Sunday, February 07, 2010

Roberto Bolaño: Nazi Literature in the Americas

Nazi Literature in the AmericasTim Martin reviews Roberto Bolaño's Nazi Literature in the Americas.
Neither a novel nor a collection of stories, Nazi Literature in the Americas is the best and weirdest kind of literary game. Roberto Bolaño, who died in 2003 and achieved fame posthumously, here presents what purports to be a survey of rightwing writers on the American continent between 1894 and 2021. He sets up a densely imagined alternate world populated by fictional poets and novelists, each comically in thrall to their own refracted versions of the fascist aesthetic. One plans a radical modernity that consists of a return to the Iron Age, while another is haunted by extraterrestrial Merovingians. One proudly becomes “the creator of the Gunther O’Connell saga, the Fourth Reich saga, and of the saga of Gunther O’Connell and the Fourth Reich, in which the previous sagas fuse into one”, while another devotes the last phase of her life to reconstructing Edgar Allen Poe’s ideal sitting-room, a symphony in dark furnishings, dim lamps and scarlet drapes. Meanwhile, characters such as Allen Ginsberg and José Lezama Lima criss-cross the flow of Bolaño’s mock-critical prose.

Nazi Literature in the Americas is not the first book to present a critique of imaginary works, but its single-mindedness makes it an oddity even in this rarefied sub-genre. Thomas Carlyle provided one of the best-known examples in his warped philosophical satire Sartor Resartus (1833), which pretended to analyse a “Theory of Clothes” put forward by a German philosopher called Teufelsdröch, or Devilcrap. Jorge Luis Borges built an entire corpus of work on books and writers who never existed, such as Herbert Quain, who wrote a recursive novel with nine different beginnings, or Pierre Menard, whose attempt to transcend translation results in a “re-authored” copy of Don Quixote. Vladimir Nabokov dreamed up an anagrammatic alter ego called Vivian Darkbloom to comment on his own work, while the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem’s A Perfect Vacuum (1971) collected reviews of imaginary books, one of which featured a Nazi in postwar Argentina who is obsessed with the court of Louis XVI. (Bolaño, a fan of science fiction, may have been paying attention.)
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