Monday 8 February 2010

'Death is ressurection'

Nazi Literature In The Americas
by Roberto Bolaño

Well, you can't say I'm not giving him a fair crack of the whip. After the thrill of The Savage Detectives came the bruising of 2666 and finally the damp squib that was Amulet; with each successive read pushing me further and further away and even thinking that it might be time for someone to point out that thing about the emperor and his clothes. But I thought I'd give him another chance and Picador do keep producing these rather lovely editions. Presented as a kind of encyclopaedia of fictitious writers with some kind of fascist bent the book is apparently a wicked satire on literary pretension and hypocrisy at both ends of the political spectrum. I say apparently because unless you are sufficiently well versed in the literary figures of the Americas then for the most part this book is like being told joke after joke where you don't understand the punchline. It's a bit like those people who laugh at obscure Shakespearean references and jokes during a performance which lead you to think 'you have made abundantly clear that you understand the cultural hilarity of him having a white hair upon his chin but even when you understand it, it isn't that funny'.

For a philistine like me there are odd moments where the jokes are pretty base and accessible as with Ernesto Perez Mason and his subtle use of acrostics to hide secret messages within his writing.

The first letters of each chapter made up the acrostic LONG LIVE HITLER. A major scandal broke out. Perez Mason defended himself haughtily: it was a simple coincidence. The censors set to work in earnest, and made a fresh discovery: the first letters of each chapter's second paragraph made up another acrostic - THIS PLACE SUCKS. And those of the third paragraph spelled: USA WHERE ARE YOU. And the fourth paragraph: KISS MY CUBAN ASS.

Elsewhere there is the odd pithy line ('A Mexican poet inclined to mysticism and tormented phraseology.') that raises a smile but it isn't until the raised eyebrow is lowered and the arch authorial tone dropped into something more personal with the final portrait that I found something to latch onto. Narrated overtly by 'Bolaño' the thirty or so pages that make up The Infamous Ramirez Hoffman combine art and violence to chilling effect and tap into that era of quiet terror at the beginning of Pinochet's regime in Chile. With just that little bit more narrative, and an end to the detachment that defines the rest of the book he suddenly lights up the whole endeavour. Throughout the book, and indeed throughout Bolaño's other writings he shows an extraordinary imagination in creating these fictitious 'real people'. This book comes with an Epilogue For Monsters which lists all the figures, publishers and even book titles in Bolaño's imagined world. By then I had lost patience however and where I have recently found Borges stimulating and Sebald moving, Bolaño eludes me yet. If anyone would like to suggest the title that may appeal more to me then the comment box awaits...


Alex 8 February 2010 at 09:48  

Hi William -
You're ploughing an interesting furrow currently. I'm doing my PhD on Sebald and Bolano (although still don't know how to produce a tilda on my keyboard). I suggest Distant Star as an excellent companion-piece to Savage Detectives. It's short, moving and far less arch than Nazi Literature. By Night in Chile is also interesting. Otherwise, have you read Marias? An interesting met-fictive companion to Bolano.

Trevor 8 February 2010 at 12:23  

If you read and don't like By Night in Chile, then it is safe to say you just won't like Bolano. I think it is a masterpiece, and it is what retroactively made me like this book.

William Rycroft 8 February 2010 at 12:59  

Thank you both for the recommendations. I shall try By Night In Chile and then see where we are. Alex, I haven't read any Marias but will one day read his recent 'Your Face Tomorrow' trilogy

Also here's the lowdown on the tilde:

On a Mac, hold down Opt while typing the letter n and the letter to be accented to create characters with tilde accent marks.

Under Windows hold down ALT while typing the appropriate number code on your numeric keypad to create characters with tilde accent marks.

For Windows, the number codes for the upper case letters are:
à 0195
Ñ 0209
Õ 0213

For Windows, the number codes for the lower case letters are:
ã 0227
ñ 0241
õ 0245

Trust Windows to be absurdly complicated

Anonymous,  8 February 2010 at 16:28  

Curse you, Will -- I was planning on using the emperor/clothes metaphor with Bolano and you have stolen it without even really exploiting it. Alex's comment interests me -- I too like Sebald and Marias, but I do think Bolano is grossly over-rated. The emperor-clothes metaphor appealed to me because I think much of his reputation is based on "difficult" reading of works that just aren't very good.

And, if I can make a recommendation, don't start Marias with the trilogy but rather with All Souls. It is a shortish, very funny Oxford novel that will introduce you to Marias' distorted view of reality. You will also find it has a theatrical quality in the way that he arranges his characters. Then you can move on to Your Face Tomorrow (I've read volumes one and two and have volume three on hand, waiting for the right mood).

John Self 8 February 2010 at 16:51  

For the record, apropos Trevor's comment, I tried By Night in Chile and couldn't finish it (and it's only 100 pages long).

William Rycroft 9 February 2010 at 00:17  

Sorry to steal your thunder with a throwaway remark Kevin. I'm glad though to find someone else who isn't part of Bolañomania (as the publishers have coined it). I'll give BNIC a go and if that doesn't work then I shall put Bolaño to bed.

William Rycroft 9 February 2010 at 00:18  

Why couldn't you finish it John?

Tom Cunliffe 28 April 2010 at 08:35  

We've overlapped on our reading again -


I've quoted your reference to Emperors and clothes - which seemed all too appropriate to me. For me, its time to give this writer a rest I think!

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