On Robert Bolano

BY ANDREW MOODY

From the pen of the late Chilean author Roberto Bolano, Nazi Literature in the Americas takes for itself the fascinating and unique structure of a strict, mock serious set of biographies of imaginary Pan American right-wing writers. Placing the novel into a genre is tough, it’s speculative fiction as well as a mockery of post modernity. The irony of the book is that it very clearly fits into the post modern or post structuralism canon. First published in 1996, it was translated posthumously into English in 2008.

Bolano creates a Borgean universe for his characters, cross referencing and providing a post script which includes details of their published work and the histories of secondary characters and the publishing houses that signed them. Of course it is all entirely fictional, but Bolano’s severity of tone, documentary as opposed to poetic, forces the reader to dip in and out of the mini encyclopaedia and make some effort to work out what it all could mean, even if the answer may not rest easy with them. The detail with which the author lays out the lives and literary output of his imaginary, monstrous poets satirises the very purpose of criticism, like Mark Z Danielewski’s enormous post structuralist novel House of Leaves (2000)which successfully manages to use the critical approach to hint at what lies beneath the intention of the horror novel. At the same time Bolano’s novel forces home the importance and influence of writing in and of itself.

About Nazi Literature in the Americas, Bolaño told an interviewer for the New York Review of Books:

(Its) focus is on the world of the ultra right, but much of the time, in reality, I’m talking about the left… When I’m talking about Nazi writers in the Americas, in reality I’m talking about the world, sometimes heroic but much more often despicable, of literature in general.

Anticipation of this type of fictional writer biography can be seen in the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges, particularly “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” and “An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain“. Bolaño has also praised the work of J. Rodolfo Wilcock, a member of Borges’ cohort, whose “La Sinagoga de Los Iconoclastas” (Temple of the Iconoclasts) similarly consists of short biographies of imaginary figures, in Wilcock’s case, crackpot scholars and inventors. Bolano is the subversive, tongue in cheek (but deadly serious) literary extension of the literary puzzles of Borges and co. Maybe the most influential of Borges visionary stories on Nazi Literature in the Americas is his bizarre and brilliant “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis, Tertias”, which concerns a fictional, hyper literary encyclopedia that the narrator finds and discovers has become part of reality. Bolano has written such an elaborate book that in many respects it works as a critique of world literature, the power of a literary heritage, and what lies behind South and North American authorial intent.

According to literary critic Stacey D’Erasmo:

“Nazi Literature in the Americas, a wicked invented encyclopaedia of imaginary fascist writers and literary tastemakers, is Bolano playing with sharp, twisting knives. As if he were Borges’s wisecracking, sardonic son, Bolano has meticulously created a tightly woven network of far-right litterateurs and purveyors of belles lettres for whom Hitler was beauty, truth, and the great lost hope. 

I have read Nazi Literature in the Americas several times, feeling compelled to seek out the hidden messages and subtextual meaning behind it, never quite working it out. It is an intricately plotted puzzle to be worked out, up for repeated study. One of my favourite novels, and the only one of Bolano’s prolific output I have read, I suggest it wholeheartedly for any reader up for an elegant black comedy as well as a serious commentary on the hidden intentions of American literature.

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