, 1998), and also in a diary entry by José Revueltas, who promised to write something about this figure whom he perceived as the incarnation of a unique form of love.
9.  Sergio Villalobos-Ruminott, “A Kind of Hell: Roberto Bolaño and the Return of World Literature,” Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies 18:2 (2009), 93-205.
10.  Patrick Dove, “The Night of the Senses: Literary (dis)orders in Nocturno de Chile,” Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies, 18:2 (2009), 141-154.
11.  Raúl Rodríguez Freire, “Literatura y política: Sobre la “izquierda” en Amuleto, de Roberto Bolaño,” Guaraguao 38 (2011), 33-45.
12.  Ibid.
13.  Miguel Bensaïd, Marx for Our Times: Adventures and Misadventures of a Critique, (London, New York: Verso, 2002), 10, 13. Further references are cited parenthetically in the text.
14.  Ibid., 22.
15.  Roberto Bolaño, “Una proposición modesta,” Entre paréntesis: Ensayos, artículos y discursos (1998-2003), ed. Ignacio Echevarría (Barcelona: Anagrama, 2008), 87.
16.  Roberto Bolaño, Amuleto, (Barcelona: Anagrama, 1999), 63, emphasis added.
17.  Pablo Oyarzún, “Introducción,” La dialéctica en suspenso: Fragmentos sobre historia,  (Santiago, Chile: ARCIS-LOM, 1996), 31-32.
18.  Willy Thayer, “El golpe como consumación de la vanguardia,” Revista Extremo Occidente 1.2 (2003): 54-8.
19.  Roberto Bolaño “Illness and Kafka,” The Insufferable Gaucho, (New York: New Directions, 2010), 144.
20.  Jacques Derrida, Politics of Friendship, (London, New York: Verso, 1997), 103-4.
21.  Derrida, Politics, 42.
22.  Clearly here there is a whole zone involving one layer of the fragments compiled by Poniatowska defining the Student Movement as a moment when the public function of knowledge was re-examined and an embryonic language for a different kind of politics began to be articulated. The texts of Luis González de Alba in his prison novel Los días y los años, (México City: Ediciones Era, 1971) perhaps speak most clearly of the fissure suggested by the Movement with, on the one hand, the idea of being a “professional” (individual), with a “college degree” ahead and a teleology of a middle-class student, or, on the other, the impossibility of inhabiting that fantasy and the need to forge another type of “knowledge” and “future” from that unknown “university,” impossible but potential—massacred by the State that invaded it.
23.  Roberto Bolaño, “Untitled poem,” The Unknown University, New York: New Directions), 83.
About the Author

Susana Draper is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton University. She is the author of Ciudad posletrada y tiempos lúmpenes: crítica cultural y nihilismo en la cultura de fin de siglo (Amuleto 2009) and Afterlives of Confinement: Spatial Transitions in Latin America (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012). She is currently working on another book project on cognitive democracy in the 1960s (Experiments in Freedom and Cognitive Democracy in Mexico: 1968 Other-Wise).

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