I’ll admit that sometimes I just don’t get it. Or maybe it’s just that my literary tastes are too prosaic.
I picked up Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas after seeing repeated references to it, most of them rather glowing. I knew what it was about. I knew that Bolaño, a Chilean author who died in 2003, was often haled as being in the tradition of Jorge Luis Borges and what has come to be called “slipstream” fiction. I know I’ve not really been a fan of the slipstream I’ve read. In other words, I knew what I was getting into. It’s just that knowing what you’re getting still may not assist in being able to appreciate it.
I’ll admit Nazi Literature, first published in Spanish in 1996, shows Bolaño had both a stunning imagination and fine prose skills. It is a collection of biographical sketches of fictional fascist writers in North, Central and South America. And while Nazis and neo-Nazis appear (some still alive in this literary world), the emphasis here is not necessarily on Hitler’s world view but a general ultra-right, fascist view of society.
Yet not only does Bolaño create the profiles of 30 novelists, poets and journalists, he places them in various schools and categories and with a variety of talents. In other words, he truly has created an entire alternative literary world and history. Thus, there’s the Mendiluce Clan, an Argentinian mother and two of her children, and the Schiaffino brothers, whose poetry reflected their deep involvement in Argentinian soccer gangs. There’s the right-wing Catholic author who writes endless tracts “refuting” Enlightenment and leftist philosophers, some of whose ideas he does not grasp. There’s the Columbians who not only write books but actually fight for the SS in World War II. And there’s the American writer born in Los Angeles in 1962 who creates interminable interwoven science fiction sages involving the Fourth Reich in America.
In addition to the insight and inventiveness in creating these profiles and the literary world they populate, there is an “Epilogue for Monsters.” It contains appendices describing a variety of “secondary characters” in the literary movements, outlining various publishing houses and magazines, and providing a bibliography of books in the genre. Again, this all flows from Bolaño’s mind and pen.
Plainly, then, the imagination involved in this work, which totals slightly more than 200 pages all together, is mind boggling. Similarly, there is little doubt it may be an excellent example of of slipstream or metafiction. But I end up struggling with the ultimate point. Perhaps it’s as simple being too unfamiliar with various literary schools or being unable to recognize the occasional appearance of real authors or literary controversies to pick up on anything more than some of the obvious irony or humor. In the final analysis, it strikes an illiterati like me as an interesting, even amazing, exercise but one which makes you wonder where Bolaño might have taken us in terms of particular ideas or characters had a similar investment of imaginative effort been focused on one or a few of the wide variety of story lines and ideas here.
Maybe I’m just too linear. I appreciate the unparalleled skill and craftsmanship but the ultimate upshot eludes me. Still, I have to admit that is not a failing on Bolaño’s part. If I don’t get it, it’s a matter of personal taste and preference.
Real life can sometimes bear an unsettling resemblance to nightmares.
Roberto Bolaño, Nazi Literature in the Americas