Saturday, May 22, 2010

"watching a parade of monsters go by"

"The historian's view is conditioned, always and everywhere, by his own location in time and space; and since time and space are continually changing, no history, in the subjective sense of the word, can ever be a permanent record that will tell a story, once and for all, in a form that will be equally acceptable to readers in all ages, or even in all quarters of the Earth." Sibelius, of course, is animated by intentions of an entirely different nature. In the final analysis, the British professor's aim is to testify against crime and ignominy, lest we forget. The Virginian novelist seems to believe that "somewhere in time and space" the crime in question has definitively triumphed, so he proceeds to catalog it.

Nazi Literature in the Americas
, by the late great Roberto Bolaño and translated by Chris Andrews, is a work of fiction though not a novel. It is a satiric encyclopedia detailing the lives of thirty-one imaginary writers of the right from the United States and Latin America, particularly Argentina and Chile. In a 2007 interview with The New York Review of Books, Bolaño stated that he was actually talking about the left as well and about the whole suspect enterprise of literature in general.

Nazis and their acolytes may be ridiculously easy to caricature (i.e. Downfall parodies and The Producers), but Bolaño resists the urge and instead describes thirty-one nuanced and somewhat sympathetic men and women devoted to their craft even in the face of ridicule and obscurity. Their works are sonnets, epic poems, experimental prose, conventional novels, science fiction, and literature as performance/conceptual art. Many sound quite interesting, despite the author's highly questionable political leanings. Bolaño seems to be challenging the reader here, asking us to consider whether or not art can still be appreciated and acclaimed as such, even when it promotes destructive or hateful ideas. According to Stacy D'Erasmo in the New York Times, Bolaño saw literary culture as, ultimately, "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. . . 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.
Chile's Willy Schürholz (who died in Kampala, Uganda in 2029), for example, composed highly avant-garde poetry involving sentence fragments and topographical maps. His exhibit at a local university is revealed, belatedly, to consist of the layouts of several infamous Nazi death camps accompanied by instructions for their reassembly in Chile. Schürholz's friends insist that it's actually a critique of Pinochet's regime, although his later output indicates otherwise. So how are we to approach something like this? Bolaño wants to know. Do we censure it or recognize Schürholz's creativity or both? At what point does content overshadow form or expression?

You can also apply these questions to older works of literature that may be beautifully written but which also promote beliefs that are now condemned. Chinua Achebe wants Heart of Darkness ejected from the canon for its racism. I definitely see his point, but it's one of my favorite books! Conrad was a product of his time just like everyone else is! So which of us, me or Achebe, has the stronger position?

Bolaño also takes us deeper into his fictional universe, as previously visited in 2666, The Savage Detectives, and Antwerp. In addition to a reference to Eugenio Entrescu, who was murdered by his own men in "The Part About Archimboldi," there is that enigmatic darkness that permeates even the buoyancy of The Savage Detectives. Bolaño was a fan of Georges Perec (who is also referenced in Nazi Literature), and his narratives often take the form of lists, similar to those that characterize Life: A User's Manual. In 2666, nearly the entire "Part About the Crimes" is a litany of dead bodies, while the center part of Detectives is one first-person account after another from dozens of individuals all over the world. Nazi Literature is much closer to Perec in this respect.
His characters are usually based on figures from the Civil War and sometimes even bear their names . . . ; the action unfolds in a distorted present where nothing is as it seems, or in a distant future full of abandoned, ruined cities, and ominously silent landscapes, similar in many respects to those of the Midwest. His plots abound in providential heroes and mad scientists; hidden clans and tribes which at the ordained time must emerge and do battle with other hidden tribes; secret societies of men in black who meet at isolated ranches on the prairie; private detectives who must search for people lost on other planets; children stolen and raised by inferior races so that, having reached adulthood, they may take control of the tribe and lead it to immolation; unseen animals with insatiable appetites; mutant plants; invisible planets that suddenly become visible; teenage girls offered as human sacrifices; cities of ice with a single inhabitant; cowboys visited by angels; mass migrations destroying everything in their path; underground labyrinths swarming with warrior-monks; plots to assassinate the president of the United States; spaceships fleeing an earth in flames to colonize Jupiter; societies of telepathic killers; children growing up all alone in dark, cold yards.
(And don't you just want to read some of those stories, even though it's been established that J.M.S. Hill admired Hitler and that shows up in his work?) Both Perec and Bolaño reveal a vast knowledge of myriad disparate subjects, which gives Life and Nazi Literature a real density and a broader range than initially expected.

I found Nazi Literature in the Americas to be a quick read and an amusing one despite its subject matter. "Halfway there she crashed into a gas station," one entry concludes. "The explosion was considerable." Much as I hate to say it, this book about neo-Nazis was a lot of fun and reflected a side of Bolaño I hadn't seen before. Recommended for anyone who likes intelligent and creative snark.

Click here for Richard's review and here for another great review.


Anonymous said...

This sounds very interesting! I've never read anything by Bolaño and I'm not sure if this would be the place to start, but I have to admit that your review makes this book sound very intriguing.

claire said...

Interesting bit about Achebe. I also loved Heart of Darkness, despite everything. Everyone IS a product of his time!

How many Bolaños have you read already? I haven't touched one after 2666. Always mean to, though. And I'm putting this one next after The Savage Detectives.

E. L. Fay said...

Irisonbooks: I strongly recommend anything and everything by Roberto Bolaño. Since Nazi Literature is the shortest book (other than Antwerp, but that's more prose poetry) I would start there. The Savage Detectives is incredible but I can see some readers getting bogged down in the middle. 2666 is humongous but it's divided into five distinct books that can be read on their own.

Claire: I've read a total of four Bolaños now but will be reading more! Why oh why did he have to die so soon?

mel u said...

Very interesting post-I found Nazi Literature in the Americas hilarious-I have read 2666 and Savage Detectives-plus One Night in Chile-all brilliant but maybe I like Savage Detectives the most

Richard said...

Glad you liked this, E.L. Fay, and thanks for the link love. Whatever Bolaño's theoretical concerns in Nazi Literature in the Americas, this book is by far the funniest of the several I've read by him so far and one of my favorite three along with The Savage Detectives and 2666. I hope you'll consider reading Distant Star, which is also brilliant, next since you had a preview of it in the last chapter of this book. Did Nazi Literature in the Americas reminded you of Borges' "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" at all, though? It did for me! P.S. Achebe's nuts if you represented his position correctly! Canon-formation is rather stupid in the first place, but your canon will look like the Mr. Rogers Show if you start excluding works based on things that some people might find offensive. Fuck that noise!

E. L. Fay said...

mel u: One Night in Chile is next on my Bolaño TBR list.

Richard: My phrasing of Achebe's position actually comes from David Denby's memoir Great Books. I probably should've phrased it differently, now that I think of it. What Achebe said was that "a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race" cannot "be called a great work of art." So technically I think that is what he's saying (that HOD doesn't belong in the canon) but there's more room for interpretation there. He has also said that he doesn't think it should be banned or that we shouldn't read it.

Emily said...

Ooh, I can't wait to read this one! (All my comments on your site today sound like a squealing fangirl. Will stop now.)

Ahem. Getting down to more controversial/intellectual concerns, I just re-read that Achebe essay, and I was a lot more sympathetic to it now than when I read it the first time in college. That said, I still don't really buy what he's selling, which is that Heart of Darkness is poisonously racist even by the standards of Conrad's day...I just don't see it. Yeah, there was a good deal of Orientalizing going on, but that's true in all European lit from the time period. I mean, Conrad thought he was writing an ANTI-racist novel, in the same way Harriet Beecher Stowe did, and while we should certainly address the fact that there is a negative set of consequences from the "wild African savage" and "grinning Uncle Tom" stereotypes those two authors perpetuated, it doesn't mean Stowe & Conrad were both MORE racist than most other white folks of the time. You know? Not that it makes their racism very charming, or anything.

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