Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolaño

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Taking nearly a year to read a new Roberto Bolaño is an unforgivable sin. Bolaño is the kind of writer who, once discovered, should be returned to every six months at the least. The cause of this shameful delay on my part is because for the past year I have been intending on reading his 900-page posthumously published finale, 2666. The past couple years I have been working hard to get better at reading more 500-plus-page books, but I definitely haven’t reached the point where I can pick up an 900-pager without months of deliberation. Last year I read Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote (it’s amazing, read it), clocking in at a satisfying 1,000 pages. By the end of this year, my goal is to finally read 2666.

Diversion aside, while I didn’t read Bolaño’s magnum opus, I did read a book that nonetheless reveals his genius. Nazi Literature in the Americas is structured as an encyclopedia of writers who were either born or based in Latin America and North America, and, as the title implies, whose work and private life were politically and/or morally dubious. But as a master craftsman, Bolaño takes this idea and explores it with eloquent subtlety.

The writers Bolaño invents range from the aristocratic intellectual taste makers of Latin America clinging to their dying class, to cryptic poets whose accessible poems are revealed to be composed of fascistic acrostics,  to obscure speculative fiction writers of manic stories of earthbound and intergalactic disaster with racist overtones. Sometimes the fascistic natures of his creations are readily apparent, such as the matriarch of a literary clan meeting Hitler and giving her infant daughter (who is later included in the encyclopedia herself) to pose with the Fuhrer, but much of the time they are hidden in the cracks of the type of intellectual and social mania that is so common among artistic types. Details of their complicity are often thrown in casually with little authorial judgement, some start or contribute to a wide-range of far-right literary journals, during World War II others go into exile in Nazi occupied territories and live comfortable lives, and even more flippantly decry immigrants and Jews. The instances when these details arrive abruptly and deliver a surprise (the title of the book makes it impossible to be shocked), it raises the question: is this Bolaño committing fully to the impersonal encyclopedia format, or is it him saying we should have seen it all along?

In addition to the book’s fascinating political dialogue, the wide-ranging cast of poets, novelists, scholars, pamphleteers, and propagandists covering just about every literary style and movement is a treasure trove for literature lovers. Anyone familiar with Bolaño’s other novels or short stories will know of his boundless love for mixing and mashing both invented and real life writers of exhausting diversity, and whether you find that constant tendency in his work delightful or tedious will decide if you appreciate this book. I am firmly in the former category. Sure, the endless stream of hermetic writers and bourgeois literary socialites with their equally endless book titles (which he thankfully collects in a glossary at the end) can get dizzying and repetitive, but Bolaño knows to keep each biography concise and focused, virtually all coming in at less than ten pages.

The longest and strangest bio is saved for last. “The Infamous Ramirez Hoffman” is narrated by self-inserted Bolaño, instead of his alter-ego “Arturo Belano,” who encounters Ramirez Hoffman, a feared enforcer/torturer for the Chilean secret police, and pilot who creates a new form of poetry by skywriting ominous poems (the section was expanded into a novella titled Distant Star). Hoffman is portrayed less as a dedicated supporter of fascism and more as a terrifyingly immoral manipulator of the country’s sociopolitical collapse. Like many of the figures in the book it would be easy to write him off as a Nazi or Fraco-ite and leave it at that, but that would be to miss the point.

The power of literature is usually linked to the most glorious aspects of humanity, but Nazi Literature in the Americas reveals that it can just as easily be used as a willful weapon for hatred and racism, or resign itself to complicity in the face of the resulting horrors. Bolaño’s inventive encyclopedia uses the 20th century to show us this disturbing reality, and it’s up to writer’s today to change the narrative.

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