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Roberto Bolaño: Literatura nazi en América (Nazi Literature in the Americas)

This is one of Bolaño’s earlier works but we can already see both the themes and the talent that will inform his later work, particularly Los Detectives Salvajes (The Savage Detectives). It consists, without any explanation, of a series of biographies of Latin American writers, who had Nazi/extreme right-wing associations. Not only do we get a series of funny, clever biographies, many of which are full of not only literary insight but literary gossip (and, presumably, in some cases, based on real people, though better-informed critics than I have tried but not too successfully to make these connections, e.g. José Miguel Oviedo), but also a list, with one-line bios, of secondary figures, publishing houses/magazines and an alphabetical listing of all the books mentioned (the whole wittily called Epilogue for Monsters). The inspiration presumably comes, at least in part, from Borges, with his La historia universal de la infamia (A Universal History of Infamy), but this work is very much Bolaño’s in style, humour, erudition and the poking fun at all and sundry, particularly those on the right.

Bolaño divides his writers into categories. We start with the Argentinean Mendiluces, with the matriarch, Edelmira nee Thompson, who published her first book at age fifteen, wrote prose and poetry, travelled around Europe and not only met Hitler but had a picture taken of him holding her baby daughter, had a replica made of Edgar Allan Poe’s room, inspired by his Philosophy of Furniture and then wrote a book which prefigured the nouveau roman, inspired by the room. Her daughter, the one held by Hitler as a baby (the photo was her most treasured possession) herself became a writer, made some disastrous marriages, physically attacking and seriously injuring two of her husbands and fell madly in love with a young woman poet. The rest of the work is equally flamboyant, witty and outrageous. Chapter headings such as Los héroes móviles o La fragilidad de los espejos [Itinerant heroes or the fragility of mirrors] and Las mil caras de Max Mirebalais [The thousand masks of Max Mirebalais] give a flavour of Bolaño’s approach. Many of the writers, even if they existed, would be totally obscure, their works only being published in small editions after their death. Nevertheless, Bolaño is able to poke fun at writers from across Latin America as well as at the foibles of individual nationalities.

Above all, the book is such wonderful fun. How could you not enjoy the story of the Cuban writer who continually tries (unsuccessfully) to have duel with the very real José Lezama Lima; or the Brazilian whose prime work seem to be, firstly, to refute all the major French philosophers and then, when he has done that (with full approval of the Catholic literary establishment), he then moves, far less successfully, to the Germans and ends up with a massive multi-volume critique of Sartre‘s L’Être et le néant (Being and Nothingness); or the speculative fiction writer, writing about the establishment of a Fourth Reich? It is all wonderfully inventive, very funny but, as always with Bolaño, with the serious intent of criticising the right-wing in Latin America.

Publishing history

First published 1996 by Seix Barral
First English translation by Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2007