Tuesday, March 09, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Twenty One

Nazi Literature in the Americas
Roberto Bolano

Roberto's Bolano's experimental novel is a catalogue of imaginary extreme right wing literature that somehow took root in North and Latin America. In tone, it recalls Jorge Borges and Stanislaw Lem's imagined fictions along with the pieces Woody Allen wrote for The New Yorker in the early 1970's, such as "If Impressionists Were Dentists" which imagined the letters Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, but substituting dental procedures for art-making.

The central idea seems to be a play on the way that most people in the arts lean left or at are at least liberal. It is written in the same dry, deadpan language of most literary surveys. What if someone paid serious attention to more right-wing authors? It leads to laugh out-loud lines like these:

She took to drinking in dives and having affairs with some of the most unsavory individuals in Buenos Aires. Her well-known poem 'I Was Happy with Hitler,' misunderstood by the Right and Left alike, dates from this period.

In 1958 she fell in love again. This time the object of her affections was a twenty-five-year-old painter. He was blond, blue-eyed and disarmingly stupid.

As a young man Salcvatico advocated, among other things, the re-establishment of the Inquisition; corporal punishment in public; a permanent war against the Chlieans, the Paraguayans, or the Bolivians as a kind of gymnastics for the nation...
He was a soccer player and a flutist.

He is against monopolies, especially cultural monopolies. He believes in the family, but also in a man's "natural right to have a bit of fun on the side."

It is the pacing, the mix of the straightforward with the absurd, that recalls Woody Allen's influential early work.

But there is also something else here. All of Bolano's authors end up sad failures. Part of you wants to say "thank God" as they are horrible people and their beliefs are destructive. Yet there is also a remarkable melancholy that creeps in as you read yet another case study of someone whose passions and hard work ultimately lead to nothing. It reminds me of Thomas Pynchon's Mason and Dixon, in which all the conspiracies of those in power (the Dutch East India Company, the Jesuits, the British Crown) ultimately came to nothing as those organizations passed into irrelevance. As one who lived through the Bush years, it can give you hope.

On a personal note, apropo of nothing, I have the nice surprise of realizing that the photo on the cover of Nazi Literature in the Americas, like many of Bolano's other early novels, was taken by my downstairs neighbor Allen. The cover seemed familiar without my ever realizing why. I like the idea that the book was in my apartment while the man who created the cover image was just one story down.


wpbooks said...

Nice usage of NatLamp material. That article was from the Postwar issue sometime in 1973 if I remember my NL's correctly.Thanks for keeping the Lampoon alive, it was indeed more than the company that brought us Vacation and Van Wilder!....and hey, if you have the old Bicentennial calendar, starting this March 1, it's good for the rest of the year!

the hanged man said...

Before Hitler jokes became ubiquitous in the comedy world, I thought the title "Nazi Regalia For Gracious Living" was both evocative and hilarious. Seemed like the perfect fit for Bolano's book.