I’m becoming increasingly reluctant to bother with doorstep novels, and when Roberto Bolaño’s much-lauded 2666 was published in English a year or so ago – all nine hundred pages of it – I decided that I didn’t have the time or the will to read it. Still, I was curious to see what kind of a writer lay behind the hype of 2666, and the recent UK publication of Nazi Literature in the Americas, one of Bolaño’s earlier, shorter works, has given me the chance.
Nazi Literature in the Americas is a collection of brief biographical sketches of imaginary right-wing writers from North and South America. There are delusional poets who wander in and out of wars, football-obsessed brothers who combine their obsession with their art, science-fiction also-rans who use the genre to lay out dreams for a fourth reich in the USA, and so on.
Some of these characters feel slightly familiar. Various bloggers and journalists have compared the North Americans to H.P. Lovecraft and certain authors of Westerns, and I suspect that there’s an extra layer here if you’re well versed in Latin-American writers. (I mean really well versed, not just that you’ve read a couple of Borges anthologies and One Hundred Years of Solitude. I’m talking about the kind of familiarity that means that you’re either a keen reader from South America yourself, or you’re an academic shut-in who mutters to himself in supermarket queues and only drinks a certain kind of obscure, ethnic spirit that he discovered during a year-long residential fellowship in the foothills beneath Machu Picchu. If this sounds like you, I suspect you’ll be chuckling over all sorts of things here that completely passed me by.)
The actual politics of these people isn’t always explicit: little mention is made of any political party, or even of World War II. The book is as much a critcism of those who, blinded by their own self-regard, fail to realise what’s happening, or to act on it, as it is on those who are actively fascist. (From what I’ve read about Bolaño, this also seems a likely angle for him to take.) The portraits are well written and diverting, and all but one are exactly the right length for what they are: long enough to create a world and explore an idea, without over-stretching the material.
The book falters at the last story, however, which is longer than the others and more fully formed as a story, complete with the presence of Bolaño as a first person narrator. It’s a tale of deviant art that has all the depth – and none of the tunes – of a David Bowie concept album. It’s the kind of writing that makes you kick your legs in your chair as you read, as though that might get some life into the prose. On the basis of this last story, wild horses still couldn’t drag me to 2666, or any of Bolaño’s other more sustained works. (I suspect I’m being unfair there, and almost hope to be told as much in the comments below.) This story is followed by twenty-odd pages of appendices and bibliographies that serve only as set-dressing for the rest of the book.
That said, I suspect that this is the kind of book that divides people, and that some readers will find the last story to be the strongest. (Apparently Bolaño liked it – or disliked it – enough to later rework it into a full novella.) Either way, if you’re the kind of person who enjoys literary game-playing, then I suspect you’ll find a lot to enjoy in this book. And if you’ve already read it, I’d be particularly interested to hear what you think.