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Nazi Literature in the Americas

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Nazi Literature in the Americas

'Nazi Literature in the Americas' by Roberto Bolano
Phil Jourdan
A strange look at the literary Far Right.

Roberto Bolano has been dead seven years. After his two "big novels", The Savage Detectives and 2666, were translated into English, Bolano quickly became a literary fascination in America and the UK. The curious thing is that now that Bolano is a star, the difficulty in separating facts about his life from his fiction is once again growing blurred. For a while it was accepted that his death was linked to his old heroin addiction; that rumor was, supposedly, dispelled. Then people focused on his early years spent "on the streets", his life as a vagabond. The latest rumor is that his family keeps on finding new, unpublished manuscripts amongst his belongings. Some even claim that a sixth part of 2666 is one of those manuscripts.

Whatever the facts, Bolano's presence on the literary scene is assured. Several translations of his earlier work will be appearing in stores this year and next. In the space of four or five years, more books by Bolano will have been released in English than many writers manage to pen in a lifetime. It causes one to wonder: Why now? Why the sudden interest in Bolano's dark novels, when he was paid no attention in the English-speaking world during his lifetime? Perhaps his stories, with their nightmarish depictions of human affairs told in remarkably casual prose, resonate with us today simply because it is only now that we've noticed how talented he was. Maybe there is no mystery to it, only the fact of bad luck. That is the kind of explanation he himself might have given (probably through a character, of course, and in an ironic, self-deprecating tone).

Although in the States it has been available for a while, Bolano's short but "encyclopaedic" book, Nazi Literature in the Americas, has only recently been loosed on the British public. It will not be considered "major Bolano", but that is only because he has set the standard so high with works like The Savage Detectives. Major or not, this is an impressive book, consisting of many biographies of fictitious right-wing poets and novelists from the Americas. Bolano name-drops real-life authors and has them mingle with his creations, creating a confused reality that at times seems creepily plausible.

The entries in this little compendium are succinct but full of well-conceived details. He does not merely tell us that so-and-so wrote such-and-such a book: he tells us what the Leftists thought of the book, what caused the writer in question to take to drink, what Author X had in common with Author Y, how many verses Poem Z contains, and so on. The result is convincing even if the whole thing is absurd. The information that Bolano packs into 250 pages is dizzying, and by the end of the book, after a strange appendix in which the author lists innumerable books that never actually existed, one is left feeling enlightened about fascist literature… despite the complete fabrication that went into producing the book.

By taking (and occasionally breaking out of) the disinterested tone of an editor, Bolano mocks literary convention while showing how important he considers the written word to be. There is a certain responsibility that a biographer has toward his subject, and to Bolano's credit his creations are treated with respect, no matter how objectionable their politics. Written with humility but also with confidence, Nazi Literature in the Americas manages to be recognizably parodic yet unusually touching. Those interested in experiments with form will probably find this a successful attempt at something new; those simply looking for an intelligent but "light" introduction to Bolano may want to give this a go. As for those anxiously awaiting translations of Bolano's other novels, this is a good way to while away some time.