It must have appealed to Roberto Bolaño’s sense of irony that novels, rather than poems, won him his place in the contemporary pantheon. For Bolaño’s protagonists, (and, we can imagine, for Bolaño himself) poetry is the art that endures. Still, to read Amulet or By Night in Chile is to find oneself immersed in verse – not because the prose is self-consciously lyrical (not in translation, anyway), but because all of the major characters are poets. Were these characters merely unheralded virtuosos, like Kerouac’s Subterraneans, the novels might take on an air of wish fulfillment. As it stands, however, Bolaño’s fictionalized Lives of the Poets are an inversion, or complication, of Kerouac’s: He seems more interested in the bad poets, the failed poets, than he is in the angelic ones.
For this reason, and for several others, the recently published English edition of Nazi Literature in the Americas is an ideal introduction to the Bolaño oeuvre. The book comprises 30 short portraits of imaginary right-wing poets. The form of the fictional reference work (a subgenre close to my heart) allows for accessibility, while playing to several of Bolaño’s great strengths.
The book begins in Argentina “at the dawn of the twentieth century,” with the Mendiluce clan. The matriarch, Edelmira Thompson de Mendiluce, has a long and busy life, writing books of poetry (Argentinean Hours) and autobiography (The Century as I Have Lived It) and a libretto for opera (Ana, the Peasant Redeemed), and, most significantly, founding magazines: Modern Argentina, American Letters, and The Fourth Reich in Argentina (“and, subsequently, the publishing house of the same name.”) As these inflated titles indicate, Bolaño has a lot of fun inventing his poets, and the dry humor seems to play to Chris Andrews’ strengths as a translator. One paragraph ends: “By the end of the audience Edelmira and Carozzone were committed Hitlerites.” The next begins: “1930 was a year of voyages and adventures.”
After droll biographies of Edelmira’s progeny – “throughout her life, [Luz Mendiluce Thompson] treasured the famous photo of her baby self in Hitler’s arms” – the book will gradually work its way north, to the pop-inflected poets of the United States, and then south again, to end up in Bolaño’s native Chile, at the lightless dawn of the Pinochet years. Here as elsewhere, Bolaño excels in the art of ekphrasis – describing the fruits of one medium with the techniques of another. Rarely do we see an actual excerpt from the poems in question; instead, we are treated to summaries such as this one (concerning the works of Luz Mendiluce Thompson):
In 1953…she published the collection Tangos of Buenos Aires, which, as well as a revised version of “I Was Happy with Hitler,” contained some of her finest poems: “Stalin,” a chaotic fable set among bottles of vodka and incomprehensible shrieks; “Self Portrait,” one of the cruelest poems written in Argentina during the fifties, which is no mean claim; “Luz Mendiluce and Love,” in the same vein as her self-portrait, but with doses of irony and black humor, which make it somewhat less grueling; and “Apocalypse at Fifty,” a promise to kill herself when she reached that age, which those who knew her regarded as optimistic.
Even when Bolaño does quote from the poems in question – “[they] were free of political allusions,” we are told, “except for the odd unfortunate metaphor (such as ‘in my heart I am the last Nazi’)” – he relies on the reader to flesh out the fictional world, in Borgesian fashion.
The form of the vignette means, inevitably, that certain entries are stronger than others; some, like “Luiz Fontaine da Souza,” are merely a single, extended joke. In general, though, Nazi Literature in the Americas gathers momentum as it goes on, which is perhaps a way of saying that it teaches the reader how to read it. The science-fictional leanings of several of the U.S. poets allow Bolaño to indulge in the same sort of hallucinatory symbolism that animates his finest short stories, and the final three entries, covering “The Fabulous Schiaffino Boys” and “The Infamous Ramirez Hoffman,” swell to the amplitude of bravura short stories themselves. (Indeed, Bolaño would rework the latter piece into the novel Distant Star, which is probably the next book to tackle if you’re looking to ease your way into the longer works.)
It is as a whole, however, that Nazi Literature in the Americas makes its strongest statement. Beyond the humor, and the game-like pleasure of tracing the chain of influence and patronage among the various poets (abetted by an “Epilogue for Monsters”), the book offers a subtle analysis of the constituent parts of fascism: humorlessness, a longing for an imagined past, a persecution complex. They are often, Bolaño suggests, the same things that drive us to create art, and though the poems described in the book are often bad, they are not uniformly so. By the end of the book, we come to see poetry as a symbol of the broader moral universe (whereas in Kerouac’s novels it tends to represent some form of redemption from it). Bolaño muse, like the muse that spoke to Ezra Pound and Ernst Jünger, is morally and politically indiscriminate. The lives that surround the poems are where the greatest triumphs, and greatest failures, occur.
Bonus link: An excerpt from Nazi Literature in the Americas, courtesy of Bookforum