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Literature Gone Askew

February 12, 2009 By:
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For someone like myself who came of age reading the great works of the 20th-century modernists -- writers like Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot and Marcel Proust -- the highly ubiquitous postmodernist movement, which was spawned by the excesses and political shenanigans of the 1960s, has generally been an irritant to me. Whether it's Andy Warhol's soup cans or deconstructionist literary theory, which dominated academia for the past 30 years, postmodernism has either indulged in a dead-pan jokiness aimed at the concept of art as a serious endeavor or has directed an implicit, humorless critique at all language as base and empty, mere signs without meaning.

Postmodernism, at least as it was wielded in the academy (and I use the word wielded purposely, since the theory was utilized as a political weapon), gave rise to the culture wars that have raged over the last three decades, and that continue to rear their ugly head whenever certain groups of people feel their worldviews being threatened.

And yet, of all the writers I've gotten to know and truly admire over the course of the last several years or so, Roberto Bolaño -- a tried-and-true postmodernist -- has struck me not only as an exciting presence, but perhaps one of the most profound artists of the second half of the 20th century.

I have admired a number of his books, but the work that won me over completely is his Nazi Literature in the Americas. Published recently by New Directions, it is postmodernist in temper and execution, a work of fiction whose premise, at least in bald outline, would normally have set my teeth on edge; but, in Bolaño's hands, I found it to be masterfully executed. In addition, the book is wildly funny; best of all, the humor, though often black in hue, is not applied at the expense of its characters (if one can call them that). There is the requisite ironic self-referencing that is a necessary staple of such works, but Bolaño uses the technique with a deftness few have rivaled.

Born in 1953 in Santiago, Chile, Bolaño lived in Mexico, Paris and Spain, and died young, at age 50, leaving behind, despite his brief time on earth, a substantial fictional legacy. His various works have been appearing in English at a slow and steady pace over the last decade or so, thanks to the dedication of New Directions, though the two volumes considered to be his major achievements -- The Savage Detectives and 2666 -- somehow got into the hands of Farrar Straus and Giroux. These are definitely his longest works, and that may be why they have gotten an overabundance of attention. (Critics love girth, just for the sake of it; somehow, it seems to be a verification of the genius they attribute to a writer.) But I would say that the books New Directions has published and, it seems, plans to continue to publish are somewhat more accessible -- they are definitely slimmer, at the very least. And they also tell you as much about Bolaño as you need to know, and may just give you the practice necessary to scale his more massive works, if you feel so inclined.

In my view, there is no better place to start the Bolaño journey than with Nazi Literature in the Americas. Those who have no experience with reading such unusual fare may find the originality of this book a bit off-putting.

But the premise is simple, at least in one sense. Bolaño has compiled an encyclopedia of right-wing writers who flourished throughout the North and South American continents. And the book is structured like any standard encyclopedia. It is made up of brief biographies of the major players, dates and compositions all in place (there is also an extensive bibliography). The "problem" -- if that's the word you'd apply here -- is that all of these people, no matter the accumulation of facts Bolaño presents us with, are completely imaginary.

A Deadpan Certainty

There is no plot, of course, to any of this. The irony and the humor come from how these various life stories, laid out with a commendable deadpan certainty, rub up against one another and set off sparks and resonances. The book -- one can't really call it a novel or a short-story collection (the only thing it resembles closely is Jorge Luis Borges' A Universal History of Infamy or, perhaps, in some of the scholarly detailing, Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov) -- makes use of all sorts of literary conventions, all in the service of a bogus reality.

But even though these people are imaginary, Bolaño clearly knows his recent history and lets the echoes ring, sometimes making you think that you are at fault for not being conversant with these people and their creations, even if their Hitlerian politics are deplorable. This simulation of the real is one of the writer's finest accomplishments, and it keeps you slightly off kilter throughout the entire reading experience.

In setting up his imaginary compendium, Bolaño is also getting back at his enemies in a very political way. A dedicated man of the left, he has not made his "adversaries" -- his fictional characters -- look absurd; nor has he dealt with them through caricature or satire.

In fact, he takes the writers portrayed in Nazi Literature in the Americas quite seriously for the simple reason that to make this endeavor work, readers must never fail to see their "reality," no matter how unpleasant the ideas they espouse. The effort may be couched in deadpan language -- and that is what often gives rise to the humor -- but we bring that insight to these words. Bolaño never varies in his craftsmanship, and his constancy toward his novelists, poets and pamphleteers never wavers. He even describes their triumphs with awe and their defeats with an undeniable pathos.

Wherever you look in Nazi Literature in the Americas, you find evidence of the pervasiveness of his premise and how carefully he has worked it out, to say nothing of the inventiveness he applies to it all. The book's 14 sections have each been given a wickedly entertaining title; for example, you can check out the almost obligatory Poètes Maudits or the Wandering Women of Letters. Or you could take your pick between the Forerunners and Figures of the Anti-Enlightenment, or spend a period of time with Two Germans at the End of the Earth. Then there are the entertaining and Fabulous Schiaffino Boys as well as the Many Masks of Max Mirebalais.

What is so convincing about the text is that, not only does Bolaño create detail-packed and even heart-rending biographies for his damnable creatures, but he places them into completely comprehensible and recognizable landscapes, most of them literary and with more than just a whiff of history about them.

One of the most entertaining entries, for example, is for Jim O'Bannon who is one of the two North American Poets included and whose dates are Macon 1940-Los Angeles 1996. Bolaño tells us that "Jim O'Bannon, poet and football player, was equally susceptible to the allure of force and yearning for delicate, perishable things. His earliest literary endeavors are indebted to the Beat esthetic, to judge from his first book of poems, Macon Night (1961), published in his hometown, in the short-lived City in Flames series. The texts are preceded by long dedications to Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Kerouac, Snyder and Ferlinghetti. O'Bannon didn't know these poets personally (at the time, he hadn't left his home state of Georgia), but he maintained a profuse and enthusiastic correspondence with at least three of them.

"The following year he hitchhiked to New York City, where he met Ginsberg, and a black poet at a hotel in the Village. They talked, drank and recited poems. Then Ginsberg and the black guy suggested they make love. At first O'Bannon didn't understand. When one of the poets started to undress him and the other began to stroke him, the terrible truth dawned. For a few seconds he didn't know what to do. Then he punched them away and left. 'I would have beaten them to death,' he was to say later, 'but I felt sorry for them.'

"In spite of the blows he had received, Ginsberg included four of O'Bannon's poems in a Beat anthology, which was published a year later in New York."

One of the great strokes of genius in the work is the Epilogue for Monsters, a cataloguing of secondary characters and literary hangers-on who have as much juice and physical reality as the major players in this wickedly entertaining and evocative masterwork.


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