More like a Cemetery
- Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Chris Andrews
New Directions, 227 pp, £17.95, May 2008, ISBN 978 0 8112 1705 7
- 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer
Picador, 898 pp, £20.00, January 2009, ISBN 978 0 330 44742 3
Roberto Bolaño likes to prolong his jokes well past the moment when even the slowest reader has got the point. Nazi Literature in the Americas, for example, looks like a single gag – the brief deadpan biography of an imaginary Fascist or near Fascist writer – multiplied by 30-odd cases over 200 pages. But then it dawns on even the slowest reader that what looked like the point wasn’t the point; and that the jokes were not only jokes. This book is not a satirical attack on the right-wing imagination in North and South America: it is a darkly comic celebration of the wilder horizons of writing, good, plodding, lunatic and terrible.
What is compelling about these portraits is not their plausibility, which is slender and intermittent, but their profusion and variety. Here are socialites, adventurers, psychopaths, thugs and dreamers, united in a single obsession: literature. They all write, in the romantic, non-clerical sense of the word. And what’s frightening about the portraits is that the right-wing here is clearly, for Bolaño, a mirror image of the left. It’s not that the politics don’t make a difference. They make all the difference. But they may be the only difference there is to make, and the sheer intensity of the parallel investment in writing becomes all the more troubling. Literature on both sides – there probably isn’t any literature in the centre, at least in Bolaño’s view – is delusion, disease. It could also be the cure for that condition, but we don’t know that yet, and if it isn’t the cure, there is no other.
It takes a while for the above-mentioned slowest reader, myself in this instance, to realise that there is something strange about the imaginary dating in this book. The actual years of publication of Nazi Literature in the Americas were 1996 in Spanish and 2008 in English. All the writers described are dead, and the 30 principal cases are followed by a list of 61 ‘secondary figures’, also dead. They were born in Buenos Aires, Bogotá, Caracas, Port-au-Prince, Los Angeles, Topeka, Pittsburgh, all over the continent; and they died across an even greater geographical range, from New York to Paris or Berlin, and from Cordova to Kampala and Rio. One of them, ‘the infamous Ramírez Hoffman’, was born in Santiago de Chile in 1950, three years before Bolaño, and like Bolaño later lived in Lloret del Mar in Spain. He died in 1998, while Bolaño died in 2003; and he was the vicious madman that Bolaño perhaps thought he himself could have been. The curious thing, though, is that although all of the characters in the book are dead, they are not all dead yet, either in 1996 or 2009. Some have death dates of 2017, or 2029, and one of them dies as late as 2040. None of them reaches 2666, the title time of Bolaño’s last novel, but we do see the post-dating device at work. This book knows the future and is glancing backwards from an even further future.
The Nazi writers aren’t all Nazis, some were just fond of their old photographs of Hitler or keen on Nazi uniforms or inclined to blame the Jews for everything. Others managed to die in Berlin in 1945 or write sagas about the Fourth Reich, or found organisations like the Aryan Brotherhood. This doesn’t sound like great material for comedy, but Bolaño’s mournful inventiveness can make you laugh out loud. I was particularly drawn to one figure in Zach Sodenstern’s Gunther O’Connell saga, ‘a mutant, stray German Shepherd with telepathic powers and Nazi tendencies’. ‘He tried desperately to make friends,’ we hear of a literary editor, ‘but enemies were all he ever had.’ The Duchess of Bahamontes was ‘a fine gardener in her old age’. The last work of an Argentinian football fan turned writer ‘contains historical inaccuracies, which may, however, be deranged metaphors for truths of another kind’. What are we to say of the career of the Texan convict who ‘dabbled in a broad range of delinquent activities without developing a particular specialty’? Or of the even sadder trajectory of Luiz Fontaine de Souza, a Brazilian philosopher who started out by publishing a massive refutation of Voltaire, went on to write sizeable separate books refuting Diderot, D’Alembert, Montesquieu and Rousseau respectively, and finally managed to get into one hefty volume a refutation of Hegel, Marx and Feuerbach?