‘A pseudo-biographical encyclopedia of a whole host of fictional right-wing American poets and novelists’ – Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolaño

This latest Bolaño has been a long time coming to these shores; Nazi Literature has been available in translation in the US since early 2008, and I don’t think I’m the only one who’s been impatiently waiting for the UK publishers to get a wriggle on. So was it worth the wait? Absolutely.  Although it’s far from the sprawling behemoth of 2666, or even the joyous romp of The Savage Detectives (my personal favourite), its 270 pages are as funny and gruesome and as full of the author’s love of poetry and writing as any of the other novels.  And what lies beyond the attention-grabbing title?  A pseudo-biographical encyclopedia of a whole host of fictional right-wing American poets and novelists, that’s what.  It’s somewhere between a collection of short stories and a novel, with the ‘entries’ that comprise the dictionary interweaving with one another to create a sprawling and vivid map of a non-existent literary scene. It’s non-stop and insane and hilarious, not to mention thought-provoking.

Stylistically, Nazi Literature in the Americas is similar to Bolaño’s other works – his prose is clear and easy to read, and though he’s got a reputation as a difficult writer, this stems more from his unwillingness to provide easy conclusions or connections in his plots rather than from the writing itself – and that difficulty doesn’t apply here, as this book is self-contained and self-explanatory, and didn’t leave me, for one, dangling or frustrated at the end.  Like the fourth section of 2666, or the middle portion of The Savage Detectives, Nazi Literature piles up a series of similar tales one after the other, and though this leaves the reader sometimes struggling to differentiate between the various characters, it also leaves him with the sensation of having been immersed in a whole new and infinitely vast world. Like Stanislaw Lem, whose A Perfect Vacuum reviews an assortment of non-existence texts, Bolaño succeeds in creating a literary scene from scratch.  By tossing a bunch of real-life figures into the mix as peripheral characters (Leni Riefenstahl, Allen Ginsberg, Octavio Paz, not to mention Bolaño himself), he makes the reader wonder where the fiction ends and reality begins.  Certainly, it’s no huge imaginative leap to guess that there might have been writers with right-wing affiliations living in the Americas (and  Bolaño’s canvas stretches from South America right up to the USA) in the years after WWII – but Bolaño gets you thinking about it.

His interest in the convergence of ethics and aesthetics isn’t a new one – his earlier novella, By Night In Chile, dealt with the same themes – but what makes this book such a good read is its unrestrained humour.  Bolaño presents the characters’ politics with a straight-faced mockery: Eldemira Thompson de Mendiluce meets Hitler, and, awed, asks him where she ought to send her children to school; her daughter claims that the happiest moment of her whole life was when the Fuhrer held her as a baby.  Jim O’Bannon ‘remained firm in his disdain for Jews and homosexuals to the end, although as the time of his death he was beginning, gradually, to accept African Americans.’ The novel is populated with writers and artists that are also Nazi sympathizers, gangsters, murderers, and generally odious individuals, and Bolaño looks at how the two strands come together: Franz Zwickau has ‘the gaze of a killer or a dreamer or both’, and ‘needless to say’ his poetry collection was ignored, ‘perhaps in a deliberate and concerted manner, by the influential critics of the day.’            

The novel’s also a brilliant satire on literary pretensions and the ‘truth’ of biographies.  Bolaño’s narrator (the last entry actually names him as ‘Bolaño’) is by turn reverent and caustic – we hear how Segundo Jose Heridia ‘attached little importance to his day-to-day life, and none at all to his literary works’ and that another writer’s diet consisted almost entirely of wholemeal bread.  The narrator launches frequently into unverifiable flights of speculation and guesswork: we’re told that Silvio Salvatico’s manuscripts ‘were probably thrown out with the trash of burned by the orderlies’, Ernesto Perez Mason was ‘perhaps jailed again, perhaps not’, and in the entry on Carlos Ramirez Hoffman, the narrator/Bolaño admits that ‘the foregoing account of the airshow may be reliable. Or not…. Perhaps it didn’t rain that day in Santiago.  Perhaps it all happened differently.’

I laughed out loud at almost every entry in this crazy bibliographic/biographical dictionary.  If you haven’t read Bolaño before, but if you’re a fan of satirical literature or writers like Borges and Lem, it’s as good a place as any to start. 

Any Cop?: If you’re already familiar with Bolaño, look out for a few sneaky references to characters from his other works.  Either way, it’s a darkly humorous and very clever collection of linked stories, and I’d definitely recommend it.

 Valerie O’Riordan

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