For the next several weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.
Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolano, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews. (Chile, New Directions)
Nazi Literature in the Americas stands in stark contrast to the other Bolano book on the Best Translated Book of the Year fiction longlist. It’s a quarter of the length, much more concise and focused, and, in some ways, more imaginative. But it didn’t receive anywhere near the same amount of hype and attention that’s being heaped on 2666.
Which is really too bad. For a number of years now (and a number of years to come), New Directions has been publishing Bolano’s shorter works, including By Night in Chile, Distant Star, Amulet, the short story collection Last Evenings on Earth, and the poetry collection Romantic Dogs. They were the first U.S. publisher to start doing Bolano and have done a great job establishing his reputation, building his fan base, etc. And there are a lot of Bolano fans who feel that these shorter works are much stronger than the sprawling, diffuse longer novels.
I think these shorter books are masterful—especially the short story collection and this “encyclopedia” of fascist writers. A very Borgesian novel, Nazi Literature in the Americas is a collection of “entries” on imaginary Nazi writers, magazines, publishers, etc. It’s a very creative book, one in which Bolano not only invents these fascist characters, but describes a lot of their works as well, capturing these authors and their works in a concise, intriguing, typically Bolano, fashion. From the section on Argentine writer Silvio Salvatico, who advocated for
among other things, the re-establishment of the Inquisition; corporal punishment in public; a permanent war against the Chileans, the Paraguayans, or the Bolivians as a kind of gymnastics for the nation; polygamy; the extermination of the Indians to prevent further contamination of the Argentinean race; curtailing the rights of any citizen with Jewish blood; a massive influx of migrants from the Scandinavian countries in order to effect a progressive lightening of the national skin color, darkened by years of promiscuity with the indigenous population; life-long writer’s grants; the abolition of tax on artists’ incomes; the creation of the largest air force in South America; the colonization of Antarctica; and the building of new cities in Patagonia.
He was a soccer player and a Futurist.
And about his works:
From 1930 on, burdened by a disastrous marriage and numerous offspring, he worked as a gossip columnist and copy-editor for various newspapers in the capital, hung out in dives, and practised the art of the novel, which stubbornly declined to yield its secrets to him. Three titles resulted: Fields of Honor (1936), about semi-secret challenges and duels in a spectral Buenos Aires; The French Lady (1949), a story of prostitutes with hearts of gold, tango singers and detectives; and The Eyes of the Assassin (1962), a curious precursor to the psycho-killer movies of the seventies and eighties.
These biographical sketches range are sometimes disturbing, always interesting, and occasionally funny, as in this section, one of my personal favorites:
That was not to be Perez Mason’s last visit to the jails of socialist Cuba. In 1965 he published Poor Man’s Soup, which related—in an irreproachable style, worthy of Sholokov—the hardships of a large family living in Havana in 1950. The novel comprised fourteen chapters. The first began: “Lucia was a black woman from . . .”; the second: “Only after serving her father . . .”; the third: “Nothing had come easily to Juan . . .”; the fourth: “Gradually, tenderly, she drew him towards her . . .” The censor quickly smelled a rat. The first letters of each chapter made up the acrostic LONG LIVE HITLER. A major scandal broke out. Perez Mason defended himself haughtily: it was a simple coincidence. The censors set to work in earnest, and made a fresh discovery: the first letters of each chapter’s second paragraph made up another acrostic—THIS PLACE SUCKS. And those of the third paragraph spelled: USA WHERE ARE YOU. And the fourth paragraph: KISS MY CUBAN ASS. And so, since each chapter, without exception, contained twenty-five paragraphs, the censors and the general public soon discovered twenty-five acrostics. I screwed up, Perez Mason would say later: They were too obvious, but if I’d made it much harder, no one would have realized.
Bolano is the only author who has two books on this year’s longlist, both of which are definitely worth reading.
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