March 5, 2008

Transcripts From Evil Men

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Borges once wrote that “of the many kinds of pleasure literature can minister, the highest is the pleasure of the imagination.” He would know — his stories, filled with fantastical libraries and improbable books, overflow with intellectual charm. Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas, then, might be the book that Borges, were he given to longer prose, would have written.

Bolaño’s work is part fictional encyclopedia, part short story collection, and concerns itself with 31 invented authors. The subjects are, to varying degrees, fascists, anti-Semites, or unabashed Hitlerites. Most are Argentinian or Chilean, but there are some Venezuelans, Colombians and even a few North Americans thrown in for good measure.

The only thing connecting them is an at-times sketchy adherence to the abhorrent ideas of the Third Reich. Quite often the reader needs to remind himself that he’s reading about monsters — Bolaño, despite the title of his book, gets lost in the literary, rather than the moral.

And so we have wonderful figures like Ignacio Zubieta, an aristocratic, polo-playing Colombian who traipses around Europe fighting for various fascists and composing poems in his spare time. Or Max Mirebalais, a Haitian who makes a career (or rather, five) out of plagiarizing the obscure.

By far the most interesting, though, is the final subject, “the infamous” Ramírez Hoffman, a murderous Chilean artist who writes his verses with a plan. Here, Bolaño departs from his rather detached narration of the previous entries and inserts himself into the story, coloring it with the bittersweet tone that is so prevalent in his other works. The effect — a long overdue measure of emotion — is a fitting end to an otherwise rambling parade of depressing figures.

This parade, ignominious as it is, gives Nazi Literature in the Americas a pervasive feeling of spiritual filthiness, of cramped lives and narrow minds. Despite the screaming ugliness of his characters, though, Bolaño’s real focus is on their writing, not their souls. The Borgesian elements of the work — its metafictional obsession with writing, its efforts to exhaustively catalogue a fictional reality — are obvious, but they don’t detract from the book’s originality. Rather, Bolaño demonstrates his ability to emulate the great master in form even while adding his own whimsically sardonic vision to the details. If the result isn’t a masterpiece, it’s at least an indicator of the bountiful talent of a still-emerging literary legend.

But what’s really at stake? At times, the book can come off as a mere flight of fancy, the musings of an overindulged mind. And it’s true that Bolaño revels in the fine points of his creations: he even includes three appendices cataloging the publications, minor characters and literary works mentioned in the entries.
Though a reader may get tired of these games, it’s important to note that Bolaño, with this sort of invented detail, is intentionally taking the focus off any historical or ethical lesson one might glean from his invented lives.

Literature can be a solace for the oppressed, but it can also be a tool of the oppressor, and we love it nonetheless. For Bolaño, the pure pleasure of literary imagination transcends, for better or worse, all other considerations.