Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Roberto Bolaño: Nazi Literature in the Americas

Philip Hensher reviews Roberto Bolaño's Nazi Literature in the Americas
Nazi Literature in the Americas takes what Bolaño 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 Bolaño 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, Bolaño's imaginary writers cover the same breadth of ground as any selection of writers. Bolaño, 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 Mrs 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.

There was never any reason to think that the writers of literature were likely to be exclusively nice people. Only the most foolish reader ever considered that literature was something one would be at all likely to agree with. Bolaño's impressive novel triumphs by displaying a power of imagination and a quiddity we are not inclined to allow any of his imaginary writers. It also, magnanimously, suggests that they too might be capable of writing a poem in the sky, whatever they did when they came back down to earth.
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