The Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño’s The Third Reich is, like much of his fiction, filled with Nazis, the ultimate evil
Roberto Bolaño treated his fiction as one giant tapestry, a contiguous world in which invented figures mingled with real historical figures over multiple works. After the author’s fictional alter ego, Arturo Belano, the character with the greatest number of appearances may be Ernst Jünger, the real German World War I veteran and writer whose fusty Prussian conservatism, belief in a Nietzschean will to power, and occasional forays into anti-Semitism made him a hero to some post-Weimar Germans, including, at times, members of the Nazi hierarchy. Jünger appears, as a character or by reference, in Bolaño’s 2666, By Night in Chile, and The Third Reich. In Nazi Literature in the Americas, Bolaño’s Borgesian catalog of fictional right-wing writers, an elderly Jünger is described (in a poem, naturally) as having sex with Leni Riefenstahl.
Jünger represents a Bolaño archetype: the intellectual co-opted, by force or by request, into a right-wing establishment. Jünger never officially became a Nazi, but he was granted the rank of captain in the Wehrmacht, visited defeated France and a prisoner camp on the Russian front, and made continual intellectual accommodations when faced with the radical depravity of Nazi policies and actions. In Bolaño’s By Night in Chile, Jünger, along with a Chilean diplomat, visits a starving Guatemalan painter in wartime Paris. Perhaps in a nod to Jünger’s wartime myopia, Bolaño has Jünger hold forth about art in unintelligible French, while the diplomat interprets the Guatemalan’s painting as being not about the fall of Paris or “the defeat of European culture bravely determined to burn itself down” but rather about “his personal defeat, the defeat of an obscure, poor Guatemalan.”
The refusal to acknowledge the historical calamity surrounding these men is characteristic of Bolaño. In often febrile prose, his artists, poets, diplomats, writers, murderers, and wanderers gravitate toward the aesthetics of power. In this, Bolaño seems to find a particularly disturbing form of evil, one that attempts to transmute political violence and totalitarianism into something viscerally beautiful.
Bolaño found evil fascinating, an enduring, frightening phenomenon, and his interest coincided with the repeated use in his fiction of Nazis and Nazi symbolism, from 1996’s Nazi Literature in the Americas to The Third Reich, a manuscript written in 1989, found among the author’s papers, and published last month in an English translation by Natasha Wimmer. For a vagabond Latin American writer, a non-Jew who came of age when the continent’s utopian leftist movements were usurped by bloody right-wing authoritarianism, the question is: Why? Or as Bolaño himself asks in Nazi Literature in the Americas, “Why are so many Nazis still alive? What makes them almost immortal?” The answer provides some insight into both Bolaño’s singular talent and the limitations of his political-literary project.
Nazi fiction generally comes in three types: chronicles of persecution, chronicles of witness, and counterfactual tales founded on radical shifts in the historical narrative, like Richard Harris’ Fatherland or Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Tower. For contemporary Latin American writers, whose forebears lived in countries forced to choose a side with which to align, World War II has provided material for inquiries into the nature of collaboration. Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Tyrant Memory and Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s The Informers are two examples of recent novels by talented writers that provided disappointingly conventional takes on wartime collaboration, books little different from a dozen European cousins except for the use of local color.
Bolaño, on the other hand, accomplished something far different. The Chilean novelist used Nazism not as the grist for historical fiction but rather as a kind of shadow text that runs throughout his work, showing how the narcissism of power has much in common with the narcissism of authorship. Bolaño was always concerned with two forms of extremity: political violence and the transcendent literary sublime. While seeing the two as inextricably linked, Janus-like, he glorified the latter. His heroes are writers, real and invented, who achieve mythic status (Octavio Paz, Cesárea Tinajero, Benno von Archimboldi) and also, perhaps even more so, the foolhardy young writers who venture into Latin America’s wastelands in search of them. Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima—the peripatetic poets whose search for Tinajero, the founder of the visceral realist movement, is described in The Savage Detectives—are the quintessential Bolaño heroes: romantic, angry, wild-eyed believers in poetry as religion.
But wherever Bolaño offers visceral realists, beautiful young things striving to create the art of the future, one can also find their obverse: fascist poets, right-wing soccer thugs-turned-magazine editors, amoral priests who allow themselves to be drafted into the service of Chile’s junta. Living in the shade, these writers represent the malignance of ambition as well as the morally treacherous choice that some of Bolaño’s generation made, throwing their lot in with Augusto Pinochet. And yet Bolaño’s fiction also indulges in visions of evil, of gruesome murders, of the victories of authoritarianism. Referring to Chile’s heady years under Salvador Allende, Bolaño once wrote, “we fought for and put all our generosity into an ideal that had been dead for more than fifty years, and some of us knew it.”
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