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.
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.