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And Nothing Remains

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.

7 Comments on “Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolaño”

  1. Trevor Says:

    (I suspect I’m being unfair there, and almost hope to be told as much in the comments below.)

    You are being unfair there! Or, at least, I kindly disagree :).

    I’m thrilled to read someone else’s thoughts on this book. I started my Bolaño journey with 2666, both loving and hating it. Then I went to this book. I liked it — and I loved that last story. To me it made the whole book so much more grim.

    All that said, it is my least favorite of his works. To me it showcases his vast imagination, but I wanted to know how I would like something he wrote that was sustained (unlike this book) and contained (unlike 2666). I was awestruck by By Night in Chile. If you have any inclination to test the Bolaño waters again, I’d recommend going there. It is tightly woven. I have been saving The Savage Detectives for later, so I don’t know if this statement will change but . . . to me By Night in Chile is his masterpiece — and a masterpiece by broader standards.

    I also liked Distant Star, which is that novella that came out of (kind of) the last story in Nazi Lit, but not nearly as much.

    Still, if you found little life in that last chapter, then further ventures into Bolaño might all be for nothing. Besides the flare in 2666, it was in that last chapter that Bolaño really seduced me into reading more of his work. Now I’ve got a hunger for it. They are ellusive buggers, and they really eat at you to find some answer where none is really possible.

  2. Rob Says:

    Hello Trevor! I was secretly hoping you’d come and comment on this, as I read your Bolaño posts with great interest.

    I may very well seek out By Night in Chile, having read your excellent review. That said, 130 pages without a paragraph break? … Well, you say it works towards a specific effect, and I’m willing to listen, but I like wacky punctuation as much as grumpy, bitter old men with gnarled hands and sour faces like noisy children.

    I wonder what it would be like coming back to this book after reading his other work?

  3. Biblibio Says:

    I’ve only read one work by Bolaño, and that was “Distant Star”. To be honest, it left me completely confused. On the one hand, I got into it and read it easily. On the other hand, I finished it completely apathetic. I bought “By Night in Chile” as a sort of test, to see how I respond to it. Maybe it’ll help me better understand “Distant Star”… Hmm.

    The conclusions is that I’m afraid I can’t really help specifically with “Nazi Literature in the Americas”. But I get what you mean regarding “2666”…

  4. Nick Says:

    I loved 2666 even if it is, of course, a novel you have to work on a little. It’s a worst very interesting for it is clearly an out-of-the-way novel. While reading it, I wondered quite a lot why I felt so compelled to continue it.

    I also liked Distant Star though not nearly as much.

    My next Bolano will probaby By night in Chile, since it is so highly spoken of, or The Savage detectives.

  5. Tony S Says:

    First I started “The Savage Detectives” but gave up in frustration after 143 pages, because it seemed terribly repetitive and didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Then I read the entire “Nazi Literature in the Americas”. I liked the idea of a fake compilation and thought it was charmingly executed. South America must be crawling with ex-Nazis, and the US has its share of neo-Nazis especially the last ten years. Can’t remember the last story very well, but can’t remember not liking it either. I didn’t thing “Nazi Literature in America” was overwelmingly great, but liked it well enough. Next for me when I return to Bolano is “By Night in Chile”.

  6. Vicki Gundrum Says:

    This is my 1st Bolano book and I’m just about 1/3 the way through, so no last story to consider. I think the stories work like obituaries do: sketchily drawn bios of unknowns, with peeks at the odd bits of private lives. It’s voyeuristic to a reader, and then: they are human and dead so we feel, even for the monsters. When a monster’s life can be summed up in a style that’s usually reserved for harmless messaging, without harsh judgment or editorializing, it makes me wonder how much evil lurks in the hearts of (all) men (the Shadow knows!) I’m finding the style thought-provoking.

  7. Tom Cunliffe Says:

    I have found it very difficult to tackle Bolano – although having no problem usually with doorstep novels. I suspect he writes to create and effect, an impact – maybe I am being unnecessarily cruel – how can one be prejudiced against an author one has never read? Your review rather confirms my negative feelings about him!

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