August 8, 2008

Book review: "Nazi Literature in the Americas," by Roberto Bolaño

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Nazi Literature in the Americas
By Roberto Bolaño
New Directions / ISBN: 978-0-81121-705-1

So have you heard yet about the strange saga of Chilean author Roberto Bolaño? Born in the 1950s, a globetrotting vagabond and revolutionary activist most of his youth, one who just barely escaped the Pinochet coup of the '70s, Bolaño ended up settling down for the first time in the '80s and cranking out serious literature for the first time as well; and almost immediately his works started getting hailed by his fellow South and Central American intellectuals, with him for example by the late '90s being called by many down there the most important writer of his generation, and with his masterpiece The Savage Detectives being called by critic Ignacio Echevarria in those years "the novel that Borges would have written." Sadly, though, Bolaño died of a liver disorder in 2003, just a few years before his work started getting widely published in English for the first time; and thus it is that we here in the English-speaking world are just now going through a big literary crush on Bolaño for the first time these days, after he has already died and has left behind a definitively finite amount of work.

Nazi Literature in the Americas, by Roberto Bolaño

Take, for example, today's book under review, the slim and experimental Nazi Literature in the Americas; it was actually originally published in its native Spanish in 1996, but not in English until just a few months ago, making it actually being considered a "new" book here at CCLaP today and eligible for the "best of 2008" list at the end of the year. And it's an odd book too, more of a clever artistic game than a full-fledged novel, its concept being just what you would imagine with such a title; it is a fictional reference guide to several dozen supposed fascism-friendly authors and other right-wing intellectuals, all of whom supposedly lived in either North, Central or South America at one time or another in history. And not only that, but it's set in the future, making this not only a fake history that references real events (the Nazi flight to South America after WWII, the various revolutions that took place there in the '70s), but also partly science-fiction as well, detailing a completely fictional moment in future history when a neo-fascist movement apparently catches on in North America quite intensely. (And let's not forget, this was written in 1996, long before 9/11 and the neocon Bush administration.)

It's a fascinating and frustrating book, one you can tell comes from the very beginning of Bolaño's career; and that's because the stuff that's there is just so clever and so fascinating, but ultimately there's simply not enough there to make it a truly great novel. In fact, the entire manuscript is only a padded-out 200 pages, and actually written in the style of a reference guide, thumbnail sketches of each writer with very few connective threads between them; like I said, it feels more like spending an afternoon at Wikipedia than it does reading a full and mature novel. That said, though, what's there is fantastic; it is a complicated, realistic look at how various right-wing theories about the world have been justified and rationalized over the decades by well-meaning but deluded intellectuals and philosophers, how it's not just dogma alone that has inspired such people but also personal loss, love lives, a certain affinity for certain geographical locations at certain moments in history, and all kinds of other complicated factors.

Now, granted, let's just admit, the more of a well-read academe you are, the more you're going to enjoy Nazi Literature in the Americas; as mentioned, for example, I've read online many times now that this book takes on the structure of a typical Borges project, but I'm completely and utterly unfamiliar with Borges myself so couldn't even begin to tell you if that's true. There are a lot of moments in this manuscript that feel like this, to tell you the truth; moments where you can just feel the story going over your head, feel the actual wind as it whips by you, steeped so deeply as it is in the history of obscure left-wing radical South American political groups, barely-known performance artists of the early Modernist age, and other topics you usually only hear discussed among a group of MFA weenies at some museum cocktail fundraiser. And in fact, you could almost see this book as a Bolaño dig at the very people who started embracing him and his work when he himself reached middle age; because frankly, of the dozens of fictional writers and playwrights and artists who Bolaño "covers" in this book, not a one of them ever rise above relative obscurity during their own careers, mostly only known among a handful of college professors who have devoted their entire adult lives to studying only this subject. Given how explosive he could've made the lives of these fictional fascists, I think it says something that he made them barely-known academes instead; I have a feeling that Bolaño had a deliberate point to make by doing so.

But like I said, Bolaño ultimately pulls this book out of the academic mudhole, precisely by adding the fascinating science-fictiony elements that he does; this whole idea that about twenty years after the novel's original publication, there would be this underground neo-fascist movement in the US and Canada that would bubble up into perhaps the most infamous collection of this entire fake history, a group calling itself "The Fourth Reich" that at least got its crap together enough to found a publishing company, to start sponsoring artists, to start getting work actually disseminated. It opens up the mind, opens up the story too, makes it much more of an interesting general-interest tale than specifically a reference-heavy literary exercise just for creative-writing students (although make no mistake, it's that too). It's a flawed work, one that belies Bolaño's relative inexperience as a writer at that point; but Nazi Literature in the Americas is also a fascinating book as well, one that easily makes me want to rush out and read the rest of his ouevre now too. It is generally recommended today, and especially for all you grad students and professors out there.

Out of 10:
Story: 7.9
Characters: 9.5
Style: 8.0
Overall: 8.6

Read even more about Nazi Literature in the Americas: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 12:44 PM, August 8, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |