Nazi Literature is something of a conceit. The book consists of approximately thirty short biographies of fictional American writers with some kind of right wing affiliation. Also included is a list of publishing houses, secondary figures, and a complete bibliography. Some of the characters are monsters, but just as many are losers, or curious anomalies within their worlds. Some of the mockery is brutal and extremely funny; some of it is almost tender, in its portrayal of these slightly pathetic figures, and their lacklustre literary efforts. Indeed, the more unsuccessful the writer, the more Bolaño seems to sympathise with them. I once discovered an interview with him online where he was talking about how much he respected the writers that never get anywhere, who fade into obscurity, and it seems as though, in some bizarre way, the writers in this book are the alter-egos or step-siblings of the poets who populate the first part of The Savage Detectives. As though even if they are Nazi murderers, Bolaño finds it hard to speak ill of a fellow writer.
The writing is always crisp and liable to snap, crackle or pop with little jokes or surprises. It's neither a novel nor a collection of short stories, but rather the articulation of a strange, parallel world to the one the writer knew. The final story, dealing with Carlos Hoffman who will reappear in Distant Star, is the one that knits the personal and the fictional together, as Bolaño himself claims to have witnessed the mystical sky-poetry of the freakish and terrifying Hoffman, part of the death squads which might, once upon a time, have claimed his life.
It's a little odd reading Bolaño now, a year and a half on from making his discovery. After 2666's publication, he has started to become known to a wider public; in my circle he's one of those writers who people know of but might never get round to reading. There are more of his books waiting to be translated, but Nazi Literature is the last of his currently translated works left for me to get teeth into. It's hard to put a finger on what he's actually done, but like all the writers one chooses to consider (or who insist upon one discovering them to be) great, Bolaño's works seem to have constructed some kind of universe of their own, a universe which might also be a benchmark for the one we inhabit, or might just be a benchmark for the possibilities of writing, or fiction, which might also be a benchmark for the possibilities of the universe, be it the one we inhabit or one of the ones we don't. Part of being a writer is to remake the world anew for the readers who read you, and convince those readers that your vision has something that gives it an import or a value which they cannot ignore. Perhaps there's a secret fascism involved in the very process of writing; the imposition of one person's will on a vast swathe of others. Certainly many of the writers listed in the Nazi Literature have an unhealthy charisma, and many become cult figures, revered by their readers (although others do perish in complete obscurity). Bolaño's politics never seem to be much of an issue, what with him having pitched in against Pinochet, and sided so ostentatiously with the Left (the key decision for anyone of his generation was which side were you on, and having met a few Chileans of his age, you can see that this decision may well have been one they were then stuck with forever); however Bolaño's fascination with the right (thinking in particular of the last part of 2666) may well have a subtle connection with his understanding of how writing itself works, how the will, or charisma, of a single soul can be transmuted to hold sway over so many. Including, in his case, myself, my own universe marginally reshaped, in some way, by my reading of the strange world of Mr B.