1968 for Mexico, as for many countries around the world, marked a year of student protests, culminating in what has come to be known as the Tlatelolco massacres. Wishing to change the oppressive one party rule of the PRI students revolted in the backdrop of persistent, if not rising social inequalities.
Two recently published novels are on this theme: The Uncomfortable Dead by the Mexican writer of mysteries, Paco Ignacio Taibo and the leader of the Chiapas’ revolt, Subcommandante Marcos and the other one is by the Chilean writer who lived in Mexico in those years Roberto Bolaño- Amulet.
Amulet is thematically similar to Distant Stars, another Bolaño novels also published in English last year- both lie at the intersection of literature and politics.
Amulet deals with the generation of Mexican poets that grew up after the 1968 suppression of student revolt. It is narrated by a woman Auxilio Lacouture, an ‘illegal alien’ from Uruguay and who hides in the bathroom of the UNAP university in September ’68 as the military cracks down on the students. She survives to play ‘mother’ to a generation of Mexican poets growing up in the shadow of the aborted revolt.
There is something about Roberto Bolaño that even in translation he is so readable, like Tomas Eloy Martinez, a contemporary Latin American writer from Argentina.
However, compared to Bolaño’s earlier novels published in English- By Night, In Chile and Distant Stars, this Amulet is somewhat disappointing despite a promising start.
It also forms a link to his novel published in English last week The Savage Detectives, which is certainly the longest work by this writer, who died prematurely at the age of 52 couple of years back to be translated into English.
The Uncomfortable Dead, on the other hand, is a uniformly wonderful novel, and combines the narrative of a racy suspense thriller with a deeply social and political perspective- an intersection that a delighted Zizek would term as the ‘Parallax view‘.
Since it is a suspense novel, I’d rather not comment much on this except to point out that Elías Conteras, an Indian from the Chiapas, is a wonderful Sancho Panza like character who lives much beyond the novel. His first person account of urban Mexico, as well as the Chiapas struggle is both deeply humorous and moving.
This is, for example, how he describe Mexico City- the ‘Monster’:
The Monster has big houses and small ones, tall ones and little bitty ones, fat and skinny, rich and poort. Like people, but without hearts. In the Monster, the most important thing is the houses and the cars, so people get sent underground, to the metro. If people stay up their in car country, well, the cars kind of like get very pissed and try to gore them, like bulls would.
In the city, they don’t really know how to speak the language, they don’t even know the difference between a mare and stallion; they just call everything a horse. Then there’s cool. When city people don’t know how to explain how they feel or when they are angry or when they are happy or anything like that, they just say cool.
I found the escapades of this rather subaltern character, that somehow persistently reminded me of The Good Soldier Sjevk, most gripping, and the novel a worthwhile read, even if the rest had not been written as well as it actually is.
There is yet another minor similarity between the two novels- in both the authors themselves appear as characters. Roberto Bolaño appears as Arturo Belano in Amulet and Subcommandante Marcos in The Uncomfortable Dead as himself- the El Sup.