Nazi Literature in the Americas: Bolano novel could have been shorter and better

Robert Bolano, “Nazi Literature in the Americas” (translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews), Picador, ISBN 978-0-330-51388-3 (2010)

You might have feared that an alarmingly titled work such as this would run to a 20-volume encyclopedia set but in English translation it’s of modest dimentsions at 259 pages. All the biographies of the writers mentioned within are entirely fictional though I’m sure many details and the general thrust, for want of a better term, of most accounts here are based on fact. After the shock of the book’s title fades, you realise it’s meant to be a playful and sly joke that relies on you knowing something of the tragic history of much of the 20th century, not just in Germany and Austria but also in parts of North and South America where many Nazi war criminals and their followers and sympathisers fled and managed to keep their heads low, though not so low that while they escaped the intense scrutiny of Israel’s Mossad they couldn’t offer advice to various politicians, military folk, captains of industry, crime organisations, police and academia among others.

Naturally, knowing that the book’s title is a joke, you expect writer Bolano to work it for all it’s worth or as far as taste permits (and then some). Visions come to mind of a bored clerk sitting low in the public bureaucracy, by day stamping forms that will send innocent university students, tutors and lecturers to a makeshift torture chamber in a soccer stadium in an Argentine city, and by night writing his first novel of a boy suffering from spurned puppy love, loneliness and bullying at school, discovering his true origins as an alien baby sent from the far reaches of the galaxy and crash-landing on a farm in remote Patagonia, realising his true super-powers will come to him when puberty hits … or imagine a rancher, descended from no-nonsense Scottish-Irish immigrants, on his remote farm in Idaho nursing his collection of assault rifles and shot-guns and printing his utopian manifesto of a nation returned to God, old-time religion, the right to bear arms and African-Americans returned to Africa with US$2 billion to set up shopping malls so they can feel right at home … think of a witty and suave academic in a prestigious North American university surveying various psychology studies to write a tome on why non-white people may be clever at copying technology but will never innovate on their own … or a retired Chilean politician writing his memoirs of flying fighter jets in the air force, “reluctantly” participating in the 1973 putsch, disposing of the country’s enemies and helping Pinochet to ensure law and order. By way of postscript, bookshops and libraries in Santiago and elsewhere consign all copies of the memoirs to the fantasy part of the fiction section. My favourite vision is of a cocaine lord in his remote Amazon jungle realm, fancying himself a successor to UK authors Enid Blyton and Ian Fleming, and so penning a series of children’s action thriller pot-boilers and foisting them on his agent and publisher. The two worthies, noting the stories’ numerous outrages against spelling, grammar and plot structure, and mindful of their client’s fearsome reputation, advise him to keep on writing while using the manuscripts as props for staff PC screens. One employee, idly flicking through a manuscript while waiting for his computer to reboot, falls off his chair laughing at one plot highlight in which a lone girl, mumbling with her teeth still in braces, shoots 20 corrupt police officers clean through the head with one round of bullets from her Kalashnikov, though all the men are head-and-shoulders taller than she is and all are standing in a narrow street alley where everyone travels in single file.

Alas my imagination ran more rampant here than did Bolano’s. The book’s attraction dulls quickly after the first several biographical entries and most of these emphasise biographical trivia, the subjects’ personal peccadilloes, a rundown of the subjects’ usually mediocre works and maybe an appraisal of some or most of what they wrote. Bolano’s style of writing ranges from factual and neutral to subjective (even slightly mocking) and descriptive; and then, in the entry on Carlos Ramirez Hoffman near the end, to personal with Bolano writing in first-person narrative as himself. Nothing about any really significant people, events or other influences in the subjects’ lives that set them on the straight and narrow right-hand (wing?) path appears in any of the entries apart from one where a woman is held as a baby by Adolf Hitler. Many entries don’t strike me as particularly National Socialist: the entries on the Schiaffino brother poets reveal them as little more than thuggish populists and ultra-nationalists. In a parallel universe somewhere, someone has written a book called “Stalinist Literature of the Americas” and the Schiaffino brother poets have entries here that, mutatis mutandis, are the same. Given what’s in the public domain about right-wing forces and institutions in the Western Hemisphere, it strikes me that none of the fictional subjects ever belonged to or formed militias, a local branch of the Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations or similar organisation, secret ultra-conservative Roman Catholic or other sinister religious cults, or had contacts with the Nueva Germania colony set up in Paraguay by Elizabeth Nietzsche (the sister of the famous philosopher) and her husband in the late 19th century. One point the book makes is that the kinds of people who would write extreme fascist literary works often have a sinister relation to power or to extremist groups that readily use violence or unethical means to seize power and impose ideologies and structures that benefit such organisations and their followers, create hardship and misery for others, and destroy those who oppose them or offer alternatives: these groups often have myriad origins, some often setting out with humanitarian, even socialistic ideals, in diverse settings and I wonder that Bolano didn’t try to explore how certain organisations (fictitious, of course) could have evolved from humble and harmless settings into ferocious beasts in some of his fictional biographies.

As I figured, the book is also an opportunity for Bolano to satirise the literary scene in Chile and other countries where many writers depend on government grants to survive yet are convinced of their worth and importance to society at large without having to prove their value. In certain periods, such writers also willingly swallowed whatever personal integrity they possessed and collaborated with the regime to produce literary propaganda that glorified it or its achievements. Speaking of satire, one of the fictional biographies could have been something of a mise-en-abyme, a satire within a satire, in which a so-called fascist turns out to be anything and everything but fascist. Now that would have been really satirical!

In short, I had expected more and better from Bolano in fewer and more varied literary biographies with detail that justifies them as Nazi as opposed to specifically fascist. I suppose though “Extreme Fascist Literature in the Americas” doesn’t have the same thrill and creepiness factor as “Nazi Literature …” in a world reliant on hair-raising headlines. As is, the book is best taken in small doses: the long entries on Carlos Ramirez Hoffman and Argentino Schiaffino and some of the short entries on speculative and science fiction writers are recommended to get an idea of how nutty and eccentric the book can be.