Do not judge a book by its cover

As cliché as the title may sound, I tend to place a lot of emphasis on book covers. A book cover has the power to create a positive or negative presentiment about a book even before I start flipping its pages. Through that first visual encounter, book covers can act as trustworthy predictors of our potential enjoyment or hatred of a book. My decision to pick up a book can be easily hindered by my instant dislike of its cover: sometimes it is an almost fake looking, unflattering picture of the writer that makes me think how much their publishers must have hated them and other times it’s those typical covers of self-help books shouting at you ‘I CAN HELP YOU, BUY ME’ with their capital letters, exclamation marks and blinding colours, which make me think of neglected children speaking deafeningly in order to gain the tiniest bit of attention from their absent-minded parents.

But there are pleasant surprises that shake our well-held beliefs and prove to us how wrong we can sometimes be. During my final year studying English and American Literature I chose a fascinating module called ‘Fiction and Power’, which to my surprise and slight incredulity was taught by a Cypriot teacher. I was on cloud nine, as studying abroad in the UK never really gave me the chance to come in contact with academics from my country. That teacher proved to be the savviest professor I had come across, and not because of his nationality but due to his charisma and passion for transmitting knowledge. The seminars would offer abundant knowledge on each book itself, the context (which almost always involved a political turmoil, totalitarian regimes or other forms of power inter-plays) that brought it to life and the critical theory that could be used to understand and interpret it. But what fascinated me the most is that he never really offered definite answers, he would just ask the right questions and provide a safe environment characterised by respect for each other’s opinions.  Literary interpretation after all is always up to the reader, and the different unique interpretations that arise from one text is the magic of literature, as like music, it appeals to everyone for different reasons.

So, I was really excited about that module and the reading list that included Ionesco, Kundera, Solzhenitsyn and many other well-known, prestigious writers. If I couldn’t find the books at the second-hand bookshops in my town, I would order them online. I chose the cheapest version and ordered Amulet by Roberto Bolaño without paying attention to the cover since it was a compulsory reading. I had never read Roberto Bolaño before; I was just aware that he was from Chile, died in Spain at the age of fifty-three and that he wrote a crime novel that was much more famous than his other works, a phenomenon common in the careers of many other writers, as crime novels are consumed by the wider public and thus more saleable than other genres. Bolaño was not one of those writers like Proust or Faulkner that I was eager to read. His name occupied an indifferent place in my mind. When the package arrived and I opened it, the book’s cover took me aback. The trust I had placed in that module started to shake, as I looked at the cover and wondered: what am I going to read? Is it really worth it? At first sight, there was nothing really wrong about the book cover: a blue background with green letters for the title and white letters for the name of the author. What had stricken me was that the O in ‘Bolaño’ was a hole that showed a glimpse of the iris and the pupil of an eye… As I turned the page of the cover, there was a second cover that was the remaining part of the eye: an anti-aesthetic picture of an eye that seemed cut off from a health and beauty magazine or a cosmetics advert. It was as kitsch as it could get. It disheartened me. I thought: how much do these publishers hate this guy? And do I really have to read this book?

Book cover of Amulet discussed in this essay.

I opened it with evident hesitation and read the epigram. Epigrams in books, are generally used to set the tone and mood of the text that follows, and the one in Amulet seemed to prepare us for a sad tale:

‘In our misery we wanted to scream for help,

But there was no one there to come to our aid.’ – Petronius

As I laid eyes on the first paragraph of the novel I was pleasantly surprised:

‘This is going to be a horror story. A story of murder, detection and horror. But it won’t appear to be, for the simple reason that I am the teller. Told by me, it won’t seem like that. Although, in fact, it’s the story of a terrible crime.’

Not only did I start reading the book that same day, on the bus going to Whitstable for the day, a picturesque fish village by the sea, I could not put it down and enjoy the myriad images unfolding in front of my eyes during the trip.  We sat in a café near the sea, and my friends would talk to me and I would listen half-attentively and as soon as I found the chance, I would jump back into the narrative of Auxilio, a narrator who is more of a symbol of resistance rather than an actual flesh and bone person. Her ghost-like presence in life, her emotive first-person narration and her altruism formed an angel-like image of her in my mind. A toothless, wrecked, tortured narrator with a beautiful soul and a narrative characterised by endless doubt.

Auxilio Lacouture, is inspired by the true story of Alcira Soust Scaffo, who was secluded in a bathroom during the military occupation at the Autonomous University of Mexico in 1968. Auxilio, was a witness of the Mexican State’s brutalities and offers a critique of the totalitarian regime that ruled at the time through her description of her traumatic experience of being locked in the University’s bathroom during the occupation.

Bolaño’s narrator employs a doubtful tone, characterised by endless questioning of her reliability as a narrator when she narrates the incidents and that underlines the powerlessness of the victims of history at the face of authoritarian figures and regimes. Although Auxilio’s viewpoint would surely not be found in conventional history books, her direct experience as a witness of the brutalities that the Mexican government in power at the time had committed, proves her legitimacy as a narrator. It is not a coincidence that Bolaño’s relationship with state power was a destructive one, as Chris Andrews expresses that he was: ‘a writer who came to maturity in societies governed by corrupt and repressive institutions’(Andrews 2014), stressing that the author’s experiences shaped the depiction of violent governmental power in the novel. John Banville has also underscored that the main subject matter of the book is the brutality of the Mexican government even though it is disguised as a stream of consciousness of a woman that talks about a myriad other events and episodes:

‘In September that year, after months of agitation on campus and in the streets, the Mexican government sent troops into the university to quell student political protests; there were killings, and many staff members and students were arrested. This atrocity is Bolaño’s true subject here, even though Auxilio talks of anything and everything else, circling the central tragedy to which she is a peculiarly well-placed witness.’

(Banville 2009)

Who could have known that this novel would be about authoritarian brutality and not beauty and cosmetics? The cover with the picture of an ‘eye’ is obviously due to the title ‘Amulet’, amulet being an ornament that takes the form of a blue eye and it is widely believed that by wearing it you are protected from evil, danger or disease, and thus the narrator’s position as ‘the mother of all Mexican poets’ links the idea of protection back to the title. Although I still dislike the book cover, Amulet is one of my favourite books. I could genuinely relate to the narrator, her doubtfulness and helplessness, and Bolaño has moved from an indifferent place in my mind to a special room in my heart. I still see no reason to fight my urge to judge a book by its cover, but Amulet taught me to exercise my judgment with resilience and less prejudice, as more often than not, there is more to a book than meets the eye.

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