Michael Dirda

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By Michael Dirda
Sunday, March 2, 2008


By Roberto Bolano

Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews

New Directions. 227 pp. $23.95

Let me admit, straight off, that any reviewer might feel hesitant before recommending a book called Nazi Literature in the Americas. At the checkout, the bookstore clerk will almost certainly look twice at the title -- and then avoid looking at you. Certainly, it would be politic to leave the dust jacket at home if you like to read on the subway; and even then, you might want to invest in one of those anonymous wrap-around opaque covers. When friends casually ask the title of the book you're carrying, you'll want to have an explanation prepared in advance.

Why? Because Roberto Bolano's Nazi Literature in the Americas very much deserves reading: It is imaginative, full of a love for literature, and, unlikely as it may seem, exceptionally entertaining. The book purports to be a biographical dictionary gathering 30 brief accounts of poets, novelists and editors (all fictional) who espouse fascist or extremely right-wing political views. While several meet violent ends, most are simply deluded sentimentalists and frustrated litterateurs. They come from all the Latin American countries, but at least a half-dozen are citizens of these United States, including the fanatical preacher Rory Long, the poet and football player Jim O'Bannon, the science fiction writer J.M.S. Hill and the founder of the Aryan Brotherhood, Thomas R. Murchison, alias The Texan.

Obviously, Bolano -- a supporter of Chilean President Salvador Allende and a onetime Trotskyite -- is playing a tricky game, carefully balancing mockery and black humor against our natural sense of revulsion. Only occasionally does he remind us of the nightmarish horror of Hitler's Reich and Franco's Spain, or of the atrocities perpetrated by generalissimos and dictators. Bolano's real satirical point seems to be: Look! These imaginary right-wing zealots -- with their petty rivalries and ludicrous movements, their crazed manifestos and underground periodicals -- are fundamentally not very different from the real writers and publishers of the contemporary literary scene. They want what all artists want: for the world to honor and reward their vision, their aesthetic integrity.

The highly experimental poet Willy Schurholz "had what it takes to fail spectacularly," but ends up a cultural sensation when he traces the outlines of an ideal concentration camp in the desert. What an outraged establishment may call senseless violence, the more sympathetic regard as performance art. Even the most callous murderer in this book views himself as essentially a conceptual artist, working with the ephemeral material of human lives.

Bolano's tone -- like that of Swift in "A Modest Proposal" -- is non-judgmental and scholarly throughout, no matter how ludicrous or horrible his characters' views and actions. Here is the opening of a short entry for Silvio Salv┬┐tico (Buenos Aires, 1901 -- Buenos Aires, 1994), a neat litany of one offensive item after another:

"As a young man Salvatico advocated, among other things, the re-establishment of the Inquisition; corporal punishment in public; a permanent war against the Chileans, the Paraguayans, or the Bolivians as a kind of gymnastics for the nation; polygamy; the extermination of the Indians to prevent further contamination of the Argentinean race; curtailing the rights of any citizen with Jewish blood; a massive influx of migrants from the Scandinavian countries in order to effect a progressive lightening of the national skin color, darkened by years of promiscuity with the indigenous population; life-long writer's grants; the abolition of tax on artists' incomes; the creation of the largest air force in South America; the colonization of Antarctica; and the building of new cities in Patagonia.

"He was a soccer player and a Futurist."

Most of these brief lives run from two to six pages, though the account of "the infamous Ramirez Hoffman" -- airman, assassin and aesthete -- is almost a short story (and was later expanded into the short novel Distant Star). Along with his relatively full accounts of the fanatical elite, Bolano also includes a series of appendices, briefly describing some of the lesser cranks, listing various (imaginary) right-wing publishing houses, magazines and organizations -- The Wounded Eagle, Iron Heart, The Church of the True Martyrs of North America -- and providing a bibliography of the various authors' novels, memoirs and poetry collections. The titles alone show Bolano's sure touch for pastiche: Fields of Honor, The Storm and the Youths, The Fighting Years of an American Falangist in Europe, Warriors of the South, The Best Poems of Jim O'Bannon, Apocalypse in Force City, and -- my favorite -- Cower, Hounds!

Such literary ingenuity from a Latin American author, if not the political edginess, inevitably recalls Jorge Luis Borges. Bolano, we know, revered the Argentine fabulist, and it seems pretty clear that the model for Nazi Literature in the Americas is that master's own portrait gallery of criminals and scoundrels, A Universal History of Infamy. Yet I suspect another influence too: the subgenre of science fiction called alternate history. At one point, Bolano casually mentions Norman Spinrad, who is best known for The Iron Dream, a devastating satire of the militaristic elements in the fiction of Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan) and Robert A. Heinlein. Spinrad depicts Adolf Hitler as a thwarted politician who becomes a pulp science fiction author and works out his Aryan daydreams in sword-and-sorcery novels like "Lord of the Swastika" -- the text of which Spinrad provides, with commentary. More than one fascist writer in Bolano's book composes what are essentially heroic fantasies, (e.g. the Force-City chronicles of Gustavo Borda). The poet Pedro Gonzalez Carrera even sings the praises of men in armor, "Merovingians from another planet."

One of the pleasures of Bolano lies in his subtle humor: He'll mention "an irreproachable style, worthy of Sholokhov" -- and expect the reader to recognize the sarcasm. Irma Carrasco's sonnets are described as "fearlessly probing the open wound of modernity. The solution, it now seemed to her, was to return to sixteenth-century Spain." Actual writers repeatedly interact with imaginary ones. Many leading figures of Latin American literature -- Adolfo Bioy Casares, Manuel Mujica Lainez, Ernesto Sabato and Osman Lins, among others -- are regularly vilified. Juan Mendiluce Thompson scornfully describes Borges's stories as "parodies of parodies," adding that his "lifeless characters were derived from worn-out traditions of English and French literature, clearly in decline, 'repeating the same old plots ad nauseam.' " The joke here, of course, is that Borges's stories are precisely these things. In a way.

Bolano, who died in 2003 from liver disease at the age of 50, has been acclaimed as the most exciting Latin American writer since the great days of the Boom. Last year, his novel The Savage Detectives received extensive review coverage and was compared in importance to One Hundred Years of Solitude (an irony that might have amused Bolano, who couldn't stand Gabriel Garcia Marquez). That long novel recreates the literary and artistic scene in Mexico City during the 1970s and beyond, chronicling the youthful adventures of several young poets (modeled after the author and his friends). Its 400-page middle section is a kind of dossier made up of testimonies from 38 people -- a collage structure not dissimilar to that of Nazi Literature in the Americas.

Next year Farrar Straus Giroux promises a translation of Bolano's magnum opus 2666, while New Directions will be publishing seven more of his earlier books. This is a lot of attention for a dead writer, born in Chile, long resident in Mexico and buried in Spain. But Roberto Bolano is worth discovering, worth reading--and even worth all the trouble of having to explain why it is that you are toting around a book called Nazi Literature in the Americas. *

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com.

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