Wit in the midst of absurdity

Perhaps it’s better to say nothing. Beginning with the English-language publication of _The Savage Detectives_ in 2007, Roberto Bolaño has posthumously gathered acclaim unlike any Latin American writer since Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The English translation of his leviathan posthumous work _2666_ became the cult book of last year, and new editions of his earlier works have been rushed out – _Nazi Literature In The Americas_ comes with glowing jacket-puff from Colm Tóibín and John Banville.

The backlash has already started: in a _Guardian_ review of _Nazi Literature_, Alberto Manguel dismissed the majority of Bolaño’s oeuvre as “light, playful experiments, not very successful, with little intelligence and less ambition”. This kind of peevish resentment is the rock to the hard place of a Western literary public famously unable to handle more than one popular foreign writer at a time; with Bolaño safely and romantically dead, it becomes, between the hyperbole of the two, difficult to assess his real achievement.

Well, first off: _Nazi Literature_ is not among Bolaño’s best work. The fascinating, murky depths of _2666_ or By _Night In Chile_ (2000) aren’t to be found here, and the mock-encyclopedic style restrains the astonishing and sustained writing that powered those books. It’s his most humorous work, and his most transparent in its conceit – one that has a long and distinguished lineage in Spanish-language literature, beginning with Borges’ numerous fake texts, in particular _A Universal History of Infamy_, his 1935 catalogue of (semi-)fictional criminals. (It even comes with a bibliography of non-existent texts, making cast-iron an authenticity we already know to be fake.) A succession of mini-biographies of Nazi, nationalist, ultra-Catholic and anti-Semitic writers, it is at times riotous and rollicking in its mordant humour – the travails of Ernesto Pérez Masón, silenced by the Castro regime after OuLiPian acrostics (“LONG LIVE HITLER”) are discovered in his books, are but one example to raise a dry guffaw. But it is not – or not just – satire. Bolaño hits his target – the warped absurdity of right-wing ideology – first time, and then keeps hitting it, long after the audience has got the apparent joke.

Importantly, this is a guide not to right-wing culture generally, but to literature: this gallery of fanatics, like most of Bolaño’s narrators and principal characters, are obsessed with writing. Or perhaps, rather, writing is obsession – excess, desperation, madness. Many of the undertakings described here are riddled with absurdity and insanity: Edelmira Thompson’s _Poe’s Room_, mostly a vast description of the room described in Poe’s ‘Philosophy of Furniture’; Luiz Fontaine Da Souza’s five-volume _Critique of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness_ (“his siblings and nephews were obliged to have him interned once again in the clinic”); Harry Sibelius’ 1333-page-long speculative history of America under Nazism.

In spite of the embitterment, alcoholism, destruction and failure (there’s a lot of all of them) what keeps them all going is writing – Argentino Schiaffino, on the run, churning out pamphlets and plays; “the widow Mendiluce” producing books, writing prefaces, financing journals and publishing houses into her dotage.

It is thus a powerful tribute both to the therapeutic aspect of literature – the comforts of bibliomania, the way literature, by remaking the world in integrity, makes it liveable – and its shortcomings. Not only does it fail to help its authors – Luz Mendiluce, a not-exactly-stellar poet, alcoholic, overweight, fascist and a thwarted lesbian, who is typical of the lives of these artists, dies in a car crash that is both bang and whimper: “The explosion was considerable” – but it also fails to change the world.

It’s impossible not to sense the persistent note of darkness running through the work. It is in part an attempt to negotiate, in perhaps the only way possible, with the horrific legacy of Latin America’s 20th century, a history so absurd as to be almost beyond satire.

That reality hangs in the background of these fictions like a suffocating fog: the dictatorships in Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Haiti, Mexico, Guatemala and, in particular, Bolaño’s native Chile, where the democratic socialist Allende government was unseated by a CIA-sponsored coup in 1973; the repression, torture, censorship, poverty, violence, life in a world where civilised values have been utterly rescinded. It intrudes constantly: Edelmira Thompson meets and collaborates with Eva Perón; Masón “figures in the _Dictionary of Cuban Authors_ which omits Guillermo Cabrera Infante”; two young Colombian poets volunteer for Franco’s forces in Spain. In that sense, the book recalls Marquez’s _Autumn of the Patriarch_ and Infante’s _View of Dawn in the Tropics_ – dealing with the horror through transformation into an aesthetic form just as fragmented and skewed.

One can’t help but feel that the individual deficiencies of the authors in _Nazi Literature_ – haunted, like most writers, by the idea of being no good – is a remnant of the vast political tragedy: the foregrounding of this parade of right-wingers calls up their opposite, and absent, numbers – the silenced, the exiled, the disappeared. The appearance of two left-wing poets in the final chapter makes tangible the void that has always been there, and the painful dialectic between hope and defeat literature is enmeshed with.

Literature, Bolaño emphasises, always exists in the shadow of death – one thinks of the scene in _By Night in Chile_ where the narrator attends a literary party while torture occurs in the building’s basement; “that is how literature is made in Chile”.

We become graphically aware of this in ‘The Infamous Ramírez Hoffman’, the chapter (later the basis of the novella _Distant Star_) that comes closest to home for Bolaño – it deals with the Pinochet coup and is, in fact, narrated by the author. Hoffman is a young pilot and poet who sky-writes fascistic verse, and then disappears after a scandal over a photographic exhibition.

This Kurtzian void – a fugitive existing only in rumour, apparently lacking any motive for his horrific crimes – is the novel’s dark heart: a vexed inconclusion, an acknowledgement that literature, for all its weight of pain, is worth cherishing in our desperation. This book’s strange pleasures prove again that Bolaño’s work is worth saving.

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