I was talking with a friend last weekend about Roberto Bolaño and he remarked that many of the early slim novels from this remarkable writer tend to read like sketches for his masterwork 2666. This is a more than fair assessment and also one that shouldn’t–and doesn’t–detract from enjoying these books. But it’s difficult to read the nightmare-rant of By Night in Chile or the paranoiac dread invested in the tales in Last Evenings on Earth without recalling the layered themes of violence and art that underpin 2666. Bolaño’s fake-encyclopedia, Nazi Literature in the Americas is perhaps, by its very nature, the sketchiest of these sketches, yet that term, “sketch” — well it’s just plain wrong here. While most of the book’s entries are marked by brevity, none are undercooked. Rather–and I hate that I’m about to crib from critic Francisco Goldman’s blurb on the back of the book, but he’s spot on–the book is a “key cosmology to Bolaño’s literary universe.” In short, Nazi Literature in the Americas helps to confirm that, like J.R.R. Tolkien, Bolaño was a writer with a fully-realized universe at his disposal, one with its own heroes and villains, histories and myths, and yes, like Tolkien, its own literature.
Nazi Literature in the Americas is a stunning, ugly, highly-enjoyable, and often hilarious book. It details the exploits, both literary and non-, of over two dozen fictional writers from North, Central, and South America. While few of the writers are actually practicing Nazis, all are right-wingers and most are crazy failures. Big surprise that Bolaño would write about crazy, failed writers, right? And that is the central paradox of the book: while the writers here are anti-Semites and fascists and neo-Nazis who represent the worst in human values and ethics, they also darkly mirror Bolaño himself, or at least his fictional stand-ins. For example, the (anti-)heroes Ignacio Zubieta and Jesús Fernández-Gómez are Colombian writers who side first with the fascists and then the Nazis, yet they come across as doubles for the Mexican lefty poets Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, the (anti-)heroes of The Savage Detectives. The pair pops up a few times in the course of the book as well, most notably in the section on Daniela de Montecriesto, who was a minor character in 2666.
She’s not the only character to traverse Bolaño books. The final chapter of Nazi Literature, its longest, tells the story of Ramírez Hoffman, the aviator-poet-serial killer whose story is extended in the novella Distant Star. Hoffman’s entry, besides being the longest, is also the only written in the first-person. The narrator is even identified as “Bolaño.”
At times the reader will find himself sympathizing with Bolaño’s monsters. The sci-fi writer Gustavo Border says: “I have been tormented, spat on, and deceived so often–the only way I could go on living and writing was to find spiritual refuge in an ideal place.” Bolaño immediately cuts the pathos with humor; Border ends his sad comment: “In a way, I’m like a woman trapped in a man’s body.” Elsewhere, what’s most shocking is not how much sympathy Bolaño evokes, but how interesting the literature he describes sounds. Take Segundo José Heredia’s Saturnalia, for instance:
Saturnalia, the story of two young friends who in the course of a week-long journey through France are confronted with the most horrendous acts they have ever witnessed, without being able to tell for sure whether or not they are dreaming. The novel includes scenes of rape, sexual and workplace sadism, incest, impaling, and human sacrifice in prisons crowded to the physical limit; there are convoluted murder plots in the tradition of Conan Doyle, colorful and realistic descriptions of every Paris neighborhood, and, incidentally, one of the most vivid and spine-chilling female characters in Venezuelan literature since 1950: Elisenda, the enemy of the two young men.
It sounds horrific but I’d love to read it. It also sounds like a Bolaño novel, with its nightmare violence, prisons, and detective plots.
In one telling aside, one of Bolaño’s writers realizes that “literature . . . is a surreptitious form of violence.” Bolaño’s oeuvre seems to work from this thesis, or perhaps work to enact this thesis. If the writers of of Nazi Literature are villains, they are also sympathetic in their villainy, not for their racist viewpoints, which are subtly but repeatedly mocked and condemned, but rather for the fact that as writers and artists they have no hope; like Oedipus they are fated to violence. Like Bolaño himself, they both channel and engender violence. Their failure, of course, is to seek to regulate or otherwise give meaning to that violence via ideology and dogma. Tellingly, Bolaño investigates–and perhaps corrects–this failure in his opus 2666 which resists easy answers and scapegoats.
And so to return to our point of entry: Nazi Literature in the Americas will probably be enjoyed most by those who’ve trucked through 2666 or some of Bolaño’s other works. It’s a quick, propulsive read, and while quite funny–and at times scary–it’s most fascinating as a document that further fleshes out the Bolañoverse. Highly recommended.