Thursday, October 29, 2009

Nazi Literature In the Americas by Roberto Bolaño

This novel? short story collection? pastiche? served as my introduction to the work of Bolaño, the Chilean novelist who died in 2003. Taking the form of a series of what pass as encyclopedia entries, Bolaño documents the lives and works of various fictional writers who found their voices in the service of fascism. One review referred to these made-up lives as a "parade of monsters," but more accurately "Nazi Literature in the Americas" comes off as a parade of cranks.

Grouped by family, associations, or by subject matter, these stories document not only the lives but the works of poetry and prose these Nazi sympathizers put forth in Bolaño's imaginary world. In Bolaño's vision some of these lives extend into the future, where their deaths are documented. Indeed, all of these figures meet death, some in spectacularly grisly fashion, silencing their literature forever. Yet Bolaño's authorial voice documents how their words survive, however long, in obscure journals, zines, and scholarly studies.

The stories of this book never deviate from their sort of Wikipedia style, sometimes tantalizing us with just enough information about some controversial work in the author's oeuvre, but never actually letting us read the words for ourselves. Buried in the material of their lives are various hints of obsession and style, often as hilarious as they are laconic. For example, the career of Argentino "Fatso" Schiaffino, 1956-2015, includes the information that during the 1990 World Cup in Italy, Schiaffino "expressed a wish to meet with the British hooligans" he had earlier encountered "for a reconciliation ceremony consisting of a mass for the casualties of the Falklands War, followed by a barbecue." Later, the anonymous narrator remarks of one of his books that it "left all but a few readers wondering why he had written and, having written, published it."

And what is the sum of these stories? Our writers achieve various levels of mediocrity instead of acclaim, and while they encounter actual flesh and blood writers they either rebuff them or are unimpressed by them. Nothing touches the perceived brilliance of their personal dreams. The passion of their love affairs and the quality of their works do not seem to say as much to the narrator, at least, as the simple facts of their lives. As noted with one subject, he "practiced the art of the novel, which stubbornly declined to yield its secrets to him." In the end, "his manuscripts were probably thrown out with the trash or burned by the orderlies."

The stories are followed by a list of "secondary characters" from the stories, their birth and death dates dutifully noted along with facts such as "a pathetic loser, in the opinion of his family," or "for more than twenty years he fooled his colleagues into believing that he could speak Russian." Following that is a list of Bolaño's fictional magazines and publishing houses, among them "Iron Heart," a "Chilean Nazi magazine which survived for a number of years not in an Antarctic submarine base, as its ardent instigators would have preferred, but in Punta Arenas."

Bolaño's work often deals with forgotten or obscure works of literature, and the politics of the writer are not so much ideological as how much the writer is willing to risk for the ideas he so fiercely clings to. In interviews, Bolaño said he was mainly holding up a mirror image of leftist writers in creating the lives and works of these fictional double images. Instead, he creates a vast world of forgotten literature and the forgotten lives that produce it for its own consumption and understanding. Acceptance is a human longing, and the heart curdles at the lack of it, or curdles when the wrong kind is given. As Bolaño remarks of one of his creations, "real life can sometimes bear an unsettling resemblance to nightmares."

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