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Softcover: UK: Roberto Bolano has ways of making you read

‘Nazi Literature in the Americas’ is an imaginative early work from a modern Latin American master

By Philip Hensher  /  THE GUARDIAN , London

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The cult success of the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives and the immense worldwide posthumous success of his final novel, 2666, have encouraged his British publishers to delve into his substantial backlist. There are lots of interesting things there, most marked by the formal eccentricity that so defined 2666.

By Night in Chile is told in two paragraphs, the second only a few words long. Distant Star, the most engaging of these earlier works, is a magic realist-tinged narrative of Pinochet’s regime, containing a fascist poet who writes his work in vapor trails in the sky. Nazi Literature in the Americas is a real curiosity; it has a surface simplicity, but few readers will be able to pin down a general unease about the book’s purpose and meaning. It was published more or less simultaneously with Distant Star, in 1996, and its last story — or entry — contains a short version of that novel.

It is structured as a sort of dictionary, with 30 or so short lives of imaginary writers. They are all related, in different ways, to often extremely right-wing causes. They pay a pilgrimage to visit Hitler or are photographed in childhood being dandled on the Fuhrer’s knee. They promote anti-Semitic ideology among beat poets. They flee to South America after the war and live in enclosed Teutonic colonies. “Five feet [1.52m] tall [and] with a swarthy complexion” themselves, they write books with characters exclusively “tall, fair-haired and blue-eyed”. They come to violent ends, either in the past or considerably in the future; their books are acclaimed within certain circles, or self-published and never noticed; they deal with each other in dense webs of literary association.

In description, Nazi Literature in the Americas sounds like satire, and it has a dryness about it that could easily be taken for ironic humor. In fact, Bolano’s intentions are more sophisticated than that. Much of his personal experience was with writers passionately committed to extreme leftist causes, ceaselessly arguing about ideological purity in poetry and splitting up into smaller and smaller “groupuscules”. (All this is described in The Savage Detectives.)

Nazi Literature in the Americas takes what Bolano knew very well, and sends it through the looking glass of the ideological divide. He imagines writers of extraordinary experimental verve, engaging with the most advanced literary theory. Some of them, indeed, sound a little like Bolano in 2666, a novel as steeped in the excitements of brutal violence as any writer described here.

Other of these imaginary figures are naive science-fiction writers, or the creators of adventure stories, or, in the case of Argentino Schiaffino, the poet of myth and epic for the thugs of the football terraces. In short, Bolano’s imaginary writers cover the same breadth of ground as any selection of writers. Bolano, with his characteristic entranced fascination of tone, trembles on the verge of suggesting that some of them may have been terrible, but there is no reason to suppose others are not capable of greatness.

This is a heretical thought, but the ideological basis of writing has never had much to do with its merits; a novelist is not more or less likely to be a good novelist because he approves or disapproves of Pinochet, Bill Clinton, Stalin, Mao or Margaret Thatcher. In its unexpected and committedly affectless manner, Nazi Literature in the Americas testifies to the sheer power of literature; how it can emerge in an artless or sophisticated manner with a power that we would prefer to direct.

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