Thursday, January 15, 2009

In plagiarizing Senghor his art reached a summit of perfection - Nazi Literature in the America and suspicion about politics in literature

Writing about an explicitly political Victor Hugo story reminded me that I wanted to write a note or two about another novel that is actually about the place of politics in literature, Roberto Bolaño's Nazi Literature in the Americas (1996). Cuz people aren't writing enough about him.

Nazi Literature in the Americas is a fake biographical encyclopedia, short sketches, mostly just a few pages long, of imaginary North and South American writers, all with some connection to some sort of fascist politics, mostly not related to Nazis. That word in the title is the first of the novel's many obscure jokes.*

The novel is an investigation of, or attack on, the political underpinnings of literary Modernism, or perhaps the reader's assumptions about the politics of Modernism. The imagined writer's area all modernists. One follows the theories of Charles Olson, another writes like Gertrude Stein, yet another is a Beat. Yet they all advocate ideas that range from the crackpot harmless to the murderously dangerous. And most obtain some degree of success and fame as writers. So it's not just the writers who are culpable. There's something about Modernism itself.

A hint lies in the number of poets who are poètes maudits, accursed poets, criminals and madmen, whose works are published in prison newsletters, or only as mimeographs, or as skywriting. Something quite a bit more obvious than a hint is in the entry on "Luiz Fontaine da Souza", Brazil's "leading Catholic philosopher", who begins his career with books titled Refutation of Voltaire, A Refutation of Diderot, and so on: D'Alembert, Montesqieu, Rousseau. This fascist writer's target isn't modernity, but the Enlightenment. And Nazi Literature's target, then, is Romanticism, or at least it's totalitarian tendencies.

Or perhaps the criticism is of aestheticism? What to make of the "John Lee Brook" sketch, which begins "Widely regarded as the best writer of the Aryan Brotherhood, and one of the best Californian poets of the late twentieth century..." Brook is executed, for multiple homicides, after "various appeals, supported by influential members of the Californian literay community."

Or look at the head-spinning chapter "The Many Masks of Max Mirebalais", about a Haitian poet whose art is plagiarism, looting modern French poetry and publishing under a series of Pessoa-like heteronyms. "In plagiarizing Senghor his art reached a summit of perfection: no one realized that the five poems that appeared in the Monitor in the second week of September 1971 signed Max Kasimir were texts that Senghor had published in Hosties noires (Seuil, 1948) and Ethiopiques (Seuil, 1956)."

Much of the interest of this novel comes from following the "author" of the sketches, who, we learn in the last sketch, is named "Roberto Bolaño", as he alternates between something resembling objectivity, revulsion at some (but not all) of the ideas of his subjects, and detailed praise of some (but not all) of their poems and books. The author it turns out, is a pretty strange fellow himself.**

I should perhaps point out here that this is the only Bolaño book I have read, and that I have no idea what the actual author himself thought about any of this. But I can read the book I have in front of me. The novel does not argue that politics do not have a place in literature, or in an author's life. And it is not obvious that Bolaño is advocating a more humanist philosophy, for example, or a return to the Enlightenment, or some other alternative. He's careful to not present an alternative. He creates a void. What should fill it?

If you like this sort of Borgesian literary game you probably will enjoy the novel, and if it's not your sort of thing, you probably won't. But if you were hoping I would say that Bolaño is overhyped, sorry, although I don't blame you. In Nazi Literature, Bolaño is clever and funny, and presents some complicated ideas in an original way. He appears to be the real thing.

Tomorrow, I want to look at a specific episode that will put me safely back in the 19th century.

* There are also plenty of completely transparent jokes: "Schürholz, whose fame had previously been restricted to Chile's literary and artistic circles, vast as they are, was catapulted to the very sumit of notoriety", or, if "vast as they are" is still too obscure, how about "His work, published piecemeal in magazines, consists of more than fifty short stories and a seventy-line poem dedicated to a weasel."

** Or maybe Latin American encyclopedists are just generally, um, different than I expected. Bolaño mentions the actual Uruguayan poet Juana de Ibarbourou. When I looked her up I found this on Wikipedia:

"Like most poets, Ibarbourou nursed an intense fear of death. Though it is easy to surmise this from her poetry, she states so explicitly in the first line of 'Carne Inmortal.'"

Like most poets, you say? This could have come straight from Bolaño's novel. Maybe the entire Wiki entry is a Bolaño-esque prank.


  1. "Like most poets, you say? This could have come straight from Bolaño's novel."

    I swear I had that exact though just nanoseconds before reading your final paragraph. Damn.

    PS—My head is spinning from the contemporaneity! I've been meaning to pick up one of these shorter Bolanos and now I have yet another trusted reader saying he's not overhyped.

  2. Finally a post I feel somewhat qualified to comment on:

    I enjoyed Nazi Literature...but wasn't blown away be it as were so many others... reviewed it over at the quarterly conversation fyi :

    Here's the final verdict:

    My criticism however is that despite making his point— winners write history, and canons are determined as much by those in power as by objective measures of quality— he could have done it more memorably. Fine; The message is conveyed, but the Guisos is too thin. Without the complexity of a plot and the interaction of characters, its ingredients can’t sustain. It’s light fare; a sauce for something more substantial. The Savage Detective maybe, or 2666. Alone, Nazi Literature just isn’t enough."

    I am looking forward to reading 2666.

  3. I read Bolano's Distant Star last year and am still making up my mind about him. I was debating between Nazi Literature and 2666 and think I will try 2666 first.

  4. Two or three days ago, I thought to myself "I should be sure to link to Nigel's review." And that was the last anyone saw that thought. You approach the book from a productive direction, different than mine.

    I do think the ideas of the book are actually pretty complex, and as you know I am less concerned about empathy with characters. But I know plenty of readers who would hate this book - if you're one of them, be warned.

    So verbivore, if you read Distant Star, you have actually read part of this. Distant Star is an expansion of the last entry in NLITA, the one that is most like a conventional short story.

    Nicole, as you saw today, I was just setting up a jump back to the 19th century. I'll bet no one saw that coming.

    I just realized that I've now covered poor Wuthering Expectations with the words "Nazi", "fascist", and "Hitler". If the wrong Google search led you here, please go away.

  5. Nazi Literature in the Americas is a hilarious satire on academic literary criticism, among other things. To me it reads almost like a fairy tale by Voltaire. I think I would start reading Bolano with Savage Detectives, which should be seen more in a comic ironic mode than it has been.

  6. I don't really see the academic satire. But I probably wouldn't recognize it, particularly the Latin American variety. Voltaire I see, although more along the lines of the Philosophical Dictionary than a fairy tale like Zadig.