Sunday, December 7, 2008

Evil Geniuses

Last month, in an attempt to brush up on philosophy texts that have flown under my radar, I read Martin Heidegger's Poetry Language Thought. I remembered that his other works were touched upon briefly in some of my college courses, and recent research on him brought up something that I had totally forgotten about--his link to Nazism. I don't know the full history of his relationship to that ideology (save for some very generic bullet points), I do know that some of his supporters attempted to soften the blow of such a connection. There are two very distinct points of view at play here: one side will say that in Europe during World War II, the choice was very clear, that one could choose to superficially "accept" Nazism or lose their well-being (or life) otherwise. The other side will say that any acceptance equals guilt, regardless of whether or not a person was trying to save his or her own life. My point is that Heidegger wrote some of the most influential philosophy texts in history, yet will always be linked to one of the most horrendous "philosophies" in history as well. It's a staggering dynamic--how can an outside observer balance someone's contributions along with someone's evils, especially with something as evil as Nazism? This being said, had Heidegger been a fictional character, he very well would have been one of the many composites in Roberto Bolano's Nazi Literature In the Americas (first published in English in 2008).

I went into reading this Bolano text trying to be as impartial as possible, given the fact that I was still feeling the amazing awe of The Savage Detectives. Nazi Literature In the Americas is a vastly different work, both in themes and length. Instead of providing us with hundreds of pages devoted to exploring the lives of imaginary, generally admirable (though faulted) writers, Bolano writes very brief biographical sketches of writers from North, Central, and South America, all of whom (explicitly or not) are connected to Nazism or Nazi sympathies. While these are fictionalized descriptions, readers cannot help but get caught up in Bolano's attention to detail, describing, in precise detail, the writers and lifestyles of these artists. In the same sense of The Savage Detectives, I found myself admiring the prodigious outputs and hedonistic tendencies, since the idea of Nazism is not pointed out on every page. At times, it came as a suckerpunch, nodding along with the lifestyles, only to be reminded of the sometimes latent theme of evil. This is where my introduction on Heidegger comes into view--the writers in Nazi Literature In the Americas are brilliant, yet the idea is that a seriously faulted ideology is lurking below the surface.

Bolano also employs the "dust-fucker" style of comparisons (for the origins and explanations of this term, click here). Again, as evil as Nazism is, some of the writers in the novel are more extreme than others--in short, Bolano has characters who are even worse Nazis than others. Take these passages, for example:

"The failure of her marriage plunged Luz into despair. She took to drinking in dives and having affairs with some of the most unsavory individuals in Buenos Aires. Her well-known poem "I Was Happy With Hitler," misunderstood by the Right and the Left alike, dates from this period (21)."

"...[Borda's] mere existence, in short, brought out the basest, most deeply hidden instincts in the people whose paths he crossed, for one reason or another, in the course of his life. There is, however, no evidence to suggest that any of this demoralized him. In his Diaries he blames the Jews and usurers for everything (109)."

In the hands of a lesser writer, a book such as this could have merely turned into a catalogue of depraved individuals. With Bolano, the degrees of repulsion are almost scientific. As with the two cited examples above, a reader acknowledges that the two fictional writers have ideological faults, but have to acknowledge that the writing of a poem is a "lesser evil" than a blatant written hatred of an entire people.

At the end of the novel, Bolano stunningly crafted a detailed bibliography of the writers, including ones not described in the book. In addition to admiring the minute detail, I was taken aback by the bibliography's title: "Epilogue For Monsters." With three words, any earlier rationalization is thrown away, since every party is guilty. The effect is very similar to the final line of James Wright's poem Lying In a Hammock On William Duffy's Farm In Pine Island, Minnesota: "I have wasted my life." Everything that comes before it, while essential, is overtaken by a single line. This literary skill, especially compared with the vastness of The Savage Detectives, reaffirms my belief that Bolano is one of most important writers of the past twenty years. I cannot wait to take on his final work, 2666.

Work Cited:
Bolano, Roberto. Nazi Literature In the Americas. Copyright 2008 by the Heirs of Roberto Bolano. Translation copyright 2008 by Chris Andrews.

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