Saturday, 29 October 2011

Nazi Literature in the Americas

Nazi Literature in the Americas - Roberto Bolano

An imaginary encyclopedia of literary losers who tend to fly in circles as they have only got right wings Nazi Literature in the Americas is both a humorous parlour game and a howl of disgust. Lying at its heart are the fascist regimes and disappearances that blighted South America over the course of Bolano's life. There is also a sense, which grows in it's absence, of the importance of literature, that evil needs it's apologists in order to flourish.

Although some of the entries in this sourcebook relate to each other, it is largely without plot and most entries are discrete. However, like in Nabokov's Pale Fire, we are invited to read between the lines to create the world that contains these people. There is no narrative line to follow through the book but the delight in the ever expanding detail of this parallel world. Were they to have existed, or exist now, many of these writers would not even have achieved obscurity.

The fictional fame they achieve here is often punctured by its description: "a modest place in the vast gallery of lady poets active in Buenos Aires high society"; "hailed by Catholic literary circles in Brazil"; "Venezuala's best schoolboy poet"; "of all the writers in her family, she was the most talented". The phrase "big fish in a small pond" seems apt. But as in other Bolano novels (is this a novel?) the fact that the fame has only a narrow sphere doesn't mean that it isn't intense. How different are the poets here to those who smoke and drink and declaim in cafes and bars and bedrooms across the world? In some of the pieces the connection to any kind of fascism is quite blurred and uncertain.

Those with a more encyclopedic (or even cyclopedic) knowledge of South American writing may have picked up on particular targets of Bolano's satire but I'm afraid that my knowledge is as slight as the talent of many of these writers. However I did feel that Bolano did seem to point to himself at times. "Harry Sibelius was prompted to write one of the most complex and dense works of his day (and possibly also the most futile) by his reading of Norman Spinrad and Philip K.Dick, and perhaps also by reflecting on a story by Borges." He goes on to describe a scenario similar to Philip K. Dicks' Man in the High Castle, where the fascists won the second world war. This could be describing Nazi Literature in the Americas itself.

Indeed one of the key moments occurs in the entry for Carlos Ramírez Hoffman, who wrote poems in the sky, including the many names of Death. In this entry, 'I" makes its appearance and we exit the potted biographies and enter a sort of detective story, with Hoffman being tracked down by a retired policeman who asks the narrator for help identifying him, arranging for him to see Hoffman. "Then Ramirez Hoffman came in and sat down by the front window, three tables away. He had aged. Like me, I suppose. But no, much more than me. He was fatter, more wrinkled; he looked at least ten years older than I did, although in fact there was a difference of only three years between us. He was staring at the sea and smoking. Just like me, I realized with a fright, stubbing out my cigarette and pretending to read. But Bruno Schulz's words had taken on a monstrous character that was almost unbearable."

Schultz was killed by one Nazi officer while under the protection of another. His killing was in retaliation for the killing of a Jewish dentist by Schultz's protector, the same dentist having been under the protection of Schultz's killer. To see the face of evil perhaps we only have to look in the mirror for long enough.

But still we have to act. "Please don't kill him, he's not going to do any more harm now, I said. You don't know that, said Romero, nor do I. He can't hurt anyone now, I said. But I didn't really believe it. of course he could. We all could."

1 comment:

  1. This is wonderful synthesis of the encyclopedia, Séamus. And a great reading of "Schulz's words". The last quote is right on target.