Roberto Bolano’s Nazi Literature in the Americas is an encyclopedic look at a fictional literary movement. Novelists, poets, short story writers, magazine editors and publishers are all given detailed entries covering their lives and work. Minor figures and publications are listed in the appendices at the back. Even the least significant fictional fascist author is included, lovingly, even reverently described.
Is Mr. Bolano playing a dangerous game with his readers? For the most part, the people included seem harmless. Their work is literature; the book about them non-political. Most of the biographical entries don’t appear fascist at all, let alone Nazi. There is no talk of Anti-Semitism, or racial superiority, or eugenics. The final solution is not mentioned nor is there any discussion of World War II. The writers described in Mr. Bolano’s book are concerned not with politics but with poetics. If the cover didn’t say Nazi, you’d never guess.
Mr. Bolano’s characters are a self-important, delusional bunch. Relegated to obscurity by history, they still consider themselves a vital literary movement. Mr. Bolano’s “narrator” does nothing to subvert this notion. His tone recognizes the importance of the writers and publications described. He could easily be a university professor documenting a lifetime’s worth of research. But while the writers included in Nazi Literature in the Americas interact with some of the canonical authors of their day–Borges, Ginsberg to name a few–they do not make an impact on either them or the literary world of their time. In the end, to this reader’s relief, Mr. Bolano’s Nazis are a pathetic bunch.
But just how hard is Mr. Bolano pulling our leg? Had history taken a different course, would a Nazi poetics have emerged? Would the authors described in Nazi Literature in the Americas be the ones occupying center stage while Borges and Ginsberg struggled in obscurity? These are not easy questions for those of us who value literature. We hope there is something about literature that places it above politics. We don’t like to think about how literature is also determined by politics. They say the winners write the history books, but don’t they also write the poetry?
Reading Nazi Literature in the Americas is much like reading an encyclopedia. That is both a compliment and a complaint. Mr. Bolano maintains the objective voice commonly found in good encyclopedias throughout most of his novel. This objectivity serves to present his fictional characters in a non-judgemental manner that underscores how feeble their efforts are while it makes the reader uneasy by invoking our sympathy. We chuckle at their absurdity, feel guilty about it, then feel guilty for feeling guilty.
But reading an encyclopedia, even a very well written one, becomes a tedious experience at some point. Encyclopedias are not meant to be read cover to cover. Novels are. Mr. Bolano’s narrator himself falls victim to the same tedium his readers begin to experience. Towards the end of Nazi Literature in the Americas he loses his objective, encyclopedia writer voice, and becomes a story teller. The last few entries in the book are really short stories, not biographical essays. Perhaps that makes Mr. Bolano’s experiment a failure, since he couldn’t keep it up all the way to the finish. Perhaps it simply recognizes the needs of his reader and the needs of his narrator who just can’t help himself anymore. He’s a fan, he wants to tell the story with all its inherent drama. Objectivity be damned.
This review first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in December of 2010. I have slowly been migrating my old reviews over to this new site since I started James Reads Books a few years ago. I’ve still got over 100 reviews left. It’s amazing just how much content we all develop over the years.