Assuming the format of an Everyman’s dictionary of writers, Robert Bolaño’s novel Nazi Literature in the Americas, consists of a series of short profiles, 30 brief fictitious lives of pan-American fascist novelists and poets, depicted with such straightforward urbanity and good humor that one almost misses the sick joke behind the pretense. I’m reminded of the dark abuse that kneels beneath the dazzling surface of Nabokov’s Lolita.
Not that the desire for blond, blue-eyed children, and the hatred of Jews, blacks, and homosexuals that this coterie of “maudit monsters and miserable creatures” holds is in anyway disguised. The narrator hides no Anne Franks; it’s just that the cultured tenor in which the lives of these sad little nothings is sung doesn’t quite match the racist libretto.
The striking incongruity between the ganglands within which these failed author/thugs operate and the territory one normally associates with peace-loving writers is emblematic of the book, characterized inside and out by contradictory tone and oppositions. Bolaño struts through his dictionary using curt, antithetical descriptives that artfully capture the lives of the poets: Pedro Carrera’s work is “as brilliant as his life is dull”; Jim O’Bannon is “equally susceptible to the allure of force and a yearning for delicate, perishable things”; and Mateo Aguirre Bengoechea oscillates between “bucolic contemplation and titanic activity.”
Just as the innards of these brief aphoristic sentences bump up against each other, so too do the larger themes of humor and horror. As a young man, Argentine poet/novelist Silvio Savatico simultaneously advocates curtailment of Jewish rights and a massive influx of migrants from Scandinavia in order to effect a progressive lightening of the national skin color, darkened by years of promiscuity with the indigenous population. (He also calls for life-long writer’s grants and the abolition of tax on artists’ incomes.) Throughout her life, Luz Mendiluce treasures the famous photo of her baby self in Hitler’s arms; we are told that “I Was Happy with Hitler” is one of her best-known poems and “Stalin,” a chaotic fable set among bottles of vodka, one of her finest. “Fatso” Schiaffino’s five-act farce sees various Latin American heads of state and diplomats in a hotel room somewhere in Germany raping, tangoing, and conducting a masturbation contest to see who can cover the greatest distance with their semen (the Argentine ambassador wins).
Not only does Bolaño deftly juxtapose the serious and ridiculous; he also applies detail with impressive comic touch. Luz falls in love with a 25-year-old painter who is blond, blue-eyed, and “disarmingly” stupid. John Lee Brook’s final poem, dated 1985 and published in his third book of poetry (Solitude, 1986), isn’t just the subject of controversy—it’s the topic of “two controversial studies in the Southern California Journal of Psychology and the Berkeley Psychology Magazine.”
The erstwhile writers and poets listed in this, “a vaguely encyclopedic anthology of the philo-nazi literature written in the American continent from 1930 to 2010,” are mostly just punks and murderers. Only incidentally are they artists; third-rate, failed ones at that, most of whom die sordid, whimpering deaths. One wonders how this pathetically amusing pantheon merits such a book, why such mediocrity warrants the close, considered reading that Bolaño, the putative editor of this work, lends it.
One possible answer is that this is the encyclopedia that would have been written if the fascists had won. A tribute to its own . . . this is the kind of shit that is celebrated by fascist regimes. This is the mediocrity that passes itself off as art in these dictatorships . . . these are the kind of artists you find. So Bolaño gives us a critique of fascists—here is the scum they’d elevate, this would be the canon. Those in power write history. They determine and designate what is “great,” important art.
Another, more text-based answer is that such juxtapositioning can be very funny. Drug-dealing, car-stealing assassin pimps are rarely associated with poetry and prose that echoes Whitman, has strong affinities with the new narrative poetry, contains structure that recalls certain works of Raymond Rousel, that “jumps abruptly from free verse to alexandrines, to distiches, to rhyming couplets and sometimes even to catalectics . . . ”
Such argot lends a pleasing gloss of mock seriousness and authenticity to this Borgesian encyclopedia and contrasts nicely with the outrageous beliefs and behavior of its subjects. References to Charles Olson, Conrad Aiken, Zane Grey, and other real -life authors also lend an effective counterbalance, a plausibility to the enterprise. Layered atop this labyrinth is an odd arrangement. Authors aren’t listed chronologically or alphabetically; they’re cordoned off into chapters with madly alliterative titles such as Magicians, Mercenaries and Miserable Creatures, and Forerunners and Figures of the Anti-Enlightenment.
That Bolaño strikes exactly the right descriptive chord, despite these shenanigans, is evidenced by reading a sampling of the real thing:
“Liliencron, Friedrich Adolf Axel Detlev von (1844-1909), German poet and short-story writer. Born in Kiel of noble though diminished family, he entered the army, but by his early thirties he had run so heavily into debt that he was forced to resign, married money and gave up the rest of his life to literary work. His book of verse, Adjutantenritte und andere Gedichte (1833), is powerful and original, full of the raciness of the keen air of north Germany with army life to the fore.” (from Everyman’s Dictionary of European Writers, Dutton Dent, 1968.)
Despite all of this—a true, consistent tone, a serious message about hagiography, power, politics and literature, despite its humor and accomplished aphorism—Nazi Literature, strangely, fails to satisfy. Some of it has, I think, to do with the euphoria that has accompanied the recent flood of Bolaño translations. Bolaño’s work currently bathes in pools of warm adulation. New Yorker critic James Wood has, for example, called it “wildly enjoyable” with a “worldly literal sensibility,” The Washington Post’s Michael Dirda says it is “imaginative, full of a love for literature, and . . . exceptionally entertaining,” and the Times Literary Supplement raves that it is “at once funny, furious, and frightening.” Bolaño clearly is, as The New York Times puts it, a “consensus book-world discovery.”
Nazi Literature is a pleasant enough read, worth the effort, but only just. Although attention has clearly been paid to sentence and structure, the book lacks meat, ambition; a modest achievement of a modest objective. Clever, in the way that Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot is clever: an intriguing concept, a neat experiment in form, some laughs, some accomplished word-smithing, but failing, in the case of Barnes, to provide anything more than what can easily be found directly in Flaubert, and in Bolaño, failing, beyond the aphorisms and the satire, to deliver truly satisfying prose in the way that say Jorge Luis Borges, one of his heroes, does.
Here for instance is the start of Borges’s “The Aleph”:
On the incandescent February morning Beatriz Vierbo died, after a death agony so imperious it did not for a moment descend into sentimentalism or fear, I noticed that the iron billboards in the Plaza Constitucion bore new advertisements for some brand or other of Virginia tobacco; I was saddened by this fact, for it made me realize that the incessant and vast universe was already moving away from her and that this change was the first in an infinite series.
Bolaño, because of his satirical approach, places a block between himself, the impersonal narrator (we don’t in fact learn that it is him until toward the end of the book) and the reader. A block which negates the kind of personal connection Borges is able to establish right from the beginning of his story. Hence, even if Bolaño were to write directly about it, which he doesn’t, the reader is little inclined to receive reflections on life and literature from him, despite this being a topic of central concern. There is little poetry or lyricism in Nazi Literature, and lots of sharp irony, which, as we know from personal experience, makes honest connection very difficult. It fails in 200 plus pages to do what Borges does in ten: nurture reader empathy in such a way as to express with real impact, the despair, for example, he feels as the writer of his story. “All language is an alphabet of symbols whose use presupposes a past shared by all the other interlocutors. How, then, to transmit to others the infinite Aleph, which my fearful mind scarcely encompasses?”
Perhaps as Updike says, I shouldn’t blame Bolaño for not achieving what he doesn’t attempt. My criticism however is that despite making his point—winners write history, and canons are determined as much by those in power as by objective measures of quality—he could have done it more memorably. Fine. The message is conveyed, but the Guisos is too thin. Without the complexity of a plot and the interaction of characters, its ingredients can’t sustain. It’s light fare; a sauce for something more substantial. The Savage Detective maybe, or 2666. Alone, Nazi Literature just isn’t enough.
Nigel Beale is a writer/broadcaster who specializes in literary journalism, hosts a radio program called The Biblio File, and blogs at Nota Bene Books.
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