Bolaño was a poet by training and inclination, but he turned to prose fiction in 1998 when he realized he didn't have long to live, and he decided the money he could bring in from novels would provide for his family far better than his poetry would. His output in those five years is fairly staggering, matched only, perhaps, by Anthony Burgess's own prolificacy after being mistakenly diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor in 1961. Burgess lived for another 32 years, but Bolaño, sadly, had it right.
I finished reading Bolaño's Nazi Literature in the Americas (my first full experience reading him, although when I received my copy of 2666 I couldn't help diving in; unfortunately, the fact that I hadn't planned on reading it at the time, and its great length, kept me from continuing, though I set it aside with no little regret) yesterday, and I must say it was a highly unusual and pretty mesmerizing book. His posthumous fame would seem to indicate that his plan to financially provide for his family by writing novels was successful, and maybe things are different in Chile, but I find it strange and vaguely hilarious that a book like this could ever have been conceived with the primary goal of making its author any money at all.
Which is not a knock on the book, because as I said, I liked it quite a bit. But the book is a collection of mostly short biographical essays on authors with a fascist bent who never existed -- most of whom are South American by birth, some are North American, one or two are Germans who made their way to South America by being descendants of Nazi fugitives -- and I can't see something like that flying off the shelves, however fascinating or entertaining it is. I don't have the book in front of me, and am therefore unprepared to write a full review, but I honestly don't know how one would go about writing a review of this book in the first place. Obviously, others have done so, but I wouldn't know where to begin. I will say that Bolaño's prose is precise and sardonic throughout, and his imagination is formidable. The authors being written about are separated into categories, and I particularly liked the section of fascist science fiction writers (though I might complain that this part was too short), and I was also especially intrigued, though also somewhat confused, by the last, long-ish (about 24 pages in my edition) essay about the "infamous Ramirez Hoffman", who was, among other things, a poet who wrote in the sky, with a plane; a photographer whose pictures caused outrage and vomiting; and a serial killer.
The only part of the book that I thought was a grind was the epilogue, called "For Monsters", which is essentially a list of secondary figures, publishing houses that specialized in this sort of thing, and books. Every so often, Bolaño will include further information in one of these entries, but to no great purpose that I could see. Although this reminds me of another difficulty I had with the book: when these fictional writers are mentioned in relation to other writers, my grasp on Latin American literature is so weak that I often had no idea how many of these other writers were real, and how many were Bolaño's inventions. Since some of them were obviously real (Borges, Allen Ginsberg), this opened up the idea that many or most of the others were, as well, but you'll get nowhere asking me. As a result, I think I missed out on a fair amount of the book's satire.
But I'm more or less okay with that, because I thoroughly enjoyed the book anyway. It's certainly like nothing else I've read this year.