A Garden of Monsters
When Nazi Literature in the Americas was published in Spain in 1996, Chilean-born Roberto Bolaño captured the attention of Latin American and Spanish critics for the first time. The book consists of thirty entries, ranging from one to twenty-seven pages, each devoted to assessing a writer who has some relation to fascism. These include not just contemporaries of Hitler and Mussolini but members of subsequent generations, down to that of Pinochet. In addition, there is some important back matter: a bibliography of all the works produced by the authors examined, a list of the publishing houses and magazines that brought them out and a quasi glossary that provides snippet descriptions of personalities referred to in the major pieces (and, as well, some who have not been previously mentioned in the book).
In its style and organization, Nazi Literature in the Americas fits comfortably into a long-established Latin American genre--the personalized literary encyclopedia--in which an author or critic offers not neutral information about a topic in all its manifold aspects but rather her or his very particular take on the canon of the day. The most recent addition to this tradition is Christopher Domínguez Michael's Critical Dictionary of Mexican Literature, published in Mexico City in 2007, in which the author, one of the most influential literary critics in our language, feels free to omit authors who are beloved and widely read throughout Mexico and Latin America--notably, novelist Ángeles Mastretta and novelist-journalist Elena Poniatowska. Lovers of Mexican literature may criticize Domínguez Michael's assessments, but all should acknowledge his right to argue his notion of who should be included in the contemporary literary pantheon.
Unlike Domínguez Michael's book and most other encyclopedias in this tradition, Bolaño's is arranged somewhat quirkily; he presents his authors not in alphabetical order but grouped into thirteen categories, such as "Forerunners and Figures of the Anti-Enlightenment" and "The Aryan Brotherhood." His entries don't follow a standardized format either: some are mini-biographies (most begin at birth, though some work backward from death), some catalog and discuss the works, and others deal mainly with assessing the writer's reputation.
The range of those analyzed is unusual in its breadth. Some of the authors were renowned in their times; others were ignored by their peers. They are geographically diverse, too, from all the Americas. There's the Chilean Willy Schürholz, the Haitian Max Mirebalais and the Kansas-born J.M.S. Hill, who published "more than thirty novels and more than fifty stories" in twelve years. Some are professional writers, like Segundo José Heredia, who produced a novel, Sergeant P, about "a Waffen SS veteran lost in the Venezuelan jungle," and Harry Sibelius, who wrote a book imagining that Germany defeated England in 1941 and invaded the United States in 1946. Others wrote only as a hobby, like preacher Rory Long, who "founded the Charismatic Church of California" but took time out to write a poem "in which Leni Riefenstahl makes love with Ernst Jünger," and Thomas R. Murchison, alias The Texan, a "con-man, car thief, drug dealer and all-round opportunist" who wrote "more than fifty short stories and a seventy-line poem dedicated to a weasel." Some were scrupulous academics, like Luiz Fontaine da Souza, "whose Refutation of Voltaire (1921) was hailed by Catholic literary circles in Brazil"; others were notorious, even prolific, plagiarists, like Mirebalais ("alias Max Kasimir, Max von Hauptman, Max Le Gueule, Jacques Artibonito"), who stole liberally from Aimé Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor and Edouard Glissant, among others.
The relation of the writers to fascism is also diverse. Some had mainly social connections, like Edelmira Thompson de Mendiluce, the book's first entry and the author who lived the longest (1884-1993). Her first book was To Daddy, which, Bolaño tells us, "earned her a modest place in the vast gallery of lady poets active in Buenos Aires high society"; the Mendiluce family had its picture taken with the Führer, and Edelmira's daughter, Luz Mendiluce Thomson, a writer herself, "treasured the famous photo of her baby self in Hitler's arms" all her life. The Chilean Carlos Ramírez Hoffman--"the infamous Ramírez Hoffman," as Bolaño calls him--was personally involved in the dirty war. J.M.S. Hill "boasted about having designed part of the Nazi uniform"; Amado Couto, author of Nothing to Say, a crime thriller, worked "with the death squads, kidnapping, participating in torture and witnessing the killing of certain prisoners, but he went on thinking about literature." And the poet Daniela de Montecristo was rumored to be the lover of Italian, German and Romanian generals, "including the infamous Wolff, SS and Police Chief in Italy," and "Entrescu, who was crucified by his own soldiers in 1944." Some were less hard-core in their commitment to fascism, like Argentino Schiaffino, "Buenos Aires, 1956-Detroit, 2015." Schiaffino "is neither on the right nor on the left. He has black friends and friends in the Ku Klux Klan."
Indeed, the denizens of Nazi Literature in the Americas seem to be all over the map. There is the Chilean Pedro González Carrera, first in the "Poètes Maudits" section--who began by imitating the (awful) Spanish Romantics and moved on to writing about "Merovingians from another planet," who appeared to him and then turned into robots. ("But did they visit him in a dream or in reality? On that point González remains unclear.") There is Ernesto Pérez Masón, a "realist, naturalist and expressionist novelist, exponent of the decadent style and social realism." And there's the "epic" novel by de Montecristo, which "contains some original passages, especially the descriptions of the Women's Fourth Reich--with its headquarters in Buenos Aires and its training grounds in Patagonia--and the nostalgic, pseudo-scientific digressions about a gland that produces the feeling of love."
Women's Fourth Reich? 2015? Thirty novels in twelve years? Decadent and social realist? Astute readers will have noted some facts and features plucked from Bolaño's pages that don't quite add up. In a similar manner, readers of Nazi Literature in the Americas will at some point notice--rather like those perusing Juan Rulfo's Pedro Páramo realize that all of Rulfo's finely etched characters are dead--that all of Bolaño's characters are entirely his own inventions.