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    The Wu of Nazi Literature in the Americas
    S.J. Hirons, January 2012
    The wu of Nazi Literature in the Americas illustration by Michael William Kaluta
    illustration by M. W. Kaluta

    By much the same route that I came to hear the music of Nick Drake and Judee Sill I came to read the work of Roberto Bolaño: by reading of him first.

    I'll set aside what it means that so much of what I find enjoyable in life must come with the air of lost potential for another time, save to say that I at least know that the same impulse naturally brings me towards artists whose works, without the intervention of serendipitous (to my personal timeline, anyway) critical reappraisal, I would not have found.

    In many respects Bolaño is not hard to find at all: his voice, admittedly read in translation, is always lucid and compelling, and he even helpfully appears from time to time in his own work, either as himself or via his fictional alter ego, 'Arturo Belano'. At the time I was reading about him, however, he was certainly difficult to find in the material world – by which I mean my local bookstores.

    The publication of 2666, and the critical fanfare that came with it, changed much of that scarcity. It also led to Nazi Literature in the Americas, Bolaño's encyclopedia of fictitious and fascistic pan-American writers, becoming more generally available for the first time.

    2666, an unremitting examination of the inter-complexities of 'evil', is heralded as Bolaño's masterpiece but, for me, as a sometime writer of what might be called interstitial fiction, the more impactful and instructive work will always be Nazi Literature in the Americas.

    I don't cite the book for its politics. Nor do I cite it for its refracted commentary on writers and writing. On the first count I suspect its deepest meanings elude me, especially when I read the work alluded to as a satire on leftist writers: not knowing specifically who that might mean leaves me in the dark when it comes to divining such subtexts. On the latter count, whilst such a commentary is indeed at the heart of the text, and the subject of writers and writing is usually one of great interest to me, the fact is that the book contains no great revelations on that score: that writers can be eccentric, obsessive characters with tragic or ironic or pathetic lives and bodies of work affected by the politics of the world around them – whether they like it or not – was definitely not news to me.

    In contrast to the monolithic 2666, Nazi Literature in the Americas, Bolaño's second novel (a term loosely applied here), seems a light work, easily read and easily digested (and much more portable, to boot). Comprising of 30 or so short, sometimes cross-associative, biographical sketches of imaginary writers – and the occasional droll assessment of their works – with descriptive lists of relevant 'Secondary Figures', 'Publishing Houses, Magazines, Places' and a bibliography – it is, admittedly, a novel with no plot and one where the imitated register of editorial objectivity is occasionally broken by an aside or observation based on the kind of intimate knowledge of its characters that could only be ascribed to a creator, not an editor.

    I'd argue that its examination of evil is just as determined as that found in Bolaño's magnum opus, though, even though the tone is lighter (in comparison to 2666 very little isn't light): even though there are more obvious moments of pathos within it; even though it appears to have had less of a critical impact than 2666 and even though it is cited as an example of Bolaño's skill less frequently for what seem to be a number of reasons: it's only a chamber piece, a curate's egg; "...at first mildly amusing," Alberto Manguel wrote in his review for The Guardian (Saturday 6 February 2010), before deciding it becomes "...a tedious pastiche of itself".

    For me, however, it is the work which bears out Bolaño's frequent comparisons to Borges (I'm even tempted to say it is his Book of Imaginary Beings) and, ironically, it is one of Manguel's own works, co-edited with Gianni Guadalupi, The Dictionary of Imaginary Places – and another quasi-Borgesian survey making reference to people and places that don't exist as though they were real – that most often springs to my mind whenever I'm thinking about Nazi Literature in the Americas (along with The New Traveler's Almanac which Alan Moore attached as an ongoing appendix to his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics - a travelogue which itself draws in part from Manguel and Guadalupi – and Dream's library in Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, a place where all the books never written by authors during their waking lives grace the shelves).

    Around the same time that I was first reading Nazi Literature in the Americas I was also re-reading Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, another work exploring an alternate world (though now I must wonder if Bolaño's novel offers an alternative to ours, after all. I certainly came away with the impression that it does, though I don't believe this is ever stated in the work, even if the implication of it is everywhere: some of his writers have successes that couldn't be explained any other way) and, to an extent, the potential changes that the triumph of fascism might have had upon our own world; another work, in part, concerned with writers and how political environments can shape artistic beliefs and practice.

    This combination, I believe, led to my affinity with Bolaño's book because it helped me realize that on a visceral level I was simply enjoying it as an object in and of itself. Remove the few trappings of reality that are affixed to any edition of it (details of its real-world publication, blurbs and ISBN number) and it becomes a plausible object of otherworldly provenance; in a curious dichotomy, I was responding to it almost as though it were a work of conceptual art, something transcending its material form, almost precisely because of this material quality.

    The notion of an object transcending its historicity is expounded upon in The Man in the High Castle when two characters, one American and one Japanese, discuss the quality of a piece of new and original American manufacturing – a decorative pin – that make it stand out in comparison to the faux-genuine Americana that otherwise abounds in the Japanese-occupied USA of the alternate world in which The Man in the High Castle is set.

    The Japanese character refers to this pin's transcendental quality as wu – a term Buddhism sometimes also calls satori – meaning a flash of inspiration or revelation on the path to enlightenment, stating his further certainty that an entirely new world is posited by the very existence of the pin. Conforming to no known external standard of design in the reality of The Man in the High Castle, the pin is not subject to interpretation. It is outside History, inimitable: a thing unto itself.

    Reading this conversation again turned the dichotomy that I was feeling about a piece of conceptual art being reliant upon its final execution that I'd detected in my reaction to Nazi Literature in the Americas back on itself and made sense of it: in writing execution is all, and here Bolaño has committed himself to a level of plausibility in execution that means the book, which goes without an interpretive key – an explicatory foreword, say, or an author's note – has undeniable interstitial credentials, I believe, not only as fiction but also as object.

    Work Cited

    Bolaño, Roberto. 2666. Editorial Anagrama, Barcelona, 2004.

    Bolaño, Roberto. Nazi Literature in America. New Directions, 1996.

    Borges, Jorge Luis. Book of Imaginary Beings. Fce-Brevarios, Argentina, 1957.

    Dick, Philip. The Man in the High Castle. Putnam, 1962.

    Manguel, Alberto. "Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolao, translated by Chris Andrews." The Guardian, February 6, 2010.

    About the Author

    S.J. Hirons was born in Greenwich, England in 1973. Educated at Rugby and Cambridge, he currently resides in Leamington Spa where he works with young people excluded from mainstream education. He has studied creative writing at the National Academy of Writing in Birmingham. His fiction can be found in Clockwork Phoenix 3 (Norilana Books), Subtle Edens (Elastic Press), Title Goes Here, Daily Science Fiction, The Absent Willow Review, Farrago's Wainscot, Pantechnicon, A Fly in Amber and at 52 Stitches, with work forthcoming at The Colored Lens, faepublishing.com and in A.J. French's Satyr Anthology from Wicked East Press.

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