Nazi Literature in the Americas

This is genius! A satirical “encyclopedia” of … really bad fiction. Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas contains biographies of 31 authors and poets, complete with a bibliography and a list of publishing houses and magazines. At the beginning, you don’t see the irony if you’re not careful, but after page 56, where novelist Ernesto Perez Mason challenges a rival author to a duel, it is quite apparent. This is the point where I laughed out loud:

“In 1965 he published Poor Man’s Soup, which related – in an irreproachable style, worthy of Sholokov – the hardships of a large family living in Havana in 1950. The novel comprised fourteen chapters. The first began: ‘Lucia was a black woman from…’; the second: ‘Only after serving her father…’; the third: ‘Nothing had come easily to Juan…’; the fourth: “Gradually, tenderly, she drew him towards her…’ The censor quickly smelled a rat. The first letters of each chapter made up the acrostic LONG LIVE HITLER. A major scandal broke out. Perez Mason defended himself haughtily: it was a simple coincidence. The censors set to work in earnest, and made a fresh discovery: the first letters of each chapter’s second paragraph made up another acrostic – THIS PLACE SUCKS. And those of the third paragraph spelled: USA WHERE ARE YOU. And the fourth paragraph: KISS MY CUBAN ASS. And so, since each chapter, without exception, contained twenty-five paragraphs, the censors and the general public soon discovered twenty-five acrostics. I screwed up, Perez Mason would say later: They were too obvious, but if I’d made it much harder, no one would have realized” (57-58). The translator must have really enjoyed translating these!

What Bolaño makes fun of, in these right-wing authors, is that they all take themselves very seriously while producing mediocre (if not terrible) works of literature. Some of them have turbulent emotional lives as well, like how creative genius troubles artists. The figures covered in the volume have varying levels of attachment to the Nazi ideology. Some fancy overtly fascist ideas while others simply nurture sympathy. For example: “In answer to a question about the puzzling abundance of Germanic elements in the work of a Central American author, [Gustavo Borda] once said: ‘I have been tormented, spat on, and deceived so often – the only way I could go on living and writing was to find spiritual refuge in an ideal place… In a way, I’m like a woman trapped in a man’s body…’” (118). This quote illustrates quite well this author’s pomp and stupidity.

I don’t always enjoy works of literature that are set in literary circles (I read snippets from 2666, and that didn’t make me that excited) but this one’s thought-provoking, and it takes a bit of self-reflexivity for an author to write such a book: one of the aims is to pose the question of whether “good art” isn’t something relative. I mean, what makes these 31 authors ridiculous is the fact that they produce bad literature, as well as being Nazis (on that score, I slightly felt that he was beating a dead horse. And on the other hand, there have been a few authors, objectively considered to be “successful”, but known to have flirted with Nazism or anti-Semitism.) In the final piece, which hints at the fictional nature of the account, Roberto Bolaño appears as the fellow inmate of a poet. Later, he assists a private detective in the trail of another. Bolaño asks the detective: “How can I help you, I asked him. By advising me on poetic matters, he said. This was his reasoning: Ramirez Hoffman was a poet, I was a poet, he was not. To find a poet, he needed the help of another poet. I told him that in my opinion Ramirez Hoffman was a criminal, not a poet. All right, all right, maybe in Ramirez Hoffman’s opinion, or anyone else’s for that matter, you’re not a poet, or a bad one, and he’s the real thing. It all depends, don’t you think?” (218). I think this is where Bolaño makes it clear that he wants readers to question the absolute value of aesthetic quality.  Michael Wood from the London Review of Books thinks that for Bolaño, right and left don’t matter that much, as authors on both sides share the same intensity of passion – and often lunacy – for literature, which is what makes it worrying. “Literature on both sides – there probably isn’t any literature in the centre, at least in Bolaño’s view – is delusion, disease.” That sounds like an interesting idea…

The story sort of spills over to the epilogue (which contains the bibliography), Bolaño has made every effort to make every bit of the book rich and colourful. The list of “secondary figures” indicates that many of them lived the final years of their lives in misery or died in undignified circumstances (I don’t know how I feel about the one who committed suicide after being raped by three drunk Uzbek soldiers). There were South American and German references that didn’t make sense to me. Many author names I didn’t recognize – some of them made-up, or intentionally obscure, I’m sure – and I wondered for example, if some of the surnames might be spoonerisms. Another mystery for me is the picture of that burnt matchstick on the cover, which has presumably been used to burn a hole inside the “O” in Bolaño’s surname. Any ideas?

Anyway, interesting read, recommended to anyone who wants to try something fun and different.

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