Roberto Bolaño — Nazi Literature in the Americas

Bolaño week continues at A Study of Reading Habits, with the fantastic Nazi Literature in the Americas. This is both Bolaño’s oddest and most Borges-ian book, an encyclopaedia of fictional right-wing Spanish-speaking authors of the Americas. It can be read in order, or one can skip around reading entries at random. Though it has the structure of Borges, with detailed descriptions of the works and lives of the various authors, all told with the same bland, yet savagely satirical tone. It’s really quite an accomplishment; as always, the indictment is not always solely focused on the monstrous characters that traipse along Bolaño’s pages, but on the literature and society of the period as well–and the period ranges from the early 1900s into our future–one of the authors doesn’t die until 2021.

The book is separated into sections by the authors’ characteristics. For example, there is one section devoted to the Mendiluce family, a sort of precursor to the rest of what is to come; another section is devoted to several horrific works of nightmareish science fiction. Taken as a whole, sometimes it’s hard to absorb. The sad, hopeless, occasionally tragic lives of these literary figures come in waves, along with the ridiculous novels, poetry, and criticism they’ve written, slightly overwhelming.

One of the reviews of Nazi Literature in the Americas that I read faulted Bolaño for not writing down any of the literature that his subjects supposedly produced. Really, though, the lack of any concrete examples is a strength of the book; you have an idea of what it’s like, but it’s all up to the imagination. Besides, some of the work is too horrendous to really want to see; it’s enough to know that, in this fictional universe, it existed. I don’t think I need to read anything contributed to a magazine entitled The Fourth Reich in Argentina. It’s enough to know that these flawed characters created it, enough to know of their madnesses, their foibles, their illnesses, all related in that calm, almost clinical term, interspersed with strangely poetic drops of phrase. For example:

Conversations among indistinct characters and chaotic descriptions of an endless welter of rivers and seas.

Or even:

She remained lucid (or “furious,” as she liked to say) until the end.

And:

Death found him composing the posthumous works of his heteronyms.

Yes, the influence of Borges is clearly felt in these passages, especially in the kinds of imaginary labyrinths that Bolaño creates from his fictional authors. Nazi Literature in the Americas is not a pleasant book, but it is a fascinating book, one that is possible to dip one’s toes into for a little bit at a time, or to plow through it in an uninterrupted read. Pretty damn impressive.

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