Thursday, February 28, 2008

Roberto Bolano: Nazi Literature in the Americas

Benjamin Lytal reviews Roberto Bolaño's Nazi Literature in the Americas.
Put briefly, "Nazi Literature" is a fictional encyclopedia of far right-wing authors who, to varying degrees, did or would have supported Hitler's party. It's his most Borgesian work, but unlike his literary ancestor, Bolaño cares more for the real world than for the library. His is not the account of a concerted movement or school, but the taxonomy of a wide-ranging sensibility. All of the writers are fictitious, but they do not inhabit an alternate universe; instead, they and their work are, case by case, just plausible.

Bolaño has imagined Boca Junior soccer thugs whose fanzines and mock-allegorical victory poems sell out hundreds of mimeographed copies; he has imagined bad painters who make alliances with bored widows, and end up shopping for antiques mentioned in Edgar Allen Poe's "Philosophy of Furniture"; he has even imagined an American youth who as a child overheard Black Mountain poet Charles Olson and his father discussing "Projective Verse," took it too seriously, and started a cult.

The voluminousness of this creativity would be one thing, but Bolaño is also — simultaneously — overachieving tonally. He constantly has to come up with titles for fictional books, and each title has to sound like it distinctly belongs to its one author. Sometimes this is fun — and Bolaño is clearly enjoying himself — as when "a Mexican poet inclined to mysticism and tormented phraseology" publishes her first collection, "A Voice You Withered." But "Nazi Literature" would grow tiring if its stories did not resonate with wider human problems: futility, obscurity, and fatal disorientation. Even had they existed, most of these writers would be forgotten, and for very good reason. But Bolaño makes us care about a few of them, and introduces a larger compass: that of the Americas, "ever fecund in enterprises verging on insanity, illegality and idiocy."

This kind of self-confident despair always makes Bolaño loquacious, and in his later work he uses the likes of Nazism to set the pitch for his own, brave voice. Having read "Nazi Literature," it is also possible to see how the dense networks of young poets in, say, "The Savage Detectives" repeat Mr. Bolaño's initial grand act of creative overdrive. And how would he have initially achieved it, isolating and embellishing a literature that really does not exist, except by founding it on a taboo? After "Nazi Literature," the idea of verboten doom worked as a kind of generative antimatter, setting off explosions in Bolaño's world and delineating it, just enough, from reality.
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