Guest Post: What Bolaño Read: The Fake Encyclopedia

by Tom McCartan | Dec-09-2009

This is the fourth installment in the series  “What Bolaño Read,” about the reading habits of the author of 2666, winner of this year's NBCC award in fiction, written by former Shaman Drum Bookstore manager Tom McCartan. The series celebrates the publication of  Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview & Other Conversationswith an introduction by former NBCC board member Marcela Valdes, which is just out from Melville House

In 1996, Roberto Bolaño published Nazi Literature in the Americas, a fictional encyclopedia of right-wing authors. In a review of the English translation by Chris Andrews, Francisco Goldman summarized the novel as depicting "literary Nazis," portrayed as "self-deluded mediocrities, snobs, opportunists, narcissists, and criminals, none with the talent of a Céline." Though the writers included in the book are imaginary (like the "airman, assassin and aesthete" Ramirez Hoffman) the world they inhabit is much like ours, and stocked with real-life writers like Allen Ginsberg, Octavio Paz, and José Lezama Lima.

In describing the book, Bolaño said he focused "on the world of the ultra right, but much of the time, in reality, I'm talking about the left.... When I'm talking about Nazi writers in the Americas, in reality I'm talking about the world, sometimes heroic but much more often despicable, of literature in general."

The fictional encyclopedia is a great format for a novel, and one Bolaño clearly enjoyed: he reworked the character Ramirez Hoffman into Carlos Wieder, the central character of his novel Distant Star.

But where did Bolaño come up with the idea for a fake encyclopedia? In an interview with Eliseo Álvarez published in 2005 in the Spanish literary journal Turia, Bolaño explains the book’s lineage and its debts owed:

Nazi Literature in the Americas, I’ll give it to you in descending order, owes a lot to The Temple of Iconoclasts by Rodolfo Wilcock, who is an Argentine writer but who wrote the book in Italian… At the same time, his book The Temple of Iconoclasts itself owes a debt to A Universal History of Infamy by Borges, which is not surprising at all because Wilcock was a friend and admirer of Borges. Borges’ A Universal History of Infamy, too, owes a debt to one of his teachers, Alfonso Reyes, the Mexican writer whom has a book called Real and Imagined Portraits. It’s just a jewel. Alfonso Reyes’ book also owes a debt to Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives, which is where this all comes from.”

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