Bolaño's Bio-Bibliographical Dictionary
Nazi Literature in the Americas. Roberto Bolaño. Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews. New Directions, 2008. 280 pp. $23.95
Review by Erika Dreifus
One of the first assignments I received as a freelance writer back in 1994 was a series of profiles intended for publication in a reference text titled Dictionary of Hispanic Biography. Not once in the course of researching, writing, and, later, proofreading entries — including a considerable number of entries focusing on writers — did I encounter the name “Roberto Bolaño.” Published by a highly reputable reference text company, the dictionary failed to account for this particular author, moving swiftly from Adolfo Bioy Casares (whose profile I was in fact assigned to write) to Jorge Luis Borges.
Today, five years after Bolaño’s death at the age of 50, it would be unthinkable to omit his name from any serious discussion of Spanish-language, or, for that matter, world literature. For those who cannot read Spanish (myself among them, I must confess), the Chilean-born Bolaño’s work is becoming increasingly available in English translation. I’ve lost count of the reviews that focused on The Savage Detectives (translated by Natasha Wimmer and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2007); at this writing, the blogosphere is already filling with anticipatory posts from readers awaiting 2666, also translated by Wimmer and scheduled for a fall 2008 FSG release.
Sandwiched and, I fear, somewhat lost between these two blockbuster titles is Nazi Literature in the Americas, the fifth translation, to date, of Bolaño’s oeuvre from New Directions (Australian Chris Andrews, who translated this book, also brought us the first four). It’s a work of fiction that doesn’t quite read like one. Rather, it’s constructed like a work of history: a reference work. Which is not to say that those who love fiction — not to mention those who write it — won’t be drawn in.
Nazi Literature in the Americas is an imaginative and, despite its apparent straightforwardness and simplicity, an intricate creation. Let’s begin with the characters at the heart of the profiles. The book’s title notwithstanding, these fictional men and women don’t all belong to the era of the Third Reich (although it’s true that “Luz Mendiluce,” we read, throughout her life “treasured the famous photo of herself in Hitler’s arms”); some, in fact, belong to the future, with death dates cited as far into the future as 2029. The narrator/biographer also alludes repeatedly to a “Fourth Reich” with which he associates several of his biographical subjects.
Thirty central characters emerge here, with half of them hailing from either Argentina or the United States. They write prose and poetry; they travel. Their lives are chronicled, for the most part, in just a few profile-format pages, and they are grouped into categories ranging from “Poètes Maudits” and “Wandering Women of Letters” to “Speculative and Science Fiction” and “Magicians, Mercernaries and Miserable Creatures.” After the 30 profiles, Bolaño appends a list of “secondary figures,” collecting the names of still more invented figures, individuals whom the reader may or may not remember from their appearances in the chronicles of the lives of others. For example, “Luz Mendiluce” receives a full profile; “Susy D’Amato”’s name appears within it, and D’Amato therefore merits a brief identification at the end: “Susy D’Amato. Buenos Aires, 1935-Paris, 2001. Argentinean poet and friend of Luz Mendiluce. She ended her days selling Latin American handicrafts in the French capital.” The inventions continue with a list of all the fictional publishing houses, magazines, and assorted places that have similarly emerged throughout this “history,” plus a bibliography of works by Luz Mendiluce and the 29 other primary “Nazi” writers in the Americas.
Sound complicated? Bolaño mixes it up even further by having his fictional writers interact not only among themselves, but also with “real” writers. For instance, “Juan Mendiluce Thompson” (born in Buenos Aires in 1920, we are told, and died in that city in 1991)
became known as the Argentinean Cato. He fought with his sister, Luz Mendiluce, over control of the family magazine. Having won the fight, he tried to lead a crusade against the lack of feeling in the contemporary novel. To coincide with the publication of his third novel, Springtime in Madrid, he launched a campaign against francophilia, the cult of violence, atheism, and foreign ideas. American Letters and Modern Argentina served as platforms, along with the various Buenos Aires dailies, which were keen to publish, although sometimes flabbergasted by, his denunciations of Cortázar, whom he described as unreal and bloodthirsty, and Borges, whose stories, so he claimed, were “parodies of parodies” and whose lifeless characters were derived from worn-out traditions of English and French literature, clearly in decline, “repeating the same old plots ad nauseam.” His attacks took in Bioy Casares, Mujica Lainez, Ernesto Sabato (who, in his eyes, personified the cult of violence and gratuitious aggression), Leopoldo Marechal, and others.Elsewhere, we learn about American Jim O’Bannon, a “poet and football player” who “remained firm in his disdain for Jews and homosexuals to the end, although at the time of this death he was beginning, gradually, to accept African Americans,” and his rather complicated connection to Allen Ginsberg. Well-read readers can’t help being lured in.
A conventional novel or collection of short fiction, Nazi Literature in the Americas is not. But it’s undeniably an extremely intriguing exercise in literary imagination. And for some readers, who may also delight in reading about literary life in all its potentially inglorious, which is to say human, aspects, it may well offer a most enjoyable read.
This review was published in the Fall 2008 issue of The Chattachoochee Review.