Book review: Nazi Literature in the Americas

NAZI LITERATURE IN THE AMERICAS Roberto Bolaño Picador, £16.99

ROBERTO Bolao has been one of the publishing sensations of the past few years, as the Anglophone world posthumously became aware of one of the most exhilarating, intense and dangerous new voices to emerge from South America.

Nazi Literature In The Americas was one of his earliest books, first published in 1996. It isn't his masterpiece – critics and readers will argue for many years to come for the respective merits of The Savage Detectives and 2666 – nor is it the book I'd give to introduce someone to Bolao's unique aesthetic – Last Evenings On Earth or Amulet would serve better. But it may well be the book which is the key to understanding what makes him such a profound, fierce writer.

Similar to Borges' Dictionary of Imaginary Beings, though far more monstrous, this work is presented as encyclopaedia entries about fictitious, far-right authors from north and south of the Gulf of Mexico. It is a parade of delusional, mediocre, vicious and pitiable poetasters, a scabrous parlour game that reveals much about literature, power and complicity.

Parts of it are very funny indeed. A few of the titles, such as Cower, Hounds!, The Voice You Withered and Impenitent Memoirs, give a sense of how Bolao went about creating this constellation of grotesques. His various ultra-right-wing authors comprise Hitlerites and hooligans, preachers and teachers, exiled Germans living in secluded "communities" and society grandes dames. What is frightening is how convincing they are (such as Silvio Salvatico, who promoted "permanent war… as a kind of gymnastics for the nation… lifelong writer's grants… and the colonisation of Antarctica" as well as being a "soccer player and a Futurist"). What is even more frightening is how similar some of their rhetoric and aesthetics are to the left-wing radical tradition. Then, of course, there is also the subterranean tradition of genuine right-wing writers who are still read, taught and honoured: Hamsun, Pound, Marinetti, Celine, de Man, d'Annunzio, Francis Stuart.

Just as you're lulled into the whole game, Bolao ratchets it all up a notch. The reader can balance wry appreciation and moral indignation as long as the writers are faintly ludicrous. With the final entry, on "Carlos Hoffmann", we get a truly despicable individual who is also, it seems, a truly great artist, a visionary who writes poems in the sky while murdering in cellars. At the heart of Bolao there seems to be a profound hatred of literature; of its gullibility, amorality and willingness to whisper poisoned blandishments to power.