Friday, March 28, 2008

Roberto Bolano: Nazi Literature in the Americas

Chris Andrews reviews Roberto Bolaño's Nazi Literature in the Americas.
The writers in this early work by Roberto Bolaño have poetry in their veins and small swastikas in their hearts. And yet, despite the bluntness of the title, the quick sketches of these fictional lives don't constitute a literary Nuremberg trial. With the cool pose of an academic reference work, Bolaño portrays the politics here as almost beside the point, something dragging from the bumper of literature's runaway car - or maybe thumping in its trunk.

"Nazi Literature in the Americas" poses as an academic reference work on a disturbing subgroup of reactionary writers. The 30 writers portrayed range across the Western Hemisphere, from a wealthy Argentine salon hostess visiting Hitler in Europe (her baby gets "dandled by the Führer") to a Haitian plagiarist "excited by the idea of being a Nazi poet while continuing to espouse a certain kind of négritude." Two Colombian writers volunteer to fight with the Germans on the Russian front; another poet heads a gang of soccer thugs. The entries scroll on with obituary calm.

But for all the objectivity of the prose, Bolaño unleashes blistering, dark comedy. Despite the layers of protective irony, despite the fact that the writers never seem as grotesque as we imagine fascist writers will be, the humor remains tense, even disorienting. In this sense, the book becomes a kind of ethical dare: Is it possible to play with the Nazi sympathies even of made-up writers rather than face them more soberly? Isn't there a moral pressure at certain depths that makes too much lightness frivolous? Surely it's one thing for Borges to fool around with Don Quixote, and another thing to play it cool about Auschwitz.
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