Thursday, January 03, 2013

Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolano

Imagine a scabrous British poet (were such an individual to exist) writing a pseudo-novel positing an imagined alternate history of 20th century right wing literature, interweaving a motley collection of murderers and madmen alongside the existing canon, complete with scholarly footnotes and bibliography, it is likely, I think, that it would never see the light of day. Yet, this is exactly what we hope for and expect from a posthumously translated novel by Roberto Bolano, the Chilean writer who died in 2003 before his unexpected Western success.

"Nazi Literatures in the Americas" has one of the most arresting titles in recent fiction, and yet its not some clever device, it really does describe the novel's contents. Bolano has written an alternate literary history of the American continent (primarily focussed on South America, but with some entries for the North) which also acts as a compelling alternate history of that troubled continent. We've tended to think of radical literature in terms of the "left", whether its counter-cultural writers or utopian leftists, yet Bolano reminds us, through this dark satire, that much of the 20th century was blemished by various fascisms, and that the repressive regimes of the Americas were rarely communist, but led by powerful juntas whose role models, more often than not, could be found in the now-discredited Nazi Germany. It creates quite a jolt for a western reader; and one remembers half-forgotten stories of Argentina being a haven for Nazis after the war, and of the right-wing juntas (frequently supported, at least tacitly, by the U.S.) that have so often militarised the politics of that continent.

Yet, by writing a history of imagined "Nazi Literature", Bolano cleverly highlights how art and culture can exist in even the most oppressive of regimes, and how absurd the idea of a "Nazi Literature" actually is. For the "brief lives" described in this entertaining selection of short biographies, covers a continent with misanthropic literary losers, writing dark tracts in isolation, creating phantom presses, publishing houses and magazines that disseminate a certain kind of right-wing literature. Its only a novel in the loosest sense of the word, but hangs together as a succession of connected anecdotes or stories. The structure is that of popular criticism, chapters on "North American Poets", "Magicians, Mercenaries and Miserable Creatures" and "Wandering Women of Letters," with pen portraits running from a page to many, and an epilogue consisting of a bibliography and extended list of "secondary figures." In this book, Bolano takes great delight in documenting a series of monstrous literary follies that one can only be glad don't exist, but which would make perfect sense in a right wing canon. From epic poems, to memoirs, to small poetry sequences, to experimental manifestoes, Bolano's litany of writers cover ever conceivable genre. Yet the tone throughout is always satirical. Books are released "to little impact"; novelists and poets disappear for years at a time; magazines and publishing houses appear almost as ghosts. The longest story in the book, the final one, about "The Infamous Ramirez Hoffman" sees Bolano himself make an appearance. It appears to be the touchstone story of the book - (perhaps the first written? or at least the key to what has come before) - where a notorious murderer-poet is more myth than man, yet Bolano is tasked to find him, both in the pseudonyms he may have used to write his work and in real life. I do wonder how well we are served in the translation here, and in other stories, as these tales are fabular ones in many ways, and at times it feels like we are losing some of the archness and directness of the stories in their translation to English.

Beyond this pen portrait of the novel, its difficult to analyse in great depth - the allusions to writers and scenes are probably packed with the actual literary history of the continent, and there may well be antecedents to many of these misanthropes, yet it is enough, I think, to appreciate Bolano's deadpan humour. These writers are literary archetypes of the worst kind. They strive away for years in their madness; their life stories are full of death, despair and destruction; their career trajectories are those of madmen and monsters; yet this all makes some kind of cruel, satirical sense. Each is given a birth date and death date - even those outliving the author - and we cross a continent, with Argentinians, Mexicans, Chileans, even North Americans.  As a kind of richly comic literary tableaux it even works, in some ways, as a novel, though its clever structure, and Bolano's dark humour make it a genuine one-off.

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