Nazi Literature in the Americas

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

When Roberto Bolaño’s Los detectives salvajes (1998; The Savage Detectives, 2007) appeared, it made its author a literary celebrity in the Spanish-speaking world. His readers declared him the leader of a new Latin American literary movement that would replace the magic realism of Gabriel García Márquez, the author of Cien años de soledad (1967; One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1970).

However, two years before, critics had already noted Bolaño’s greatness when he published Nazi Literature in the Americas, a biographical encyclopedia of thirty fictional fascist authors from North and South America. Whereas The Savage Detectives is a decidedly Dionysian work with a strong Beat influence from Jack Kerouac, author of On the Road (1957), Nazi Literature in the Americas owes more to Apollonian flights of intellectual imagination such as Labyrinths (1962) by Jorge Luis Borges and Le città invisibili (1972; Invisible Cities, 1974) by Italo Calvino. However, Savage Detectives and Nazi Literature in the Americas share Bolaño’s concerns about the relationship of the writer to society and history.

Nazi Literature in the Americas derives from the Latin American genre of literary encyclopedias that catalog a group of writers of one particular nationality or creative movement, but not in an objective fashion. Rather, the encyclopedia’s author colors the entries with his or her own critical biases. The unique aspect of Nazi Literature in the Americas is that Bolaño does not catalog real authors; instead, he creates a menagerie of invented fascist authors. In essence, the entries in Nazi Literature in the Americas form a collection of thirty short stories. To give his work greater realism, Bolaño infuses it with references to real writers. So, for instance, the fictional, homophobic American poet Jim O’Bannon beats up Allen Ginsberg when Ginsberg, the author of Howl (1956), makes sexual advances. Bolaño’s right-wing thug and detective author Amado Couto meets the real Brazilian mystery writer Don Rubem Fonseca and finds his “gaze was harder than his own.” To complete his illusory reality, Bolaño includes three appendixes under the heading “Epilogue for Monsters”: secondary figures, publishing houses, and books.

Bolaño creates this parallel realm of imaginary fascist authors in order to explore the nature of evil. Sometimes he finds it banal, even foolish, as with Luz Mendiluce Thompson’s obsession over a photograph of herself as a baby held in the adoring arms of Adolf Hitler, a picture she would sacrifice everything to save, or Zach Sodenstern’s novel Candace, which includes a character named Flip, “a mutant, stray German Shepherd with telepathic powers and Nazi tendencies.” Sometimes evil can even evoke bravery, as when Jesús Fernández-Gómez stoically recovers in a Riga hospital from war wounds inflicted on the Eastern Front, or when Ignacio Zubieta dies in the streets defending Nazi Berlin against Soviet troops. Aways there is a deep horror lurking underneath the seemingly benign aspects, like a bloody gash hidden by a bandage. Couto ponders literature as he tortures enemies of a dictatorial Brazilian government. Poet John Lee Brook murders seven peoplea poet, three pornographers, a shady art dealer, and the dealer’s two bodyguards. Throughout Nazi Literature in the Americas, Bolaño reveals fascists whose lives are pathetic or even amusing, but they embrace chilling genocidal beliefs or commit dreadful atrocities. In this way, he demonstrates that, even in the most prosaic person, evil can be potent and dangerous.

What ultimately makes Nazi Literature in the Americas an important and troubling contemporary work is Bolaño’s exploration of the intersection of art and evil, of how creative souls can accommodate or revel in a totalitarian philosophy. On one hand, Bolaño can identify with his characters, for in their striving to create literary art in the face of critical hostility, he mirrors his own youth in Mexico City, when he was a Trotskyite and the fiery leader of the Infrarealism poetry movement, sabotaging readings and writing diatribes against major mainstream authors such as Octavio Paz, author of El laberinto de la soledad (1950;...

(The entire section is 1798 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

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The Globe and Mail, March 8, 2008, p. D7.

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