Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Bolano's Nazi Literature in the Americas (1)

Rorty in a footnote in his Essays on Heidegger and Others quotes from Byron’s Don Juan, XIII, ii: “Cervantes smiled Spain’s chivalry away;/ A single laugh demolished the right arm / Of his own country; -- seldom since that day / Has Spain had heroes.”
There is no smiling away of German heroism in Heidegger, no “single laugh” in anything I’ve read, but that isn’t true of the Chilean, Roberto Bolano. 
I began Nazi Literature in The Americas wondering what Bolano was up to this time.  He has created a fictitious genre and a series of fictitious poets, novelists and artists, but to what end?  There were Nazis in Chili -- that much is true.  There was even a fondness on the part of many Chileans, indeed many in “the Americas” (Bolano does not restrict himself to Chili) for the Nazis.  But we find no expose – no hint of  the furious malevolence we saw in Emmanuel Faye’s treatment of Heidegger.  In an accumulation of vignettes we often see Bolano “smile.”   His American (largely South and Latin American, but he doesn’t exclude North America) Nazi lovers drift into their affection.  One poet, for example, became a lover of Hitler because Hitler once held her as a baby.  She treasured a photo of that event above everything she owned. 
I don’t mean to imply that Bolano is uniformly humorous – he isn’t uniformly anything.  He seems rather brutal, for example with his  “Silvio Salvatico.”  I noticed before I read the vignette that he was the longest lived of any of Bolano’s “poets” as far as I had read (1901-1994).  Salvatico advocated one outrageous thing after another, and “. . . From 1920 to 1929, in addition to frequenting the literary salons and fashionable cafes, he wrote and published more than twelve collections of poems, some of them won municipal and provincial prizes.  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 practiced 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.
“He died in an old-age home in Villa Luro, his worldly possessions consisting of a single suitcase full of books and unpublished manuscripts.
“His books were never republished.  His manuscripts were probably thrown out with the trash or burned by the orderlies.”
But “Willy Schurholz” is another matter.  Purportedly raised in the 100% German “Colonia Renacer,” and Willy came to think of his childhood as rather like being in a concentration camp.  Bolano tells us that Willy “. . . had what it takes to fail spectacularly . . .  His first poems combined disconnected sentences and topographic maps of Coloni Renacer.  They were untitled.  They were unintelligible.  Their aim was not to be understood, and certainly not to secure the reader’s complicity.  One critic has suggested that they indicate where to dig for the buried treasure of a lost childhood. . . .”
[Skipping ahead a bit]  “In 1980, with the support of Review of Thought and History, he published his first book.  Fuchler, the editor of the review, wanted to write a preface.  Schurholz refused.  The book is called Geometry, and it sets out countless variations on the theme of a barbed-wire fence crossing an almost empty space, sparsely scattered with apparently unrelated verses.  The fences seen from the air trace precise and delicate lines.  The verses speak – or whisper – of an abstract pain, the sun and headaches.”
[Skipping further ahead]  “In 1985, Schurholz, whose fame had previously been restricted to Chile’s literary and artistic circles, vast as they are, was catapulted to the very summit of notoriety by a group of local North American impresarios.  Commanding a team of excavators, he dug the map of an ideal concentration camp into the Atacama desert: an intricate network which, from the ground, appeared to be an ominous series of straight lines but viewed from a helicopter or an airplane resolved into a graceful set of curves.  The poet himself dispatched the literary component by inscribing the five vowels with a hoe and a mattock at locations scattered arbitrarily over the terrain’s rugged surface.  This performance was soon hailed in Chile as the cultural sensation of the summer.
“The experiment was repeated in the Arizona desert and a wheat field in Colorado, with significant variations.  Schurholz’s eager promoters wanted to find him a light plane so he could draw a concentration camp in the sky, but he refused: his ideal camps were meant to be observed from the sky, but they could only be drawn on earth. . . .”
[Skipping ahead]  “In 1990, to the surprise of his followers, he published a book of children’s stories . . . the children’s stories were scrutinized with disdain and pitilessly dissected.  In his stories . . . Schurholz idealized a childhood that was suspiciously aphasic, amnesic, obedient and silent.  Invisibility seemed to be his aim.  In spite of the critics, the book sold well. . . .”
“Shortly afterwards, amid protests from certain sectors of the left, Schurholz was offered the position of cultural attaché to the Chilean Embassy in Angola, which he accepted.  In Africa he found what he had been looking for: the fitting repository for his soul.  He never returned to Chile.  He spent the rest of his life working as a photographer and as a guide for German tourists.”
COMMENT:  I begin each Bolano novel expecting to dislike it.  Who writes like Bolano?  No one.  He writes nonsense as though he is doing journalism or literary criticism.  And yet I am inevitably surprised to discover that he has created something . . . it would be a disservice (as well as an impossibility) to attempt to reduce what Bolano does to what that something is.  To borrow Heidegger – or perhaps Rorty – one can see Bolano writing of one aspect of Chilean (and American) history thus far.  What we find isn’t an “essence” (Heidegger, by contrast, seems to come close to describing the “dead serious” essence of the German spirit), but something of this history – the naïve attraction of Chileans and others for the Nazis.   Heidegger wouldn’t laugh at this, but we can, and because we (of the Americas) can, perhaps we have given up, or are in the process of giving up our ability to produce heroes.  One thinks of Nietzsche’s “last man.”  Nietzsche, and Heidegger after him, don’t find this “last man” humorous.  But Bolano often does. For Bolano the last man isn’t an untermensch in Nietzschean or Heideggerian terms.  He isn’t subhuman or uninteresting.  Bolano’s poets are uniformly untalented.  There isn’t a Holderlin among them, and the “literary salons,” “fashionable cafes” and literary publications don’t give evidence of caring.  Perhaps we can group all of these Bolanoen characters together and conclude they are “last men,” but Balano would deny that they are uninteresting.  They are worthy of our interest and laughter –  when Bolano describes them to us.

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