When Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Savage Detectives appeared in English in 2007 it caused an immediate literary sensation, albeit a somber one, since this astonishingly original fabulist had died in 2003 at the age of 50. Nazi Literature in the Americas, also a novel despite its title, deserves equal acclaim.
Outwardly this is a collection of biographical sketches of thirty authors, entertainingly related in the knowing and wry tone of some British newspaper obituaries. “He dabbled in a broad range of delinquent activities without developing a particular specialty,” relates the narrator about one of his subjects. A book “balks at none of the clichés that recur in the voluminous literature on that theme,” he observes about the work of another.
But the humor belies the perverse world these fictive authors inhabit, where aristocrats idolize Hitler and death-squad torturers for authoritarian regimes write fiction in their spare time. Bolaño, imagining how literature and life might intersect in a demimonde that looks forward to a Fourth Reich, ultimately reflects on ways that writing can confer power and status, gratify the ego, offer solace, uncover hidden demons, and create purpose for any human being.