Notes From the Margins…

Nazi Literature in the Americas

  • September 29, 2011
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Until recently I hadn’t really got on with Roberto Bolaño, the Chilean novelist and new ‘sacred monster’ of Latin American literature who died tragically young in the Catalan town of Blanes at the age of 50.   I wanted to like him, because I liked his politics, his Catalan connections and his take on literature, and there is a very appealing portrait of him in Javier Cercas’ terrific Soldiers of Salamis.

But I just didn’t get it.  I couldn’t penetrate Last Evenings on Earth.   This summer I started The Savage Detectives but found it tiresome and dropped it after about seventy pages.  Anyway, I thought I’d give him one more go, and so I bought Nazi Literature in the Americas, mainly because I found the title highly amusing and intriguing.

And hey presto, light has dawned.  Because this is  really a deviously inventive and brilliant piece of fiction.   As the title suggests, it consists of a series of potted biographies and vignettes of various Latin American and North American writers and poets, all of whom are located pretty much on the outer fringes of the far-right and many of whom are quite barkingly mad.

But none of them actually exist.  They’re all Bolaño’s own creations, even though their stories are peppered with references to real writers and books to give them an air of superficial authenticity.

You can’t really call the result a novel, although it does have a thematic coherence.   But you can’t call it a collection of short stories either.   In terms of the way these ‘Nazi’ biographies  are constructed, there are touches of Borges (the erudition and the bibliomania) and also the ‘heteronyms’ of Fernando Pessoa.

Bolaño is so steeped in literature and Latin and North American literary history that he effortlessly makes each of these characters believable – or at least makes you prepared to suspend disbelief in order to enjoy his witty,  hilarious and often surprisingly poignant procession of monsters, losers and literary maniacs.

There is a very serious purpose behind all the fun and games and delirious inventiveness, for Nazi Literature in the Americas is a part satire/part meditation on the reactionary intellectual underpinnings of the Latin American dictatorships of the sixties and seventies, including the Pinochet dictatorship that forced Bolaño into exile  – and an investigation of the relationship between writing – even bad writing – and regimes of violence.

The result is  mesmerising – enough to make me try 2666 one of these days, but probably not The Savage Detectives.



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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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