Sunday, May 15, 2011

Nazi Literature in the Americas

Previous posts on the blog have discussed (in the order that I read them of course) Roberto Bolano's By Night in Chile (1998), The Savage Detectives (2000), and 2666 (2000). Knowing those books made for a deeper appreciation of Nazi Literature in the Americas (1996). The student of Bolano sees first that he has recurrent themes and interests (poetry and the Nazis being the most prominent if improbable combination). Then it emerges that there are connections among the texts (a young police recruit in 2666, for example, is the bastard son of one of the protagonists of The Savage Detectives). Finally with Nazi Literature in the Americas the scope of Bolano's ambition becomes clear: he has created a parallel world, a fictional history, and interwoven that world with his and ours. The effect is to heighten the power of the fictional world and the ideas that have generated it: as it bleeds over into reality, Bolano's vision seems to establish a greater claim than most fiction does to being an authentic part of reality, an actuality. It is an unsettling effect; there is more moral urgency in Bolano than in almost any other contemporary writer of fiction I can think of.

Ironically the writer than one inevitably thinks of when reading this book is Jorge Luis Borges, that most detached and cerebral constructor of puzzles and games. Nazi Literature in the Americas is a compendium of potted biographies, some only a page or two long, some upwards of twenty pages, of fictional American (North and South) writers and their works. Some are completely obscure (literary obscurity is a strong fetish for Bolano), others are prominent and widely read. Some are poets, some are prose writers, some are genre writers and some are polemicists. The word "Nazi" is construed loosely: there are white supremacists and supporters of military dictatorship but also some whose "Nazism" is little more than conservative Christianity or reactionary nationalism.

Borges delighted in this sort of thing, inventing bibliographies and non-existent essayists and mixing them in with real people and books. Bolano does it throughout his works, The Savage Detectives has pages-long lists of poets and "journals" so obscure that only one mimeographed copy might exist, and 2666 mingles Bolano's invented incidents with the real history of the murders of women in Ciudad Juarez. While fictive scholarly apparatus is a "post-modern" trope it actually traces back in Spanish literature to Cervantes, with Don Quixote's displacement into the fantasy world of the picaresque and his glimpse of the printing press setting up the book in which he lives.

The endless appetite for reading, at times almost a mania for literate closure, that is pervasive in Bolano is also portrayed in Borges (for example in "The Library of Babylon" or "Funes the Memorious").

As an estadounidense reader I was impressed by the depth and breadth of Bolano's erudition for USA literature: he obviously loves the genre writing of the tough guy detectives but also the inventiveness of science fiction and he has apparently read everything from Gertrude Stein and Eudora Welty to Wallace Stevens and Wallace Stegner: about what one could reasonably expect of a typical English lit professor at a North American university (who was hip, of course, to poetry and the Beats).

Meanwhile there is The Theory, or at least my theory of The Theory. Bolano, I think, sees World War II and particularly the Nazis as an epochal upwelling of violent evil that then washes across the globe and the decades like a great wave. He seeks to explicate the violent history of Latin America, from the Cold War military governments of the 70s through the Central American political viciousness of the 80s up to the culture of homicide in contemporary Mexico as manifestations, aftershocks or tsunamis, of this great evil. Part of the message of Nazi Literature in the Americas is that this evil energy persists among us, close by and banal, nearer to eruption than we think.

1 comment:

Karlo said...

this is the only Bolano work I have and have read. my own theory is that Bolano's pseudo-encyclopedia is a way of poking fun at all the latin american dictatorships and their intellectual apologists (these individuals superficiality and tragi-comic dimension), these brutal regimes that have caused millions untold sufferings