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Thursday, 28 June 2012

Book review: Nazi Literature in the Americas, Roberto Bolano (2008)

Written in the mid-90s and published in 1996 while the peripatetic Chilean Bolano was living in Spain, Nazi Literature in the Americas, like all of the author's books, only appeared in print in English after his death in 2003. Bolano's work is highly esteemed in literary circles within the Anglosphere and there are many people who rave about his novels, but he largely remains a point of concern for the elites in that milieu. While this novel is more than merely satisfying it is enough to say that it is, however, completely satisfying. It does a lot of things well. But it is unlikely alone and in itself to change the way the author is regarded in the English-speaking world.

The novel comprises a series of fictional mini-biographies dealing with authors who never existed during the 20th Century. The common theme linking their stories is their interest in Nazism. The book includes names, dates, publication dates, notices of the critical reception the fictional people's fictional books received, and details of their lives. It is a very clever and knowing expose of the hidden undercurrent of extreme right-wing politics in Latin America and North America that Bolano intuits from his experience and his readings of real-world literature. On the other hand, the book also serves to illustrate some of the frustrations that marginal authors experience, and that Bolano, who wrote poetry for a long time, experienced during his life before switching to the novel form in the 90s.

Because the novel suggests broader sympathy for Nazism within the mainstream than most people would readily admit, it makes for uncomfortable reading at times, and because it is so clever and knowing, also, it is unlikely to find ready favour within that broader community. 'They' are, to a certain extent, 'us'. If there has been such sympathy for extreme right-wing politics to the extent that many failed, marginal authors have been publishing such works throughout the world, then surely there must have been many other people with similar sympathies living in our very midst. So the oracle pointing routinely to one country and one period of time simply swivels on his podium, and turns his accusatory finger back to point it at us. The joke that furthermore underscores this truth is that creative people are often ignored by society; so the accusation is doubled. We can hardly be excused simply because we gave little attention to the works of these odd authors. The frequency with which they appeared implies a larger cohort of Nazi sympathisers among our ranks. We can imagine Bolano laughing heartily at his jokes, made at our expense. And so the book will likely remain neglected for many years yet.

Which is a shame because events in Europe show us how timely such a book could be. The growth of Nazi-inspired political parties, on top of the existence of special-interest groups dedicated to promoting Nazism, tells us that this particular shibboleth will continue to exist in a very real form in the West for a long time. In fact, the shame that for two generations has been associated with Nazism means that Germany is less likely to produce real manifestations of discontent with a Nazi flavour than, for example, a society such as Greece. The next question, of course, is, What is Nazism? Is it an ideology? Is it an aesthetic? Is it a set of particular cognates? Bolano's novel can help us answer this question, and so it is a good book to read for those who want to honestly and squarely face up to what is happening in the world today. It's also a lot of fun to read a completely original work that demonstrates intelligence and deep thinking. A book for the ages.

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