Roberto Bolaño: To Have and Have Nazi

Roberto Bolaño compiles a satirical compendium of imaginary right-wing writers

The narrator, who reveals nothing about himself until this last vignette, tells us his name is Bolaño. He is being detained in prison shortly after Pinochet overthrows Salvador Allende. Barely 20 and a participant in various poetry workshops, he has been rounded up as a left-wing radical dangerous to the new regime. From within the prison's walls, he watches a bizarre spectacle one afternoon as Carlos Ramírez Hoffman sky-writes verses from the Vulgate Bible in Latin in the sky above. This mysterious figure, who has attended the same poetry workshop and awakened romance in the aspiring women poets, is an agent of the new regime. He leads the beloved Venegas twins, María and Magdalena, and many others to their deaths at Pinochet's hands. He holds a photo exhibition so horrific that other officers flee it, sick to their stomach. He epitomizes the (failed) poet become fascistic assassin, an aesthete of torture and murder, a skywriting lyricist of violence and nationalism. The narrator, like the real Roberto Bolaño, is released from prison and escapes into exile. The story ends years later in Madrid, where the narrator is called upon by a shady figure hunting Ramírez Hoffman to help identify the poet-assassin. The goal is plain enough.

Retrospectively, all those imaginary encyclopedia entries are a furious effort to imaginatively create, then satirically destroy a backstory, a history and pathology that might explain how so many students, poets, and enthusiasts of social justice could have been tortured and disappeared. The imaginary pantheon of Nazi literature is a standing offense to those, like the Venegas twins, whose life in letters was snuffed out by the new regime—but the real effect that Bolaño achieves is to honor the dead and the ruined by keeping the historical wound open.

Unfettered wit, despite Pinochet: the late Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño
Courtesy of New Directions
Unfettered wit, despite Pinochet: the late Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño


Nazi Literature in the Americas, By Roberto Bolaño, translated by Chris AndrewsNew Directions, 227 pp., $23.95

The same year that he finished Nazi Literature in the Americas, Bolaño took up the story of the fascist skywriting torturer and turned it into a genuine novel, Distant Star. The ferocious prelude is well worth reading on its own, but if read along with the biting introspection of Distant Star, it affords an even deeper look into Roberto Bolaño's haunted mind and haunting creativity.

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