Ghost writer

Pub date February 27, 2008
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature

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REVIEW In the English-speaking press, Roberto Bolaño is widely touted as the hottest novelist to come out of Latin America since Gabriel García Márquez. There are no levitating virgins in the work of Bolaño; he depicts instead a more recognizable if still defamiliarized Western Hemisphere, full of intellectuals, tragic activists, poets, queers, prostitutes, and drug dealers. And Nazis.

Although Bolaño died in 2003, his death hasn’t slowed the rise of his reputation; he is posthumously leading the revolt of a generation of writers and readers who were crushed under the weight of Latin America’s major literary exports, the Boom writers. Bolaño’s idiosyncratic style isn’t magical realist or sentimental about folk traditions, but he isn’t exactly a realist either. Nazi Literature in the Americas (New Directions, 280 pages, $23.95), newly translated into English by Chris Andrews, follows the path of Jorge Luis Borges. It presents brief bios and bibliographies for 30 imaginary right-wing writers from North and South America.

Although Nazi Literature was first published in 1996, it follows its catalog of writers past that date and into the future: Willy Schürholz, for example, born into a mysterious, walled-off community of Germans within Chile, is a solitary poet who sets out "countless variations on the theme of a barbed-wire fence crossing an almost empty space," and eventually publishes a book of children’s stories that idealize "a childhood that was suspiciously aphasic, amnesic, obedient and silent." Its nameless boy protagonist "displaced Papelucho as the emblematic protagonist of children’s and teen fiction in Chile," while Schürholz himself ends up in Africa working as a photographer and guide until his death — in 2029.

Bolaño’s writers interact with recognizable historic and literary worlds; they are wandering Colombians who fight for the fascists in Spain; they are aristocratic Argentines handled by Hitler as infants; they are Beat-influenced North American poets who, after being hit on by Allen Ginsberg, flee to panicked careers filled with homophobic and anti-Semitic invective, becoming enormously successful in the process. They write stories, poems, and novels with titles like Cosmogony of the New Order, I Was Happy with Hitler ("misunderstood by the Right and the Left alike"), and The Children of Jim O’Brady in the American Dawn. In Bolaño’s hands, these biographies are hilarious. At the same time, they are often surprisingly moving and sometimes terrifying.

Throughout Bolaño’s translated work, from By Night in Chile (New Directions, 144 pages, 2003), the monologue of a dying priest, to The Savage Detectives (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 592 pages, 2007), which follows a group of avant-garde poets in Mexico in the ’70s along their downward-spiraling paths, he is concerned with the sometimes surprising intermingling of radical and conservative literary and political realities. If Bolaño’s monsters are occasionally ridiculous and moronic, it is to his credit that they are also always complicated, and sometimes brilliant and romantic. His Nazi writers are not so different from his non-Nazi writers; they are ambitious or derivative or avant-garde in equal measure. They fall tragically in love and develop drinking problems alongside their leftist peers. Bolaño’s clear-sighted examinations of social context underline the insight that literature isn’t innocent — an invigorating insight in our own cultural moment, when the very act of reading or writing is usually considered harmless but inherently ennobling.

Perhaps Bolaño’s most seductive, fascinating, and terrifying monster is the Chilean poet Carlos Ramírez Hoffman. Bolaño readers will recognize his story as that of Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, elaborated in more detail in Bolaño’s second novel to be translated into English, Distant Star (New Directions, 149 pages, 2004). His tale is worth revisiting for those readers, as it functions differently as the conclusion to Nazi Literature. The book suddenly becomes more intimate, more frightening, and more ambiguous, as Bolaño appears for the first time as a character and becomes personally linked to the fate of Ramírez Hoffman. "Bolaño," like the author of the same name, is arrested and briefly imprisoned by the Pinochet dictatorship after the coup in 1973. While Ramírez Hoffman transforms himself into a torturer, a murderer of women, and a skywriter, Bolaño watches the ephemeral poems appear in the sky from the prison yard. The story of the narrator’s obsession with the traces of this enigmatic antihero’s literary career becomes a discomfiting mirror in which some of our dearest romantic myths about literary outlaws are laid bare with startling implications.

In less thoughtful hands, Nazi Literature could be a terrain inhabited largely by "repressed" homosexuals, following the 20th century’s tidy equation of fascism and sublimated male homoeroticism. Whatever sexual desires are repressed or unrepressed by this horde of monsters, they are as varied and bizarre as those of the rest of the human race. Bolaño was the queerest of straight male writers and his sensibility the queerest I know of, period, in all of Latin American literature — notwithstanding José Lezama Lima, José Donoso, Manuel Puig, Reinaldo Arenas, and the many closeted contributors to the fussy literature of the Boom.

Bolaño’s descriptions of the experimental and speculative works of his dark doubles allows his own baroque imagination free rein. He dreams up plays in which "the action unfolds in a world inhabited exclusively by Siamese twins, where sadism and masochism are children’s games," and poems in which a 90-year-old Leni Riefenstahl makes love with 100-year-old Ernst Jünger, their jaws creaking, their eyes lighting up, hinting at the lesson that "it is time to put an end to democracy."

The literary references in Nazi Literature are dense and possibly unfamiliar to a North American audience; we may not always know which pompous literary critics actually lived, or which dueling Cuban queens are real and which are imaginary. Bolaño has the most fun with his speculative and science fiction writers, and with those who assume fake identities in order to promote their derivative work. This book is full of rumor, unverifiable reports, and false claims: it fundamentally entwines the false with the true to create a kind of vaporous zone that we immediately recognize as the world we inhabit. At the same time, Bolaño’s writing cracks that world open and charges it with startling electricity. It’s a reminder that writing is life — organic, complicated, sick, heartbreaking, and hilarious.