Nazi Literature in the Americas

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Roberto Bolaño, Picador, £16.99

Roberto Bolaño's runaway success has as much to do with the man as with his books. Born in Chile, he spent some time in Mexico before moving to Spain where he died at the age of 50 while awaiting a liver transplant. Beyond those basic facts, the rest is rumour and possibly fiction: his arrest by Augusto Pinochet's police followed by his release when he is recognised by an old friend in the police, his sexual odyssey through Spain, his drug addiction and recovery. His life sounds very like the fictional lives of failed poets and writers who populate his two huge novels, The Savage Detectives and 2666. In the first, a group of nihilistic artists spend their years searching for a poet who has disappeared. In the second, two mysteries interweave.

Once again there are the artists searching for a writer, and at the same time there is a kind of detective story built around the murder of over 200 women in Tijuana, Mexico - like so many events Bolaño describes, the murders are real.

Most of Bolaño's characters are writers floating through a Bohemian underworld and his style is anything but literary. It is almost documentary, interweaving fiction and fact until the lines between them blur and disappear. Nazi Literature in the Americas, for example, reads like a small encyclopaedia; a series of fairly brief entries about largely failed poets and novelists obsessed with neo-fascist fantasies. What is significant is that we are never shown their writing - only brief quotes or summaries. There is the Cuban writer Perez Mason who begins each chapter of his novel with a letter making up an acrostic, or the Haitian writer who publishes the work of a number of others under various pseudonyms but never, it seems, produces anything of his own.

The most detailed portrait belongs to "the infamous Ramírez Hoffman", a character who also appears under a different name in Bolaño's early novel, Distant Star. A murderer and torturer for Pinochet, he also disappears until the moment when he returns to skywrite one-line poems about death in the skies above Santiago.

So what is it that makes them Nazis? Their failure as writers? The woman writer who was once cradled in Hitler's arms as a baby and the Spaniard who joins the SS are carried away by their self-delusion - but perhaps the point is that they will serve any master. It is the opposite of what art should provide - revelation, a deeper understanding of the human. And like so many artists that Bolaño writes about, all they have created is a caricature, a parody of art - like epigrams written in smoke.