Et in UNAM

On a recent trip to Mexico DF we never got around to visiting the National Museum of Anthropology. We did, though, make a special trip to Ciudad Universitaria, UNAM’s monumental and bucolic campus on the city’s outskirts, compelled against reason to see with our own eyes the women’s restroom on the fourth floor of the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature. This, of course, is the famous site of Auxilio Lacouture’s brave and lonely stand against the police forces occupying the university in September 1968, as related in Roberto Bolaño’s Amulet.


UNAM. Central Library at left; Faculty of Philosophy and Literature at Right

Maybe there should be a commemorative marker. Visitors to Baden-Baden can see a plaque at the Hotel Europäischer that reads, “Among many other high-ranking guests staying here in the summer of 1862 was Irina Ratmirova, heroine of the novel Smoke by Ivan S. Turgenev.” The plaque is mentioned by Robert Dessaix, who speaks about the guilty pleasure of such literary tourism:

The staircase, for instance, which the heroine of Smoke had flown up and down, half-crazed with guilty passion, was just along the corridor to the right. No, there had never been any Irina Ratmirova, nor any Grigory Litvinov, for that matter, to fly up or down anything, or to have trysts on the second floor, not to mention the luggage-room opposite (where scandalously inappropriate fumblings had taken place…) — I knew that. All the same, I clearly had to see the staircase. (Twilight of Love, 17). 

As for Auxilio, occupied with reading poetry in a toilet stall and oblivious to the drama unfolding outside, she was suddenly brought to attention when “up the stairwell came a sound of shouting, a petrifying, history-making sound.”

And what did I do then? What anyone would have done: I went to a window and looked down and saw the soldiers, then I went to another window and saw tanks, and then to another, the one at the end of the corridor (I bounded down that corridor like a woman raised from the dead) and there I saw trucks, and the riot police and some plainclothes cops bundling the students and professors they’d arrested into the trucks, … a scene fading to black, but with little phosphorescent figures, like the ones some people see when they go crazy or have a sudden panic attack (Amulet, 25).

Auxilio is one of Bolaño’s greatest and most affecting voices, intimate and unassuming, often confused, given to rambling and non-sequiturs, DSCN6721_2so that the reader is seduced and disarmed even as her spiraling thoughts lead us straight to the heart of the matter, into sheer poetry and horror. We’re ravished by her voice, and that of the author too, who we can practically hear boasting under his breath, as if he were bewitched by the power of his own words, likened here to the brute force of reality and death:

And when I heard the news it left me shrunken and shivering, but also amazed, because although it was bad news, without a doubt, the worst, it was also, in a way, exhilarating, as if reality were whispering in your ear: I can still do great things; I can still take you by surprise, you silly girl, you and everyone else; I can still move heaven and earth for love (Amulet, 19).

A French psychoanalyst has a theory specifically addressing the divided belief of someone like Dessaix, the literary tourist, indulging delusions against his better judgment. “I knew that,” Dessaix says. “All the same….” But psychic disturbance doesn’t account for the history-making power of fiction, its effect on us, or our faith in words to alter reality. Trapped in the restroom, her “timeship” and “watchtower” (Amulet, 56), Auxilio recasts the tragic assault on UNAM and the murders in Tlatelolco, turning the worst news into exhilaration, and making great swathes of Latin American history into the unborn, unrealized material of retrospective fabulation: “our history,” she says, “is full of encounters that never occurred” (63).

What kind of event is an event that never happened? A cause for regret, maybe, like the meeting of two great poets that should have occurred, and didn’t. But that regret leads Auxilio into one of her most delirious and touching speculations: the idea of a “non-existent avant-garde,” the sheer potential embodied by past opportunities and alternate genealogies that can continue to inspire radical thought and action. A spectral past, not because it is dead and gone, but because it is virtual, undead, neither present or non-present. Auxilio’s is an Orphic journey, then, and all her encounters are marked by the fatal gaze of the traveler to the underworld who consigns what she loves most to death: “as Remedios Varo shuts the door, she darts a last gaze straight into my eyes, and it is implacably clear to me that she is dead” (114). Likewise, Bolaño conjures the truth of revolutionary history, the facts of murder and injustice, the reality of love and friendship, and betrays it all in order to lift it into song. Such is the work of poetry, artifice and fiction. But by foregrounding the death-work of literature, Bolaño inscribes the most implacable reality at the heart of every word. And so each word is an event, and every scene rings true.


Photo: Dina Al-Kassim, Mariana Botey

The window of the women’s restroom looks out on UNAM’s volcanic horizon and a vast spread of lawns and arbors. To the right you can just make out the lower corner of the Central Library, whose main volume is famously decorated on all four sides with an extravagant mosaic of history, myth and cosmology, architect Juan O’Gorman’s graphic masterpiece. Its iconic two-dimensionality, evocative of classical mosaic art, has aged better than the garish socialist-realism of UNAM’s other giant murals. Facing the Faculty building are images of Mexico’s Aztec heritage: Tenochtitlán and the canals of Lake Texcoco, which still lies slumbering, they say, beneath the modern city. The view from the restroom is of the East wall, with its atomic emblem, modern workers, and the slogans “Viva la revolución” and “Tierra y libertad.”  Native stone and volcanic rock make up the entire mosaic, which in shadow or low light can seem like a dark field speckled with constellations. Is this why Auxilio says she imagines her face “embedded in a black rhombus or sunk in a lake”? (30). The rhombus and lake appear again in a passage that turns the “then” of history — her recollections — into the “now” of narration, time looping onto itself in a feat as marvelous as anything in Proust.

DSCN5859Then I began to think about my past as I am doing now. As I went back through the dates, the rhombus shat-tered in a space of specul-ative desperation, images rose from the bottom of the lake, no one could stop them emerging from that pitiful body of water, unlit by sun or moon, and time folded and unfolded itself like a dream. (32)

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