The OF Blog: Roberto Bolaño, Nazi Literature in the Americas

Friday, March 06, 2009

Roberto Bolaño, Nazi Literature in the Americas

A week ago, I posted several short commentaries/reviews covering many of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges' short story collections. In particular there was one early collection, Historia universal de la infamia (The Universal History of Infamy), published in 1935, that I enjoyed greatly for its mixture of real-life events and personages into wholly fictional but extremely plausible short, "secret" histories. In many ways, this collection is a more perfect gateway to reading and understanding Borges as a master artificer.

Over the past dozen years or so, Chilean/Mexican/Spanish author Roberto Bolaño's name has been bandied about quite a bit as being an heir of sorts to Borges. After reading several of his short story collections and novels, it is easy to see the influences, explicitly stated and implied alike, in Bolaño's work. From the way he bends reality to suit a mood, to the more philosophical ponderings of the ways life's paths might bifurcate into near-limitless possibilities, there is much in Bolaño's writing for a Borges aficionado to enjoy. But for all the acclaim that Los detectives salvajes (The Savage Detectives) and 2666 have received lately, there is one earlier book of Bolaño's that I believe would make a more perfect gateway to understanding his own devotion to literary forgeries (including his embellished 1973 "adventures" in Chile immediately following Pinochet's coup and his claimed heroin habit): 1996's La literatura nazi en América (Nazi Literature in America).

The structure of La literatura nazi en América mimics that of Borges' 1935 collection. There are 30 fictious writers in the Americas, writing between 1930 and 2010, whose works contain some connection, concrete or metaphorical, with the ideology of National Socialism. In each of these stories, Bolaño highlights the writers' neuroses, their frustrations, the dissonance between their desires and the realities facing them in each of their countries.

Almost without exception, these authors' fictious works, as described by the third-person narrator, are turgid works. Take for example a short comment within the first piece, devoted to Edelmira Thompson de Mendiluce, a Buenos Aires porteña who had met and become enamoured with Hitler in 1929, after one of her books was published in the 1940s:

La obra se publica sin pena ni gloria. Esta vez, sin embargo, Edelmira está tan segura de lo que ha escribo que la incomprensión apena la afecta. (p. 22)

The work is published without penalty nor glory. This time, however, Edelmira is so sure of what she has written that incomprehension scarcely affects her.
It is those little comments, embedded within these 30 short 3-10 page narratives, that oddly adds a human touch of frailty and self-deception to characters who are conversely almost inhumane in their treatment of themselves, their loved ones, and others. Bolaño, however, was not content to make his imagined writers to look like pitiful fools. Instead, he utilizes these characters and their shared affinity for Nazism to make a direct, powerful statement about the insidious and often open influences that this odious ideology has had on Western Hemisphere countries for over 60 years after Nazi Germany's downfall.

For many of Bolaño's readers in Latin America, these writers' foibles are not just those of eccentrics, but rather they would likely represent very real and very dangerous right-wing governments that arose in Latin America in the 1940s through the 1970s. While the governments varied from the pratically Fascist Argentina of Perón to the more U.S.-friendly juntas of the 1970s (Pinochet and Chile in particular), each of them contained some element, whether it be a focus on nationalism or militarisj or whether it be a strong anti-communist (and by extension, virulent opposition to labor/poverty groups organizing) bent, that resembled in some fashion that of Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy. In a time in which an Eichmann or Mengele were sheltered for years in countries such as Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil, Nazi ideology had not yet died the scornful death in Latin America (and to a lesser degree in the United States) that it had in the Europe devastated by World War II.

While Bolaño is bold and direct with discussing these elements in this book, he took pains to insure that they did not overwhelm the characters themselves. Each of these 30 characters is distinct, with their own interpretations of power, glory, and national pride, and while they are united in a few particulars, it is their own heterogeneous application of Nazi-influenced ideals in their fictious stories that makes for a remarkable reading experience. In a very real sense, Bolaño has taken Borges' model of the historical forgery and has improved upon it in such a way as to leave the reader thinking not just about the fictional characters' motivations and shortcomings, but also perhaps querying about whether or not those characters' ideological approaches might still infest the countries of the Americas. La literatura nazi en América (available in English as Nazi Literature in the Americas) is a very powerful read, one that I encourage those curious about Bolaño's writing to read first, not simply because it was the first of his books to make a major splash in the Spanish-speaking world, but because it is a very visceral, penetrating book that will leave the reader with more useful questions to consider than the reader likely would have brought to the reading. Highly recommended.

Publication: 1996, 2008 (reprint, Spain); 2008 (U.S.). Tradeback (Spain); Hardcover (US).

Publishers: Seix Barral (Spain), New Directions (U.S.)

1 comment:

mark c said...

I would also add a few comments, as, although I don't disagree with with anything you say, the book is richer and more multidimensional than a reader of your review might think

Firstly, it is also very funny in places. eg I love the idea of a ten volume SF series focusing on a mutant german shepherd dog with psychic powers and nazi tendencies. Then the entry in the glossary about the noblewoman puts her menage-a-trois with the two WW2 solder-poets into quite a different perspective, and finally the section describing an author who prefigured the roman nouveaux includes a lengthy spot on parody of roman nouveaux as a room is described in incredible and banal detail.

also the book is widely concerned with literary ambition and why people write, from the provincial teacher who can't stop trying to publish his mad poems, to the man who tries to become famous by plagiaring foreign poets with completely different styles and themes, to the death squad driver who is obsessed with a succesful brazilian author

also the nazi theme is maybe less straightforward than you make out -although some of the authors are nazis and fascists, some of them have onyl the most tangential connection to nazism - it's as if it's impossible not to be a nazi themed writer following the second world war and the vast effect it had on the world.

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