Roberto Bolaño, trans. by Chris Andrews, Nazi Literature in the Americas
(New Directions, 2008)
Roberto Bolaño is one of those cultural luminaries who is talked and written about extensively and with great excitement, and not only because his work greatly shook up the hegemony of Latin American literature but because he profoundly affects people. This is something that doesn’t happen all the time, especially lately. In Francine Prose’s review of the posthumous collection of short fiction Last Evenings on Earth (New Directions, 2006), she brought out a level of enthusiasm reserved for the books that change our lives. That certainly rang true to my experience; the book was handed to me when I made a delivery as a bike messenger to the New Directions office, at a time when I wasn’t doing much writing nor very excited about the books I was reading, and the stories set me on a complete one-eighty.
Nazi Literature in the Americas, Bolaño’s second novel, was published in Spain in 1996, two years before The Savage Detectives (FSG, trans. by Natasha Wimmer, 2007), and was the first book to bring him serious recognition in the Spanish-speaking world. NLITA is positioned as homage to Borges, while The Savage Detectives, the longer work, is attributed to the influence of Julio Cortázar and José Lezama Lima. He identifies with these writers as opposed to the nationalist boom-generation authors such as Octavio Paz, and his personal vs. political approach has been compared to the Beats. While The Savage Detectives, described by Bolaño as a “love letter to [his] generation,” includes dozens of voices and is written with enthusiastic abandon, Nazi Literature is incredibly concise and more or less adherent to one third-person voice. Politics play a greater role as subject matter, but Bolaño, ever the maverick, is apolitical.
Essentially an index of fictitious authors and publishing ventures from both North and South America from the late 19th century to the early 21st century (the latest date is 2017, and the jumps ahead through the calendar are done to complete the picture of each author’s life and work), the book’s authority is shaped by a voice that is internationally minded and knowledgeable enough to show these authors at their best and worst. Some of the characterizations, for example, of the anti-communist Cuban novelist Ernesto Pérez Masón, who embedded acrostics in his books such as “USA WHERE ARE YOU,” “THIS PLACE SUCKS,” or, curiously, “LONG LIVE HITLER,” manage to be somehow endearing, even more so when his political contradictions are exposed, and I could nearly forgive him for bullying the real-life Lezama.
Occasionally the invented authors’ work is well grounded, though examples of stylistic allusion to Raymond Roussell and Kafka are shown as expropriation and coincidence, respectively. Most of the literature is roundly lampooned, and the writers, when given voice in excerpted interviews, are often completely nuts. For example, a Central American sci-fi novelist who has drawn up a utopian future thriving on interplanetary Aryan-German rule, who when asked why he would construct this sort of narrative as a Latin American, responds, “The only way I could go on living and writing was to find spiritual refuge in an ideal place…in a way, I’m like a woman trapped in a man’s body.”
Much fun is had with the Argentinean legacy of sympathy towards the Third Reich, from an aristocratic poet who has her children photographed with Hitler, to the nationalist militancy of soccer fans in the ‘70s to ‘90s—one gang’s leader, also a poet who rallies for the Falklands war, attempts to incite war with Chile as well. But equally sinister spirits are highlighted in other countries, including the U.S., where the incarcerated become neo-Nazis and network within the prison system via poetry journals such as White Rebels or The Hotel of the Brave.
The encyclopedic voice diverges occasionally and is nearly hijacked by one or two of the subjects’ voices in a way that illuminates the less than objective tone, but when the narrator is unveiled as Bolaño himself in the final chapter (which was later extended for the novel Distant Star), the pace crackles. Here, we have Bolaño revisiting his real-life experience in a Chilean post-coup prison yard, now witness to the exploits of aviator-poet Ramirez Hoffman, who leaves cryptic messages in smoke for the spellbound prisoners and confused guards. Hoffman is also a kidnapper and a murderer, it turns out, but where the narrator had been cool and objective, he now becomes fascinated and ambivalent towards this larger-than-life character. It’s the short works, such as the Hoffman story and those included in Last Evenings on Earth, that are most representative—if not always explanatory—of Bolaño’s legacy: his proclivity to wandering, his obsession with the darker elements, and his inability to belong to a country.
DAVID VARNO's writing has appeared in BOMB, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Electric Literature, Paste, Tin House, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere.