Testimonio in the Lettered City: Literature and Witnessing in Roberto Bolano's Amuleto

By Marinescu, Andreea | Chasqui, November 2013 | Go to article overview

Testimonio in the Lettered City: Literature and Witnessing in Roberto Bolano's Amuleto


Marinescu, Andreea, Chasqui


Roberto Bolano's novel Amuleto (1999) is a first-person narrative that begins with the violent repression of Mexico's 1968 student demonstrations and ends with a vision: an army of children singing as they march towards their death by falling into the abyss. They recall the crusading children of 1212 and Marcel Schwob's rendition of the medieval legend, but they stand in for the idealistic Latin American youth who came to adulthood in the 1960s and 1970s--two decades of student movements and military coups. (1) The novel's protagonist, Auxilio Lacouture, bears witness to these social and political upheavals, reinterpreting them from her perspective as "mother of Mexican poetry" (11) and as marginal presence to the Latin American intellectual establishment.

I propose that Bolano offers Auxilio as a model for the post-Boom writer by rewriting and thus demystifying established Latin American meta-narratives such as the Boom and testimonial autobiography--testimonio. Evident in the main character's name and role--"auxilio a la cultura rewriting is a necessary practice for the survival of culture. (2) Amuleto goes against the idea of origin and authenticity in two ways. Firstly, on the meta-narrative level the novel can be seen as the rewriting of seminal texts in the Latin American tradition, such as Juan Rulfo's novel Pedro Paramo (Auxilio as the feminine counterpart to Pedro Paramo; while he speaks from beyond the grave, she speaks from behind the walls of the desolate university) or Jorge Luis Borges's short story "El aleph" (the bathroom as the space where all temporalities are manifested simultaneously), as well as Severo Sarduy's De donde son los cantantes (one of the main characters is called "Auxilio"). (3) Secondly, the novel seems to work against testimonial narratives such as Ernesto "Che" Guevara's Pasajes de la guerra revolucionaria, Elena Poniatowska's La noche de Tlatelolco, and Diamela Eltit's El padre mio. Nonetheless, I argue that Amuleto seeks to recuperate literature's testimonial aspect with a view to redefine its social role. I propose to read Amuleto as a text at the juncture oi testimonio and the lettered city. What is at stake in this analysis is understanding how Bolaflo's text engages with the issue of the social role of literature in Latin America and how, I argue, Bolafio's work can challenge traditional understandings of social struggle.

First, I will examine how Amuleto situates itself in relationship to Latin American lettered culture. This analysis will lead to a discussion on how Amuleto can help theorize the relationship between testimonio and literature with a view to show how testimonio can work to integrate the lettered city. This reading will allow me to conceive of testimonio as not other to the lettered city, but as integral part of it. Testimonio has the potential to redefine the role of literature and reshape its relationship to the political. The role of the post-Boom artist, I argue, is to bear witness to history as catastrophe and to offer a perspective that seeks to redefine the meaning of political engagement.

Literature and the City

In Amuleto Bolano describes the intellectual life of Mexico City in the wake of the repression of student manifestations in 1968, which ended with the military invasion of the university and the Tlatelolco massacre. (4) Auxilio navigates the city's fragmented intellectual landscape, composed of exiled Spanish artists, young bohemian poets, and university professors. The focus on Mexico City's intellectual life around the political events of 1968 directly addresses the social role of literature in Latin America. The term "lettered city" denotes the convergence of lettered culture and state power within an urban space. The "lettered city" is not merely a literate society, but rather a lettered elite closely associated with the institutions of the State, either supporting them or in opposition to them. For Rama, writing has been closely associated with power and the State throughout the historical formation of Latin America, with various degrees of transformations, from "the ordered city" (17) of colonial times to "the city revolutionized" of the twentieth century (103). …

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