Since his death in 2003, Roberto Bolaño has become a literary superstar. The English translation of his final, epic novel, 2666, was a critically acclaimed bestseller, and the process of translating — and selling — his earlier works around the world will continue for some years to come. Not everyone is happy about this, however.
Writing recently in the Argentine daily, La Nación, the Salvadoran novelist Horacio Castellanos Moya lashed out against the American marketing operation behind the posthumous success of his former friend. “[L]ike everything on this infected planet…it’s the landlords of the market who decide the mambo that you dance, whether it’s selling cheap condoms or Latin American novels in the US.” A myth has been created around the early life of Bolaño, casting him as a kind of literary Che Guevara. It’s a myth with which “American readers…want to confirm their worst paternalistic prejudices about Latin America”; a myth that induces a skewed and dishonest reading of Bolaño’s work.
Looking at the jacket of my proof of the latest translation, Nazi Literature in the Americas, I can see to some degree where Castellanos Moya is coming from. The book sports “the new Bolaño look” — there’s a hole in the cover, a mock cigarette burn in place of the first o of the writer’s surname, as if the arch-rebel himself had stubbed out a last do-or-die Lucky Strike on his own book. The inside back cover boasts of “major investment to ensure Bolaño maintains his position as THE must-have author to read”. It’s a little unsettling, I admit. But would we be better off, on this infected planet, if there wasn’t a bold new stylist on the US best-sellers list, and García Márquez remained the Anglophone world’s main point of reference for Latin American letters?
Born in Santiago in 1953, Bolaño moved with his parents to Mexico City in 1968 and became a poet and a Trotskyist. Travelling via El Salvador, where he spent some time with future FMLN guerrillas, he returned to Chile in 1973 to participate in the socialist ferment taking place under Salvador Allende’s government and very nearly became a victim of Pinochet’s coup a few months later. He was imprisoned, but after a week was released by a guard who recognised him as a former schoolmate. Back in Mexico City the following year, he helped found a group of guerrilla poets called the infrarealistas, who would appear at the readings of their “enemies” from the literary mainstream — Octavio Paz was their most-hated — and drown them out with shouted readings of their own verse.
Castellanos Moya’s main problem with the focus on this intriguing biography is that, by the time Bolaño turned to the fiction that made his name, he was a quiet family man settled in Barcelona. He died of mundane medical problems, not in a blaze of nihilistic self-abuse (until quite recently, heroin addiction was part of “the Bolaño myth”, but this has been dispelled). But the fact is that Bolaño’s fiction is littered with these kinds of characters and episodes — it’s full of guerrilla-poets, gangster-poets, assassin-poets, pimp-poets, serial-killer-poets, stooge-poets. There is constant pseudo-autobiographical play, preoccupation with corruption in the literary world and glancing reference to the kind of political history that the author witnessed firsthand. Even the “landlords of the market” can’t make a rock star without some authentic music to go with him.
All this is in evidence in Nazi Literature in the Americas. The book is presented as an encyclopaedia of an imaginary extreme right-wing literary tradition that grew up organically in South and North America between 1880 and 2029. Thirty writers have their individual entries, divided into 13 different groupings with names like “forerunners and figures of the anti-enlightenment” and “magicians, mercenaries and miserable creatures”. There are also appendices for “secondary figures”, associated periodicals and publishing houses and a full bibliography. In terms of content, the brief sketch of Bolaño’s early life above would not be out of place among them, except that all these writers are vaguely connected to some idea of the extreme Right. Bolaño is gently brushing against the military dictatorships of Latin American history and perhaps the continent’s resident real Nazis-in-exile, but there is no direct political statement here. Nazi Literature is equally a satire of the Left and of literary life in general. The entries are essentially short stories, written in the detached, biographical format familiar from Borges — to whose early collection, A Universal History of Infamy, Bolaño is nodding.
The back flap of my proof asserts that this book will have the same effect on critics as did 2666, but that is doubtful. The part of 2666 that it has most in common with is the fourth of that novel’s five internal novellas, “The Part about the Crimes”, 300 pages given over to narrating the repeated discoveries of women’s bodies in ditches. In that section, Bolaño’s prose goes numb; there is almost nothing to alleviate the dull horror. Phrases like “as if a lightbulb had gone on over his head, he glimpsed an aspect of the situation that until now he’d overlooked” cause the reader to emerge gasping for breath, begging for the poet-novelist to return to full flight. And in 2666, it is a wish that is magnificently granted. “The Part about the Crimes” is an inhuman, primeval monolith that serves as the foundation block for a huge structure of intricate, very varied but very coherent, artistry. Nazi Literature doesn’t have the same unrelenting, oppressive content, but the prose is similarly stunted, because it is, in a similar way, posing as something other than (and less than) a novel. There is almost no pure description, and nothing like this, from 2666: “The sky, at sunset, looked like a carnivorous flower.”
The payoff in the case of Nazi Literature is humour. Bolaño plays with the formulas and clichés of literary criticism; the reader is constantly hearing about how “the reputation…[of so-and-so]…rests on a series of works…” or about someone else’s “steely sonnets fearlessly probing the open wound of modernity”. Perhaps there is something of Machado de Assis in the absurd style of this entry for the Brazilian writer, Luiz Fontaine da Souza:
In 1925, as if to fulfil the hopes generated by his first book [A Refutation of Voltaire], Fontaine da Souza published A Refutation of Diderot (530 pages), followed two years later by A Refutation of D’Alembert (590 pages)…In 1930, A Refutation of Montesquieu (620 pages) appeared, and in 1932 A Refutation of Rousseau (605 pages).
In 1935 he spent four months at a clinic for the mentally ill in Petropolis.
Elsewhere, we read about novels like the American Zach Sodenstern’s Revolution, which “consists basically of dialogues between O’Connell and his dog Flip plus various secondary episodes of extreme violence set in a ruined Los Angeles”. Another Brazilian, Amado Couto,
wrote a book of stories, which all the publishers rejected. The manuscript went astray. Then he began work with the death squads, kidnapping, participating in torture and witnessing the killing of certain prisoners, but he went on thinking about literature, and specifically what it was that Brazilian literature needed.
Violence lurks beneath the humour, but the sense of dread found in his other novels is muted here. Bolaño has the capacity to be both beautiful and terrifying, and when the last story breaks from the rest by being considerably longer and introducing Roberto Bolaño as first-person narrator, the reader thinks, “This is it.” But it is a slightly unsatisfying story — near-obsolete, in fact, because in the same year, after switching to a more remunerative publisher, Bolaño expanded this story into Distant Star, a novella with almost exactly the same plot.
Borges later distanced himself from his Universal History of Infamy, saying of it, “Under all the storm and lightning, there is nothing.” Here, perhaps, the problem is that there isn’t enough storm and lightning. But Nazi Literature in the Americas appears as an excellent companion to Bolaño’s other novels, with the literary detective story aspect of 2666 and The Savage Detectives in this case unfolded and laid bare. For readers looking for a sample of Bolaño without the commitment that those long, dense books entail, By Night in Chile would be a better introduction. As for those looking for an introduction to Latin American fiction in general, it would probably please Horacio Castellanos Moya if they tested their paternalistic assumptions instead on Borges and Julio Cortázar, Bolaño’s two great heroes.