Vol. XXVIII, #2 Dalkey Archive Annual 2
Review of Contemporary Fiction
Nazi Literature in the Americas, by Roberto Bolaño
reviewed by Pedro Ponce
Trans. Chris Andrews. New Directions, 2008. 227 pp. Cloth: $23.95.
It’s no surprise that Jorge Luis Borges is among the numerous literary cameos featured in Robert Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas—part of New Directions’ ongoing translation of the native Chilean’s work into English. In Nazi Literature, Bolaño extends the conceit of Borges’s essayistic short stories into a full-length book, a fictional encyclopedia of Nazi writers from North and South America. Featured artists include the Argentinean poet Luz Mendiluce Thompson, who fondly remembers an encounter with Hitler from her infancy; the Haitian plagiarist Max Mirebalais, who reportedly “was excited by the idea of being a Nazi poet while continuing to espouse a certain kind of négritude”; and Jim O’Bannon, a native of Macon, Georgia, who abandons the Beats after Allen Ginsberg tries unsuccessfully to lure him into a three-way. Difficult as it is to imagine sustaining such a Borgesian conceit, Bolaño succeeds by literally making it personal—the last entry, on the infamous skywriting poet and serial killer Carlos Ramírez Hoffman, reveals a first-person narrator named Bolaño who has ostensibly authored the preceding biographies as well. The Hoffman episode is one of the most engrossing in Nazi Literature; like the strongest episodes in this compendium, it dramatizes how easily human nature can be swayed to commit the most inhumane acts. As an implicit critique of the limits and elisions within any official story, many of these pieces manage to compel as much by what they leave out as by what they leave in. Rather than separate literature from politics, Bolaño suggests that one is inevitably implicated in the other, raising the stakes for what a culture considers art. The scope of Bolaño’s fiction extends into the next decade of the current century, suggesting that history has an ominous tendency to repeat.