Nazi Literature in the Americas

The Year of Reading Dangerously: Roberto Bolano

Nazi Literature in the Americas is not Roberto Bolano’s most famous or admired novel, but it seemed the ideal place to continue my efforts to read only what it is unusual and challenging. The book takes the form of an encyclopaedia of writers from the Americas, all of whom have fascist political leanings. Each writer is covered in a biographical entry of between two and twenty pages, focusing mainly on their literary output. In doing this, Bolano highlights perhaps more starkly than anywhere else the two obsessions which run through all his work: literature and politics. Here the title itself arrests our attention: surely ‘Nazi literature’ is an oxymoron? However, it does not take long to think of real (and American) writers who have been influenced by fascism. And anyway, Bolano has said that in writing the book he was thinking about the left as much as the right. Bolano is not positing the theory that all writing is political, he is pointing out that many writers are, and that being writers does not automatically put them on the side of the angels.

So what do we learn from reading the thirty biographies (and the appendix of secondary figures, publishers and books)? We learn that writers can be as unpleasant and petty as anyone else; that their lives can be tawdry and empty; and that their work often comes second to the need for publication and recognition. While Bolano frequently presents a realistic view of the writer’s life and writers in his work, rarely has it seemed so unappealing. However, these are not writers united in political belief. All are right wing to some degree (and sometimes to an extreme degree) but many seem politically immature or opportunist and Hitler, Nazism, Jews are not frequently mentioned. When they are – one writer treasures a photograph of Hitler holding her as a baby – the connection is not always entirely political.

Bolano has fun not only with the writers’ lives but with their work, with many summaries of books never written scattered throughout. However, the book’s conception remains more amusing than its execution. For me, its final entry, on Carlos Ramirez Hoffmann, is its most effective. Here Bolano’s style of writing changes completely, from the mock-factual to a much more personal, first-person narrative:

“Why did the Venegas sisters get mixed up with him? It’s a trivial mystery, and everyday accident. The man known as Stevens was, I suppose, handsome, intelligent, sensitive.”

Part of the effectiveness of this voice is its contrast with what has come before, as if the writer has broken free of his own rules. Going further, Bolano himself appears in the story, helping a detective track Hoffmann down. Bolano’s appearance (common in his work) is not a literary trick but a link between the lives he has described and his own.

Presumably Bolano had some idea that this particular fictitious writer stood out among all the others, not only from his refusal to neuter his story by adapting it to the encyclopaedia format, but also from his decision to develop it further into the novella Distant Star. Unfortunately this means that Distant Star is a much better place to begun reading Bolano.

Danger rating: A bit like reading the obituaries – amusing and tedious by turns, but the final chapter has the power of suddenly coming across your own.

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