Thursday, February 24, 2011

Bolaño Maintains

Nazi Literature in the Americas, a 1996 Roberto Bolaño work, takes a simple structure: 30 brief biosketches of fictional South and North American “Nazi” writers, grouped under headings such as “The Mendiluce Clan,” “The Aryan Brotherhood,” “Speculative and Science Fiction,” spanning the early 20th century to an indeterminate time in the future (one writer’s death date is given as 2021). Bolaño presents these biographies in the form of a literary encyclopedia. Anyone who’s ever opened a resource of the sort can attest to Bolaño’s ability to capture the style of such a work as well as the pithy hollowness of some of its pronouncements: “The descriptions of Andalusian gardens are meticulous and, in their way, interesting.”

This straightforward, almost fill-in-the-blanks organization makes Nazi Literature in the Americas appear as a kind of exercise or entertainment. There’s an arbitrariness (Why 30 writers and not 50, or 10? Why one aspect of fascism and not another?) and an extemporaneous, even wearying quality to Bolaño’s inventions.  Nonetheless, this small, inelegant book possesses a larger, concussive power, a Molotov cocktail capable of igniting vital discussion concerning the intersection of literature and politics.

Bolaño brings to Nazi Literature in the Americas an arsenal of references to literary figures, works, and movements, co-mingling the genuine with the entirely invented.  The name-dropping, showy aspect to this display of literary knowledge is likely intended to mirror the kinds of indulgent referential play in which writers, critics and scholars (and bloggers) routinely engage. Sometimes it’s used to damningly ironic effect, as when Thomas Murchison, an Aryan Brotherhood author, is cited as preferring, as his favorite writer, Mark Twain (a cutting and lingering irony in an age when a version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn expunged of objectionable racial terms can be taken seriously). More often than not, though, these references seem tossed off willy-nilly. One thing no one is likely to miss is Bolaño’s caustic sense of humor, expressed through some blackly funny character descriptions and a set of wryly imaginative literary inventions, such as Carlos Ramírez Hoffman’s sky-writing that promises to rain death upon the world (later to resurface in Bolaño’s Distant Star), or Cuban writer Ernesto Pérez Masòn’s coded work in 14 chapters of 25 paragraphs each, the first letters of which form anti-revolutionary acrostics like “KISS MY CUBAN ASS,” “USA WHERE ARE YOU” and “LONG LIVE HITLER.” Bolaño also delivers occasional deadpan, dead-on imaginings of fascist imagery, such as graces the cover of Pedro González Carrera’s Twelve, consisting of “the letters of the word Twelve…equipped with eagle talons, grip[ping] a swastika in flames, beneath which there seems to be a sea with waves, drawn in a childlike style. And under the sea, between the waves, a child can in fact be glimpsed, crying, ‘Mom, I’m scared!’”

Nazi Literature in the Americas is not, however, a simple compendium of fascist aesthetics. Bolaño provides plenty of examples of the kinds of writing that might be categorized as “Nazi literature” – overwrought patriotic paeans; racist and anti-semitic novels; odes glorifying violence; sentimental, self-absorbed epic poems; insanely paranoiac arguments (including a five volume, several thousand page critique of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness); an appalling collection of works by Argentino “Fatso” Schiaffino through which Bolaño limns the fascistic elements of professional soccer; and works that decry moral decay and urge a “resurrection” of this or that nation - often enough the United States, where such sentiments among right wing groups are pandemic.

But at the same time, Nazi Literature in the Americas recognizes the porosity of literature, the ways in which it’s difficult to pin a particular literary activity to a particular ideology. What’s most unsettling about Bolaño’s figures is not their monstrosity, political or literary; it’s their commonality with writers of any political persuasion: their artistic ambitions and struggles to transform something of the world into art. It would be difficult for any writer, I think, to avoid entirely the seduction of some of the literary excesses, sins and crimes that Bolaño describes (which, speaking of Mark Twain, vastly exceed in scope those that Twain cataloged in “Fennimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses”). There are even glimpses of autobiographical elements in Nazi Literature in the Americas, an intimation of the pitfalls of writing skirted by Bolaño in an effort to create an original literature that doesn’t serve totalitarian ends. Clearly, in writing about certain aspects of these characters, Bolaño appears to be describing himself:

Yet in certain literary circles, both in Chile and elsewhere in Latin America, his poetic career, brief and dazzling as a lightning bolt, inspired a kind of cult, in spite of the fact that few devotees had an accurate idea of what he had written. Finally he left Chile behind, along with public life, and disappeared, although his physical absence (he had, in fact always been an absent figure) did not put a stop to the speculations and interpretations, the passionate and contradictory readings to which his work gave rise.  

While Nazi Literature in the Americas offers implied advice about what writers might want to avoid both politically and literarily, it provides not so much a series of signposts as a minefield. Literature is enmeshed in politics and ideology, inseparable from one’s political being – and the opposite is also true. Writing an Alexandrine doesn’t keep one from being a fascist – and vice versa.

Bolaño forces us back upon ourselves. He is the not the kind of writer to offer prescriptions. His literature has a kind of hard, evidentiary quality, like a fact put forward to dare refutation. In this way, Nazi Literature in the Americas stands as a kind of bulwark, almost an anti-monument against which other writers – and critics, scholars, and readers - will have to measure their political engagement as well as their often overblown assumptions about literature’s relationship to ideology. After reading Bolaño’s novel, it would be difficult for any honest writer not to be nagged by the question of his or her own political commitment and the wider question of what’s important in literature. In peopling his Nazi writer universe, Bolaño cuts down a wide swath of literary pretention of all stripes, questioning the priorities of literature as well as its practitioners’ motivations, decrying in one section the choice of a literary vocation as “a surreptitious form of violence, a passport to respectability” that can, “in certain young and sensitive nations, disguise the social climber’s origins.” In another, he scathingly mocks cultish literary movements by inventing a French school termed “barbaric writing,” in which the movement’s leader…“devoted himself to masturbating onto books by Victor Hugo and Balzac, urinating onto Stendhal novels, smearing shit over pages of Chateaubriand, cutting various parts of his body and spattering the blood over handsome editions of Flaubert, Lamartine, or Musset. That, so he claimed, was how he learned to write.” It’s not without some irony that the heading for the fictional appendices to Nazi Literature in the Americas, “Epilogue for Monsters,” uses “for” rather than “of,” again forcing us back on ourselves to question our own complicity in the luxury of comsuming the marginal minutiae of such a literature - lists of its secondary personages, titles and “Publishing Houses, Magazines, Places…” (a telling ellipsis) - when outside this often hermetic literary world are governments that oppress, torture, and murder.

As much as I alternately guffawed and cringed through my reading of Nazi Literature in the Americas, I kept feeling, in addition to a demoralizing impatience with these seemingly interminable sketches of mediocrity, as though I were missing something. The translation, by Chris Andrews, feels in no way inexpert or lacking. But humor being among the most difficult things to translate across cultures, I felt (a wholly immaterial point) that I was perhaps losing out on a great deal I might have better understood were I closer to the cultures and/or literary circles in which Bolaño moved. The novel surely contains references that would have had particular resonance among Bolaño’s literary colleagues. Nothing in the book, however, suggests an intended roman à clef. Or rather, it comes across as a kind of an inverted roman à clef, told at a slant, in which there exists no one-to-one correspondence or even the possibility of one given the implausibility of these characters, but instead (and more effective for it) a fiction that leaves its readers to ferret out moral and aesthetic real-world counterparts that approach them (of which there are plenty enough, even within ourselves). After all, Bolaño’s point is certainly not to engage in the literary games he scorches; he is, after all, writing in the context of a history and culture in which fascist governments, many propped up by the United States, oversaw the execution and torture of thousands upon thousands of persons.

Having just finished another novel about the intersection of literature with fascism, Antonio Tabucchi’s Pereira Declares: A Testimony (recently republished in English as Pereira Maintains), I couldn’t help thinking about the different approaches to the subject taken by these two authors. In Tabucchi’s novel (which I much preferred, in part because Tabucchi is such a stunningly gifted and quietly affecting writer more to my own taste, but in part, I’m almost ashamed to admit, because Tabucchi makes one feel less uneasy), the apolitical, innocuous Pereira, relegated, after decades as a journalist, to creating a weekly culture page for a conservative Lisbon newspaper, comes to a gradual political awakening after agreeing to take on an assistant out of pity for the young man’s impecunious situation. He asks the young man, an activist on the left, to write up some obituaries for living literary figures to be primed for publication as each writer passes away. Pereira is both appalled and entranced by these draft obituaries, which pull no punches. He can’t possibly publish them; their honesty places their subjects in a political context far too sensitive for publication under the fascist government’s watchful eye. But when faced with an act of raw political violence perpetrated by the government’s thugs, Pereira recognizes that what’s at stake in the writing of these obituaries is not an abstract matter of competing ideologies, but of truth. Writers in totalitarian regimes will in the end be measured not simply by their works, but also by whether they submitted or fought.

The one time when Nazi Literature in the Americas seems to approach the clarity and force of Tabucchi’s book is in the final portrait, of the sky-writing Ramírez Hoffman, distinguishable from the other sections by a first person narrator who turns out to be Bolaño himself, as well as by a palpable rage turned, for the first time in the book, against the “Nazi” writer in question. Here Nazi Literature in the Americas elevates from an exercise into something far more trenchant and meaningful. When Bolaño’s help is sought in tracking down Ramírez Hoffman, Hoffman’s pursuer Abel Romero states that “To find a poet, he needed the help of another poet. I told him that in my opinion Ramírez Hoffman was a criminal, not a poet. All right, all right, maybe in Ramírez Hoffman’s opinion, or anyone else’s for that matter, you’re not a poet, or a bad one, and he’s the real thing. It all depends, don’t you think?” Here at the end of the novel, Bolaño asks Romero not to kill Ramírez Hoffman: “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.”

Nazi Literature in the Americas represents a stark insistence that “we all could” partake in harm, that the horrors perpetrated in the totalitarian histories of South America’s recent past “can happen here,” and again. As humorous and acerbic as some of these invented encyclopedia entries are, they’re ultimately awful, dreary glimpses of the kind of mediocre hypothetical literary universe that fascism might tolerate. I read Nazi Literature in the Americas while in the middle of the current issue of Granta devoted to young, Spanish-language, mostly South American novelists, representing a vital and reassuring contrast to Bolaño’s parade of criminals and buffoons. In reorienting literature away from both frivolity and overblown overreaching, Bolaño – and a good number of his heirs, it seems - keep literature, in its evolving forms, relevant to the greater fundamental resolve to prevent the horrors of fascism from recurring.

Reviewed as part of The Roberto Bolaño Reading Challenge kindly initiated by Rise at In Lieu of a Field Guide.