New York Times. 02.24.2008
Among the many acid pleasures of the work of Roberto Bolaño, who died at 50 in 2003, is his idea that culture, in particular literary culture, is a whore. In the face of political repression, upheaval and danger, writers continue to swoon over the written word, and this, for Bolaño, is the source both of nobility and of pitch-black humor. In his novel “The Savage Detectives”, two avid young Latino poets never lose faith in their rarefied art no matter the vicissitudes of life, age and politics. If they are sometimes ridiculous, they are always heroic. But what can it mean, he asks us and himself, in his dark, extraordinary, stinging novella “By Night in Chile”, that the intellectual elite can write poetry, paint and discuss the finer points of avant-garde theater as the junta tortures people in basements? The word has no national loyalty, no fundamental political bent; it’s a genie that can be summoned by any would-be master. Part of Bolaño’s genius is to ask, via ironies so sharp you can cut your hands on his pages, if we perhaps find a too-easy comfort in art, if we use it as anesthetic, excuse and hide-out in a world that is very busy doing very real things to very real human beings. Is it courageous to read Plato during a military coup or is it something else?
“Nazi Literature in the Americas”, a wicked, invented encyclopedia of imaginary fascist writers and literary tastemakers, is Bolaño playing with sharp, twisting knives. As if he were Borges’s wisecracking, sardonic son, Bolaño has meticulously created a tightly woven network of far-right littérateurs and purveyors of belles lettres for whom Hitler was beauty, truth and great lost hope. Cross-referenced, complete with bibliography and a biographical list of secondary figures, “Nazi Literature” is composed of a series of sketches, the compressed life stories of writers in North and South America who never existed, but all too easily could have. Goose-stepping caricatures à la “The Producers” they are not; instead, they are frighteningly subtle, poignant and plausible. Like Leni Riefensthal, the artistes Bolaño invents share a certain Romantic aesthetic, a taste for the classic and nonvulgar, a dislike of “cacophony” and a lurking sense that something has gone terribly wrong in the modern world — that children, for instance, have been “stolen and raised by inferior races” and that a better world in the form of the Fourth Reich is imminent. There is little to no mention of Jews or other undesirables; there are no death camps; World War II is a passing reference at best. Instead, with a straight face, Bolaño narrates the Nazi writers’ tireless imaginations, their persistence in the face of a world history that goes against them, their contrarian determination as they continue to write books that go unread, unreviewed and largely unnoticed. They’re the losers but, with incredible passion, they remain steadfastly in denial of that fact, churning away at their refutations of Voltaire, Rousseau and Sartre; their verses vindicating Il Duce; their novels decrying the decline of piety; their Aryan literary societies. Like Riefenstahl, they find the highest beauty in a particular sort of symmetry and order that only in retrospect seems indubitably fascist. Horribly, persistently, they have a vision that they are incapable of giving up.
They are, in other words, writers. Substitute, say, “language poetry” for “fascism” and the trajectory of these invented lives would be much the same as they are for the busy networks of real writers Bolaño knew from the inside out. Whereas in “By Night in Chile” Bolaño’s dissection of hypocrisy and bad faith (the main character is a morally bankrupt priest allied with the junta) is swift and merciless, here it is not only as if the writer in him couldn’t keep himself from filigreeing in endless perfect and revealing details about his lost souls and their laughable oeuvres, but also as if he couldn’t entirely resist them. As a fellow traveler, he probably knew only too well what it is to pit the invented world on your ratty pages against the firmly stated values of the real world. The imaginary Ernesto Pérez Masón, who pounds away at his novella that is “an erotic and fiercely anti-U.S.A. fantasy, whose protagonists were General Eisenhower and General Patton”; the mysterious beauty Daniela de Montecristo, who loved Italian and German generals during World War II and wrote an epic novel called “The Amazons”; Max Mirebalais, the ceaseless plagiarist who sought to combine Nazism and negritude: the heinousness of their political philosophy is the only thing that distinguishes them from any writer, anywhere, at any time. Moreover, literature, Bolaño writes, “is a surreptitious form of violence, a passport to respectability, and can, in certain young and sensitive nations, disguise the social climber’s origins”.
Who said literature has no real power to affect history? Not Bolaño — for him, literature is an unnervingly protean, amoral force with uncanny powers of self-invention, self-justification and self-mythification. The mythmakers, he suggests, certainly do matter. If Hitler had won, for instance, the not entirely absurd stories in this encyclopedia would be the prevailing stories of the culture. Is Nazi poetry an oxymoron? Not a bit of it, posits Bolaño. On the contrary, it’s all too possible.