A Garden of Monsters
This is not to say that this is a work of magical realism (of which Bolaño was not a fan), nor can we characterize it as "fantastic" literature (these characters do not fall upward or cry tears of silver, as in One Hundred Years of Solitude, for instance; they all obey the laws of nature). Indeed, the book is true to life in that the Argentines seem Argentine; the North Americans, North American; and the Caribbeans, Caribbean. However, the book does fit comfortably into a third Latin American tradition, one very different from either the critical encyclopedia or the magical realist/fantastic. As Bolaño acknowledged in an interview with Eliseo Álvarez, published posthumously in 2005, Nazi Literature in the Americas "owes a lot to The Temple of Iconoclasts by Rodolfo Wilcock...and The Temple of Iconoclasts owes a lot to A Universal History of Infamy by Borges, which makes sense, since Wilcock was a friend and admirer of Borges. But Borges's book, A Universal History of Infamy, owes much to [a book by] one of Borges's great teachers, Alfonso Reyes, Retratos reales e imaginarios (Real and Imagined Portraits), which is a gem. And Reyes's book owes a lot to Imaginary Lives by Marcel Schwob, which is where this all began. These are the aunts and uncles, parents and godparents of my book." I would add one more relative: Novelas antes del tiempo (Novels Before Time), a volume by the delightful Spanish writer Rosa Chacel, which consists of notes for novels, all charmingly related, that the author thought about writing but never did.
For all the rollicking inventiveness in Nazi Literature in the Americas--"Merovingians from another planet" and such--it bears a complicated relationship to "reality." In a 1998 interview with Marcelo Soto, Bolaño said, "The book had its origin in a conversation I had many years ago with a Chilean, when Pinochet was still in power, and I asked him if Pinochet-ist literature existed in Chile, and he said no, so I began thinking about how pathetically amusing such literature could be." In this sense Bolaño is making up a literary genre, but he doesn't do so entirely out of whole cloth.
There was, after all, a real Nazi literature. Among the many philo-fascist Latin American authors were some famous ones, like José Vasconcelos, who had tremendous influence in Mexico from the revolution in 1910 to 1959, including a stint as secretary of public education (1921-24). Vasconcelos ran the weekly magazine Timón, funded by German interests in Mexico, which was pure propaganda for the Nazi regime, and the columns with Vasconcelos's byline were openly anti-Semitic. This was hardly out of sync with contemporary political realities, as Mexico was providing oil to Hitler, and some Mexican (and anti-gringo) businessmen and politicians supported the Führer. For other serious writers, like Nicaraguan poet Pablo Antonio Cuadra, fascism was only a passing phase. Most of the real Nazi authors from Latin America have slipped into obscurity, their books gone out of print, like the novel El derecho de matar (The Right to Kill), a long-forgotten bestseller by the eccentric millionaire Raúl Barón Biza. None of these, however, are exhumed and examined in Nazi Literature in the Americas.
Rather than creating one of Marianne Moore's "imaginary gardens with real toads," Bolaño has populated a real garden with imaginary toads. Real-life writers do appear in the background, in supporting minor roles: Allen Ginsberg is beaten up by one of Bolaño's homophobic, racist authors; Bolaño himself is visited by a Nazi hunter; Lezama Lima is challenged to a duel; Rubem Fonseca is the obsession of another who wants to kidnap him "and give him a going-over." But unlike many of the characters in Bolaño's The Savage Detectives (1998), which is in part a roman à clef, and some of those in By Night in Chile (2000) and Distant Star (1996), none of the major characters in Nazi Literature in the Americas are literary clones of actual people. Bolaño does make veiled allusions to real-life literary figures. Edelmira, of the fictional Mendiluce clan, somewhat resembles Victoria Ocampo, the founder of Revista Sur, who was at the center of a group of intellectuals including Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Jose Bianco and her sister Silvina Ocampo; but while Edelmira Mendiluce and Victoria Ocampo were both wealthy, adventurous editors, their politics were wildly different: Edelmira adored the Führer; Victoria was a progressive and a feminist. Any attempt to decipher the references and identities in Nazi Literature in the Americas is to enter a hall of mirrors, an exercise in futility.
In a broader sense, I think, Bolaño is deeply engaged with writers in this book, and real ones, but they are those of his own generation, and of the previous one, the writers of the so-called Boom (Cortázar, García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, José Donoso, Cabrera Infante and Fuentes, among others). The Boom authors won the hearts of readers around the world, and those of critics too, but they did not win over Bolaño, who was still an angry young man when he died, in 2003, at 50. "The Boom, at the beginning, as is the case with almost everything, was wonderful," Bolaño admitted to Luis García in a 2001 interview. He had found the Boom "very energizing"; but over time, like almost every literary movement, its arteries had hardened and the quality of its output had declined. "García Márquez," Bolaño argued crankily, "grows more similar to Santos Chocano every day, or in the best of cases, Lugones"--two second-rate writers. And "the legacy of the Boom," he argued fiercely, "is fearful." Who, he demanded, "are the official inheritors of García Márquez? Isabel Allende, Laura Restrepo, Luis Sepúlveda and some other guy," as if that were self-evident evidence of decline. Rushing on, he declared, "It's clear...the traditions of our parents (and even some grandparents) are worthless...they've even become dead weight." He went on: "As writers, we find ourselves at the edge of an abyss. There seems to be no way to cross it, but it must be crossed and that is our work, to find a way across. If we don't want to fall to our deaths, we have to create anew, we have to take risks."
Bolaño wanted to depart from this literary trajectory but also to break with a different kind of tradition, that of the willingness of Latin American authors, especially pre-eminent ones, to be public intellectuals, to speak out about causes in which they believed. Some were handmaidens of power, others were its opponents, but all tended to believe that the pen is mightier than the sword, that writers and literature can and should improve society. Society, for its part, often embraces such writers, especially the pious ones, turning them into celebrities, political and cultural pillars. Octavio Paz, Mexico's great poet, sided with the Republic during the Spanish Civil War, fiercely criticized Stalin and resigned his post as the Mexican ambassador to India in response to the Tlatelolco massacre of 1968. Mario Benedetti, Cortázar and García Márquez, like many authors of the Boom, allied themselves with the nascent Cuban Revolution (though some would later disassociate themselves from it). Elena Poniatowska was everywhere during Andrés Manuel López Obrador's recent campaign for the presidency of Mexico and vociferously supported his attempt to reverse the results of an election he considered fraudulent. Argentine Juan Gelman--the latest recipient of the Cervantes Prize, the most prestigious in the Spanish language--has become the advocate of the children of the disappeared: those born in "concentration camps" or secret jails, then spirited away from their parents. These authors have all acquired a halo of respectability that has nothing to do with their writing.
While such political engagement might seem honorable and laudatory--depending, of course, on whether one agrees with the politics--Bolaño, a cantankerous critter, thought it a bad business. Being canonized as a secular saint did not interest him; he didn't think that literature is an uplifting enterprise, a self-help manual or a weapon for changing the world; if anything, it is just the opposite. As he explained to Luis García, "Literature, especially because it is an exercise practiced by sycophants of all stripes and political creeds--or an exercise that creates sycophants, has always been a step away from ignominy, from the vile, even from torture. The problem lies in its sycophantic nature. And also, of course, in fear."
Whatever one thinks of Bolaño's stance, for him it led not only to a radical rejection of the predominant literary dynasty and reigning cultural tradition but also to the creation of an alternative lineage, a tradition of which he could happily be the heir, and that was the world of Nazi Literature in the Americas. He peopled his book not with literary saints but with sinners and cranks, klansmen and crooks, madmen and mystics. He was a marginal writer drawing the portraits of his forebears with his own hand and at the same time creating a kind of literary sperm bank from which he would make withdrawals in his later writing. When the time came, he could tap the shoulders of his once and future characters and wake them up. Among the fictional fauna of Nazi Literature in the Americas later resurrected was the "infamous Ramírez Hoffman"--who reappears in Distant Star with a name that heralds his return: Wieder, which is German for "again" or "(to come) back."
The reader looking for information about Nazi writers who lived--or live--in Latin America had best look elsewhere. Those who want to revel in some lively, picaresque writing charged with hilarity and irony--and to step through the door into Roberto Bolaño's private and handcrafted tradition--will find reading this book enjoyable, if that's the right word for watching a parade of monsters go by.