Roberto Bolaño: To Have and Have Nazi
Roberto Bolaño has passed into legend faster than North American readers have had the chance to discover and relish his works. A Chilean once jailed by Pinochet, he blazed a trail across a blur of Latin American and European countries, through their poetry movements, heroin scenes, and radical politics. A prodigious decade of writing that retraced that blazing trail with unfettered wit and tragic lucidity came to an end when he died of liver failure in 2003, at age 50. His greatest achievement, The Savage Detectives, appears soon in paperback from Picador and will be followed by the translation of his last novel, 2666. Implacably, readers and especially younger writers will start to carve out Bolaño's place in contemporary literature.
Meanwhile, a lesser but utterly fascinating work has just appeared in Chris Andrews's very fine translation for New Directions. Bolaño's wit is afire already in the title: Nazi Literature in the Americas. This 1996 book is not a novel, though it is the work of a novelist's imagination. It's an encyclopedia presenting the biographies and works of dozens of South and North American poets and novelists who devoted themselves to, or dallied with, ultra-right-wing causes. Yet all the writers and all their novels and poems are sheer invention. Bolaño makes up an entire literary tradition and a far-flung network of aristocratic Nazi sympathizers, death-squad members, fascistic informers, children of German war criminals, skinheads, Aryan Brotherhood types, and soccer hooligans.
The encyclopedia's vignettes encapsulate the aesthetic and political outlook of each writer, skewering their writing and lives. Luz Mendiluce Thompson (1928–1976): "Luz Mendiluce was a lively pretty child, a pensive plump adolescent, and a hapless alcoholic adult." Her brother Juan Mendiluce Thompson (1920–1991): "To coincide with the publication of his third novel, Springtime in Madrid, he launched a campaign against francophilia, the cult of violence, atheism and foreign ideas. . . . [His] last work, Sinking Islands, was published in a critical edition prepared by Edelmiro Carozzone, the son of his mother's secretary. Fifty pages. Conversations among indistinct characters and chaotic descriptions of an endless welter of rivers and seas." Silvio Salvático (1901–1994): "From 1930 on, burdened by a disastrous marriage and numerous offspring, he worked as a gossip columnist and copy-editor for various newspapers in the capital, hung out in dives, and practised the art of the novel, which stubbornly declined to yield its secrets to him."
The jugular that Bolaño particularly goes for is the literary sensibility and talent that seduces itself with grand political fantasies. Consider Pedro González Carrera (1920–1961): "The poem was a far, far cry from the blandishments of Campoamor; in thirty precise and limpid verses, it vindicated Il Duce's vilified armies and the derided courage of the Italians (who, at the time, in both pro-Allied and pro-German circles, were assumed to be a race of cowards . . . ), while also, and here lay its originality, denying Italy's flagrant defeat, and promising an ultimate victory, to be achieved 'by novel, unexpected, marvelous means.' " Or the Haitian Max Mirebalais (1941–1998), who used pseudonyms and plagiarism to create "the half-German, half-Haitian poet Max von Hauptman": "From the manipulated, made-over, metamorphosed texts rose the figure of a bard who even-handedly explored and sang the magnificence of the Aryan and the Masai races. . . . Mirebalais, it seems, was excited by the idea of being a Nazi poet while continuing to espouse a certain kind of négritude."
Bolaño delights in the invention of plots for nonexistent novels and intricate thematic patterns for nonexistent poems. Each author among his Nazi literati is endowed with an entire oeuvre, publishers, manifestoes and controversies, friendly critics and enemies. The Borgesian inspiration is obvious enough, but Bolaño's originality lies in the power of his games to disturb. It is a slowly accumulated effect.
Nazi Literature in the Americas is first of all a prank, an act of genius wasting its time in parodic attacks on a hated sort of writer. But beyond that, it produces an unsettling mix of overt satire and covert elegy. The reductive force of summary after summary starts to have an effect that transcends the satire; the book begins to convey a sense of the vanity of human endeavor and the ease with which a lifetime's work might be flicked into oblivion by a witty remark. As the mocking of the imaginary writers' lives reverberates through one entry after the next, it comes back to mock the mockery itself; if the lives and works are in vain, the mocking of them is even more acutely in vain. So, too, does the satirized impulse to fuse a poetic project with a radical political vision lose its right-wing provenance: The conviction that reality will be utterly transformed "by novel, unexpected, marvelous means" is, Bolaño implies, a sickness of the left as well as the right. A masterful satirist, Bolaño wields a scalpel sharpened on both edges. Ultimately, his almost juvenile imaginative exuberance expresses just the opposite: a precocious world-weariness.
Such is the submerged, accumulating effect of the book. Before the final and unusually long entry on Carlos Ramírez Hoffman (1950–1998), a question nags at the reader: What is motivating all this in Bolaño? Why entry after entry, why hundreds of fabricated titles, why so many bogus literary magazines, publishing houses, and bizarre causes?
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.
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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