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the complete review - fiction
Nazi Literature in the Americas
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- Spanish title: La literatura nazi en América
- Translated by Chris Andrews
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A : fantastic(al) literary creation
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
- "Neither a novel nor a collection of stories, Nazi Literature in the Americas is the best and weirdest kind of literary game. (...) There’s an oblique pathos and fellow-feeling in his accounts of these oddball lives, each of them lived on the outside of an uncaring literary establishment, and the drily humorous records of each writer’s lost legacy vibrate with surreptitious pity (.....) This artful alternate history of modern literature, stitched together from loose ends, half-told stories and deft episodes of pastiche, is a strangely profound place to get lost." - Tim Martin, Financial Times
- "In its obsession with poetry, and with the lives of poets especially, it speaks to the writing Bolaño was still to do, and yet remains a solitary artifact of literary experimentation; a formative exercise in ersatz scholarship that should be shelved beside similar stunts by Bolaño’s Argentinean mentor, Jorge Luis Borges" - Joshua Cohen, Forward
- "Er hat ihre Werke und Taten derart täuschend in echte literarhistorische Zusammenhänge hineinkopiert, daß man sich eine Geschichte der südamerikanischen Literatur künftig schwer ohne Edelmira Thompson de Mendiluce vorstellen kann. (...) Das Buch beginnt als Parodie eines literarischen Handbuchs und endet beinahe wie ein Roman." - Christoph Bartmann, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
- "Nazi Literature is at first mildly amusing but quickly becomes a tedious pastiche of itself. Like a joke whose punchline is given in the title, the humour is undermined, and all that is left is a series of names, dates and titles that, since they don't come across as funny, become merely irritating." - Alberto Manguel, The Guardian
- "But then it dawns on even the slowest reader that what looked like the point wasn’t the point; and that the jokes were not only jokes. This book is not a satirical attack on the right-wing imagination in North and South America: it is a darkly comic celebration of the wilder horizons of writing, good, plodding, lunatic and terrible. What is compelling about these portraits is not their plausibility, which is slender and intermittent, but their profusion and variety. (...) This book knows the future and is glancing backwards from an even further future." - Michael Wood, London Review of Books
- "It's his most Borgesian work, but unlike his literary ancestor, Bolaño cares more for the real world than for the library. His is not the account of a concerted movement or school, but the taxonomy of a wide-ranging sensibility. All of the writers are fictitious, but they do not inhabit an alternate universe; instead, they and their work are, case by case, just plausible. (...) The voluminousness of this creativity would be one thing, but Bolaño is also -- simultaneously -- overachieving tonally." - Benjamin Lytal, The New York Sun
- "Nazi Literature in the Americas, a wicked, invented encyclopedia of imaginary fascist writers and literary tastemakers, is Bolaño playing with sharp, twisting knives. As if he were Borges’s wisecracking, sardonic son, Bolaño has meticulously created a tightly woven network of far-right littérateurs and purveyors of belles lettres for whom Hitler was beauty, truth and great lost hope. (...) Goose-stepping caricatures à la The Producers they are not; instead, they are frighteningly subtle, poignant and plausible." - Stacey D'Erasmo, The New York Times Book Review
- "Nazi Literature in the Americas is a real curiosity; it has a surface simplicity, but few readers will be able to pin down a general unease about the book's purpose and meaning. (...) Nazi Literature in the Americas takes what Bolaño knew very well, and sends it through the looking glass of the ideological divide. He imagines writers of extraordinary experimental verve, engaging with the most advanced literary theory. (...) In its unexpected and committedly affectless manner, Nazi Literature in the Americas testifies to the sheer power of literature; how it can emerge in an artless or sophisticated manner with a power that we would prefer to direct. (...) Bolaño's impressive novel triumphs by displaying a power of imagination and a quiddity we are not inclined to allow any of his imaginary writers." - Philip Hensher, The Observer
- "As an implicit critique of the limits and elisions within any official story, many of these pieces manage to compel as much by what they leave out as by what they leave in. Rather than separate literature from politics, Bolaño suggests that one is inevitably implicated in the other, raising the stakes for what a culture considers art." - Pedro Ponce, Review of Contemporary Fiction
- "But for all the objectivity of the prose, Bolaño unleashes blistering, dark comedy. Despite the layers of protective irony, despite the fact that the writers never seem as grotesque as we imagine fascist writers will be, the humor remains tense, even disorienting. In this sense, the book becomes a kind of ethical dare" - Todd Shy, San Francisco Chronicle
- "(I)t may well be the book which is the key to understanding what makes him such a profound, fierce writer." - Stuart Kelly, The Scotsman
- "Not that this is a difficult read. It is short and extremely funny." - Andrew Neather, The Scotsman
- "Bolano himself seems occasionally to become bored with parodying a work of reference and there are some jarring lurches of style (.....) What binds the whole thing together and provides the best jokes is the cod authorial voice. (...) At its best, then, the book is engagingly droll. Sometimes, though, the jokes become too easy." - Peter Parker, Sunday Times
- "In formal terms, Nazi Literature in the Americas, which came out in Spanish in 1996, is among the oddest novels I have read. (...) By this stage, though, well into the book, one is hooked by the humorous and disquieting weirdness of the enterprise, and has ceased to care if it is true or not. Or rather, one has come to believe in it even though one knows that it is not true -- which is what fiction is." - Lewis Jones, The Telegraph
- "Nazi Literature in the Americas, an encyclopaedia of fictional right wing writers, is not only Bolaño’s most openly comic book but it is also one of his most explicit treatment of a theme that recurs with obsessive frequency throughout his entire fictional work – the complicity of the literary establishment in Latin America with political power. (...) But amidst the humour there is a deadly serious side to Bolaño’s satirical vision that becomes clear in the jarring but magnificent final chapter." - Ed King, The Telegraph
- "(T)hose who have already made Bolaño’s acquaintance will be rewarded by the final three profiles." - Paul Dunn, The Times
- "Fortunately, the pleasures of Bolaño's dark and imaginative vision go well beyond simple satire. At once funny, furious and frightening, Nazi Literature in the Americas reflects Bolaño's dual nature as a book-besotted romantic committed to the transcendent power of literature, and a postmodern trickster who knows how cruelly art can mislead and be misused." - Michael Saler, Times Literary Supplement
- "What becomes conspicuous as the stories progress -- and curious, given that they are about fascists -- is the lack of menace. (...) Bolaño was fond of questioning the ability of art to communicate the reality of violence. Nazi Literature in the Americas seems like a subtle coment on how far words are from deeds." - Ben Jeffrey, Times Literary Supplement
- "The jugular that Bolaño particularly goes for is the literary sensibility and talent that seduces itself with grand political fantasies. (...) Nazi Literature in the Americas is first of all a prank, an act of genius wasting its time in parodic attacks on a hated sort of writer. But beyond that, it produces an unsettling mix of overt satire and covert elegy. The reductive force of summary after summary starts to have an effect that transcends the satire; the book begins to convey a sense of the vanity of human endeavor and the ease with which a lifetime's work might be flicked into oblivion by a witty remark." - John Brenkman, The Village Voice
- "Roberto Bolano's Nazi Literature in the Americas very much deserves reading: It is imaginative, full of a love for literature, and, unlikely as it may seem, exceptionally entertaining." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post
- "There is an endearing bookishness to all of Bolaño’s work. My favourite of his novels is Nazi Literature in the Americas (...), an entirely fabricated, very funny, but straight-faced biographical dictionary of invented 20th-century poets and novelists." - David Flusfeder, The Telegraph (28/8/2009)
- "A tour through the ideological, personal and artistic wreckage of extreme right-wing Peruvian fantasists might not appear to promise much light relief at a time like this, but NLitA is one of the most darkly funny reads I've ever come across. An extended satire on both literary and political pretension, and in particular the folly of paying over much attention to the political views of artists, its a pocket Dunciad for our times." - Michael Gove, The Times (2/2/2009)
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
In A Perfect Vacuum Stanislaw Lem collects 'reviews' of books that were never written, and in Nazi Literature in the Americas Roberto Bolaño goes even further, conceiving a whole small literary universe.
He invents the lives and work of more than two dozen writers (and dozens more who are mentioned as secondary figures), presenting them in an encyclopaedic collection, complete with a bibliography.
It's the sort of clever idea an author like Borges might sketch out in the short space of one of his stories -- but what's so remarkable is that Bolaño takes the idea and sees it through.
It's an astonishing achievement in its attention to detail alone: every work that's mentioned -- over two hundred -- is listed in the bibliography.
More than six pages are devoted to the 'Publishing house, magazines, places ...' the authors contributed to.
The lives and works of the authors are tied in to actual events and real authors; they are also -- sometimes intricately -- interconnected.
And then there's the sheer variety of the main entries, the chapters devoted to each of the thirty authors.
Nazi Literature in the Americas posits an alternate world, of sorts (though always touching on the real one, too).
Yet since it focusses almost entirely on the literary sphere, and on the works of imagination of these characters, it is also strikingly plausible.
There is almost no indication that this is all fabrication; readers might well think they are merely unfamiliar with these authors and their works -- hardly surprising, given that many of them were abject (and worse) failures.
For all intents and purposes -- in this capricious world of literature and literary reputation -- this book could very well be true: there are, in fact, thousands of writers who had careers and produced works like these, and of whom nearly all traces are lost and forgotten (and can, at best be found, in dusty libraries and used-book stores).
(Among the few give-aways that these are not real figures is that Bolaño gives the dates -- birth and death -- of each of the authors, and more than a quarter of them survive into the 21st century -- this in a book written in 1996; one (Willy Schürholz) is listed as passing away (in Kampala, Uganda) only in 2029.)
The title is certainly meant to be provocative, but while the writers tend to be, to varying degrees, right-wing (and in many cases quite extremist) -- and one was "dandled by the Führer" himself as a babe -- they're hardly impressive bearers of that particular ideological torch.
They do share a penchant for absolutism, and are drawn to to rightist causes, and quite a few are sympathetic to the Nazi cause, but there are also other dimensions to many of these writings.
Bolaño only devotes a limited space to each of the authors -- from barely a page to twenty-six pages (the last, most story-like entry) -- but it makes for surprisingly rich reading: this is not your usual author-encyclopaedia.
Bolaño's tone varies, the pieces ranging from neutral, factual accounts to very subjective narratives, with the book ending on a personal note, the last sentence of the text proper (i.e. before the 'Epilogue for Monsters'-set of appendices) reading:
Look after yourself, Bolaño, he said, and off he went.
The book is divided into sections that each group a few writers together (though two focus only on individual authors): 'Forerunners and Figures of the Anti-Enlightenment', 'Speculative and Science Fiction', 'North American Poets', etc.
But even aside from the nominally unifying theme of all the authors being representatives of 'Nazi literature in the Americas', Bolaño offers many connexions among them, which gives the book a
truly unified feel: these aren't simply separate portraits, they really are a part of a bigger picture, with a great deal of overlap.
(In it's presentation Nazi Literature in the Americas is clearly a precursor of The Savage Detectives, specifically its middle section.)
Bolaño's range of invention is fantastic.
In conceiving failed writers and their often awful work it must be difficult to resist going overboard; remarkably, Bolaño's characters (and their failures) remain fundamentally plausible, and despite
how much material he presents the book doesn't become a mere
litany of ridiculous titles and worse ideas.
The works he conceives for his authors range from the humorous-bizarre ("Jason's Prize, a fable suggesting that life on earth is the result of a disastrous intergalactic television game show") to the pedantic-obsessive (a novel set in an alternate world where the Germans were victorious in World War II called The True Son of Job which is a fiction of "1,333 pages darkly mirroring Arnold J. Toynbee's Hitler's Europe"
) to the fanatical-obsessive (Luiz Fontaine da Souza, who writes enormous books refuting the great philosophers and some of their work, from d'Alembert to Sartre).
Occasionally he'll give a detailed summary of a particular work, such as with the poems from one of Franz Zwickau's collection:
- "The War Criminals' Son," the book's long title poem, is a vigorous and excessive piece, in which Zwickau, bemoaning the fact that he was born twenty-five years too late, gives free rein to his verbal facility, his hatred, his humour, and his unrelieved pessimism.
In free verse of a kind rarely seen in Venezuela, the author depicts an appalling, indescribable childhood, compares himself to a black boy in Alabama in 1858, dances, sings, masturbates, lifts weights, dreams of a fabulous Berlin, recites Goethe and Jünger, attacks Montaigne and Pascal (whose work he knows well), adopts the voices of an alpine mountaineer, a peasant woman, a German tanker in Peiper's brigade who was killed in the Ardennes in December 1944, and a North American journalist in Nuremberg.
Not surprisingly, in that case -- and quite a few others --:
Needless to say, the collection was ignored, perhaps in a deliberate and concerted manner, by the influential critics of the day.
The breadth of Nazi Literature in the Americas is astounding, on every level.
The literary universe Bolaño invents covers all the Americas, including authors from the United States, Haiti, and all over South America, and many genres (poetry, especially, but also everything from pulp fiction to philosophy), and a considerable period of time (the earliest book mentioned was published in 1911, the last in 2023), yet he also manages to make connexions across
Somewhat surprisingly, it is a very cohesive collection.
Bolaño's shifts in tone make for pleasant surprises -- often providing a sort of warmth and sympathy that's generally missing in reference works.
So, for example, after describing in some (tiresome) detail Luiz Fontaine da Souza's multi-volume Critique of Sartre's Being and Nothingness he concludes the entry on the author:
Death took him by surprise seven years later in his comfortable apartment in the Leblon neighborhood of Rio, as he listened to a record by the Argentinean Tito Vásquez, and looked out of the window at night falling over the city, passing cars, people chatting on the sidewalks, lights coming on and going out, and windows being closed.
It's that attention to detail and effect that makes Nazi Literature in the Americas more than just a piece of literary showmanship.
It is, in the fullest sense of the word, a fiction, and a very good one, from the craftsmanship to, surprisingly, its emotional resonance.
Nazi Literature in the Americas is an astonishing work.
It is a limited work, constrained by its bizarre premise, but within those limits
Bolaño offers a tour de force.
It is about as good as a book like this could be.
Yes, it is so unconventional that it is difficult to know exactly how to take or even 'read' it, but accepted for what it is it offers dazzling (and dazing) rewards.
Highly recommended -- though readers should be aware of what they are getting themselves into: this is not your usual novel.
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Nazi Literature in the Americas:
Other books by Roberto Bolaño under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Chilean author Roberto Bolaño lived 1953 to 2003.
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© 2008-2013 the complete review
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