Nazi Literature in the Americas

In one of the more memorable episodes of her young life, the Argentinean poet Luz Mendiluce had the rare fortune to be cradled in the arms of Hitler himself. “Yes, she had been dandled by the F?hrer. In dreams, she could still feel his strong arms and his warm breath on the top of her head.” Mendiluce is a model, politics notwithstanding, of a literary life richly lived; in her short existence (she died at a premature 48 in a car accident), she ran a prominent magazine, shot her philandering second husband, and published several major works of poetry, all while solely within the confines of Roberto Bola?o’s rabid poetic imagination.

Mendiluce is one of the many fictional authors running wild in the pages of Nazi Literature in the Americas, the latest work by the Latin American writer Roberto Bola?o to arrive, better late than never, in English translation. A work that defies easy classification — it is not quite a novel, not quite a story collection — Nazi Literature would have us believe that it is a definitive “encyclopedia” of right-wing authors from across the Americas, complete with a bibliography and all the necessary airs of faux-academic detachment. Bola?o, through the combined efforts of publishers Farrar, Straus & Giroux and New Directions, is in the midst of a posthumous ascendancy, and Nazi Literature provides a welcome addition to his work in English. It is an ideal follow-up to The Savage Detectives, whose publication last year carved a place for Bola?o in the modern canon. Like The Savage Detectives, Nazi Literature attempts to catalogue the literary landscape of South America, but where the “visceral realist” poets of his masterwork tended to be anti-establishment leftists (if they bothered with politics at all), the authors collected here gravitate toward the opposite extreme.

The mini-biographies conjured by Bola?o, while they stay largely within the bounds of plausibility, share an outsized, almost mythological quality. In addition to the dynastic “Mendiluce Clan,” we meet Luiz Fontaine de Souza, a Brazilian Catholic whose body of work consists entirely of ambitious refutations of major Western philosophers, and Harry Sibelius, a Virginian best known for a pseudo-history of the Third Reich’s invasion of America. And it only gets stranger from there. Among Bola?o’s more fantastical creations is Italo Schiaffino, a soccer hooligan-cum-poet whose literary endeavors are fueled by the exploits of his local Buenos Aires team. “In the first number of 1976, he published ‘Jews Out’: out of the soccer stadiums naturally, not out of Argentina, but the essay was widely misunderstood and earned him many enemies,” the encyclopedia offers slyly.

There is, in such cavalier asides, a flippancy that belies Bola?o’s darker purpose: the exposure of a genuine moral decay in American literature and culture. Bola?o is hardly the first to note the problematic alignment of fascism and aestheticism — the implicit dangers in the extreme idealization of beauty and the body — but his setting endows Nazi Literature in the Americas with a particular air of accusation: it cannot be ignored that many of the countries of origin for his “authors” have a history of acting as Nazi havens in the wake of WWII. As the title suggests, Nazi Literature in the Americas takes as its subject the right-wing strains of pan-American fiction and poetry. For instance, for one of his characters, the Colombian author Jes?s Fern?ndez-G?mez, literature assumes the trappings of a fascist act: “Fern?ndez-G?mez marvels at his own youth: he writes of his body, his sexual potency,?the great work he hopes to write, which will ‘ennoble him, wash away all his sins, endow his life and his sacrifices with meaning,’ although he declines to divulge the nature of these ‘sacrifices.’ ”

These writers may be figments, but the questions they raise are very real. Nazism is, for Bola?o, a mutable term: insofar as they share an affinity for hate-mongering and nationalistic excess, Bola?o’s characters might be called Nazis, but in practice the ways in which right-wing politics exert themselves in their art are more subtle, more insidious. On the one hand, the scribes assembled in Nazi Literature seem to deliver a sideways jab at the rise of authoritarian forces in Latin America, but on the other, this is a group for whom words tend to speak louder than actions. Even as they are drawn to the more dangerous underside of their aesthetic ideals, they are, like all of Bola?o’s subjects, writers too immersed in their craft to see much beyond the page. Theirs is a politics that exists in a moral vacuum, often impotent but no less problematic for the ways in which their work transforms literature into “a surreptitious form of violence.”

It is to Bola?o’s credit, given the disturbing set of historical realities with which he must contend, that Nazi Literature manages to maintain its bleak hilarity. One of the collection’s strongest vignettes relates the life of Max Mirebalais, a Haitian “author” whose entire body of work consists of elaborate plagiarisms written under a sequence of aliases and false identities. One of his personae, Max von Hauptman, is a “half-German, half-Haitian poet” who assimilates the work of several obscure writers into “manipulated, made-over, metamorphosed texts” that “even-handedly explored and sang the magnificence of the Aryan and the Masai races.” More than in any other of the encyclopedia’s entries, the flourishes of ingenious wit on display in the story of Max Mirebalais make clear Bola?o’s debt to Jorge Luis Borges — Mirebalais would seem a gleeful heir to Borges’s Pierre M?nard, the fictional fabulist who attempts a word-for-word re-authoring of the Quixote. Like the short stories of his predecessor, Nazi Literature is a work of literary excavation, the rigor of its scholarship somehow no less serious for the falsity of its subject matter. For both, the classic tropes of Spanish literature are as much an invitation to roguish rebellion as they are a source of reverence.

If Bola?o’s fanciful enterprise has any shortcoming, it is that the collection spreads itself too thin. The entries are subdivided into clever categories, and the shortest essay — a sketch of an apocryphal Uruguayan biographer — clocks in at half a page. This rapid movement across time and geographies leaves Nazi Literature feeling scattered. It is no coincidence that the longer pieces are also the most interesting; Bola?o does not always distribute his creativity in equal measure, and it is clear that some figures capture his imagination far more than others. Bola?o himself confronts this pitfall in his novella Distant Star, a much-expanded version of the collection’s final story about a Chilean aviator, admitting that the earlier iteration unfolded, by his own diagnosis, “too schematically.” The story of Ram?rez Hoffman (later renamed Carlos Wieder) is by nature richer than the allotted pages allow him to be, an example of how the encyclopedic format Bola?o has chosen at times constricts the range of his vision.

Like the poets of The Savage Detectives, the cast of Nazi Literature exists, by virtue of both their politics and their penchant for transgressive behavior, at the margins polite society. While Bola?o makes no effort to conceal the dangerous implications of these authors’ ideological leanings, he is less concerned with finger-pointing than with broadening the variegated portrait of literary expression in Latin America that he has built over the course of his writings. His self-restraint may seem its own form of authorial negligence — where is the sense of moral outrage when one writer proposes a restoration of the Inquisition, and why does Italo Schiaffino’s anti-Semitism read as, of all things, funny? — but in the end, Bola?o is right to leave the political ranting to the apparitions that cross his pages. Unlike his creations, Bola?o has not been so seduced by his art that he cannot see beyond it: by allowing his authors to speak freely, he has offered an antidote the moral vacuity of “Nazi literature.”