Jun 04, 2008, 06:54AM

Disappointing Nazi Literature

Roberto Bolaño was considered one of contemporary Latin America's greatest writers upon his death in 2003. Since then, most of his work has been translated into English, including The Savage Detectives last year and the forthcoming 2666, due in November. One of his shorter novels, Nazi Literature in the Americas, was also recently translated, and this reviewer found it a little unsatisfying. Whatever the verdict, however, here's to more attention for literature in translation.

Assuming the format of an Everyman's dictionary of writers, Robert Bolaño's novel Nazi Literature in the Americas, consists of a series of short profiles, 30 brief fictitious lives of pan-American fascist novelists and poets, depicted with such straightforward urbanity and good humor that one almost misses the sick joke behind the pretense. I'm reminded of the dark abuse that kneels beneath the dazzling surface of Nabokov's Lolita.

Not that the desire for blond, blue-eyed children, and the hatred of Jews, blacks, and homosexuals that this coterie of "maudit monsters and miserable creatures" holds is in anyway disguised. The narrator hides no Anne Franks; it's just that the cultured tenor in which the lives of these sad little nothings is sung doesn't quite match the racist libretto.


Despite all of this—a true, consistent tone, a serious message about hagiography, power, politics and literature, despite its humor and accomplished aphorism—Nazi Literature, strangely, fails to satisfy. Some of it has, I think, to do with the euphoria that has accompanied the recent flood of Bolaño translations. Bolaño's work currently bathes in pools of warm adulation. New Yorker critic James Wood has, for example, called it "wildly enjoyable" with a "worldly literal sensibility," The Washington Post's Michael Dirda says it is "imaginative, full of a love for literature, and . . . exceptionally entertaining," and the Times Literary Supplement raves that it is "at once funny, furious, and frightening." Bolaño clearly is, as The New York Times puts it, a "consensus book-world discovery."



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