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June Books

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Issue: 61 Section: Literature & Ideas Topics: Canadian literature

June 22, 2009

June Books

New release by Bolano, new work by Fiorentino

by Robert Kotyk, Shane Patrick Murphy

Nazi Literature in the Americas
Roberto Bolano,
New Directions, 2008

Roberto Bolano’s Nazi Literature in the Americas operates on a principle expressed by the narrator of another of the late Chilean’s novels, The Savage Detectives: “In one sense, the name of the group is a joke. At the same time, it’s completely in earnest.” The speaker is talking about a literary faction, but he could easily be referring to the enterprise that is Nazi Literature, a book structured as a “Who’s Who” of the Latin American literary community’s extreme right wing. With each chapter taking on the form of a short biography followed by several handily provided appendices, the project reads initially like a Borgesian prank. But in the end, the sheer doggedness of the work (the joke-teller shows no signs of abatement) lends the tone a strange bleakness that persists after the formal novelty has worn off.

In reading Bolano it becomes apparent almost immediately that he was an insatiable reader and active literary scenester. But Nazi Literature’s peculiar strength is that it evinces a mind actively channeling, re-coding and at times parodying all of the writing that has been so zealously absorbed. Beyond the virtuosic, universe-creating scope of the book, Bolano tests the limits of readerly empathy with his characters; a parade of fascist monsters striving to make their own art through personal strife and political turmoil. Within such stories of artistic development, we are conditioned to root for success: the publication of the novel, the acquisition of enough means to pursue one’s craft, the achievement of some expression of vision. Such assumptions do not hold up, however, when what follows is a sentence like the one that concludes the chapter on fictional poet Jim O’Bannon: “He remained firm in his disdain for Jews and homosexuals to the end, although at the time of his death he was beginning, gradually, to accept African Americans.”

With this mysterious and bracing book, Bolano the mischief-maker reminds us that writers are neither saints nor saviours, that they ought not be lionized by virtue of their vocation and that they are, above all, a product of their time and place. It's a joke worth hearing.

Nazi Literature in the Americas is newly available in paperback.

–Robert Kotyk

Stripmalling
Jon Paul Fiorentino
ECW Press, 2009

Whenever someone gets around to writing the Great Canadian Novel, it ought to take place in a land of big-box stores and cluttered, unremarkable suburbs. It is not an easy place to write about. For the bulk of its population, Canada isn’t a country of wide-open spaces and endless, frozen landscapes. From most angles, it’s a practical place full of modest lives that don’t offer a lot of dramatic material for epic narratives. Jon Paul Fiorentino seems to be looking in the right place for a truly Canadian narrative in Stripmalling, his debut novel/autobiography with illustrations by Evan Munday.

When he keeps his story in the suburbs of Winnipeg, Fiorentino explores the darker aspects of the standard strip mall upbringing: the hopeless teenage jobs, the promiscuity, the fights and the boredom. But these familiar fragments are not at the core of the book. Stripmalling is really a novel about a young man who uncovers a creative instinct and leaves the strip mall to eventually write a novel called Stripmalling. Fiorentino attempts a quirky metanarrative, but nothing remarkable materializes in the text itself or the world beyond.

This is a diary of sorts. And you probably shouldn’t publish your diary until you’re dead. Too much of Fiorentino’s writing contains insights he should have kept to himself. An opening paragraph which references the “necessary unreliability of memory” serves as an early warning that for a book hyped on its comedic charm, someone is trying to make it awfully heavy. And there would be nothing wrong with that if so much of the novel didn’t come across as juvenile pontificating. For every nostalgic and vaguely beautiful image of a sprawling landscape, Fiorentino provides at least one empty rumination (“I do not want to thrive in YOUR world,” “Mine is a static literature.”). We never get the hidden stories of strip mall lives; we get romanticized pictures of places young Canadian authors glorify too often. Jonny ends up in Montreal (where else?), in the same cafes where, “Everyone is a writer, or was.” Despite initial promises, Fiorentino spews out stories of poverty, drugs and heartbreak like any other gloomy Mile-End amateur. Instead of sparking a literary imagination in under-explored places, Stripmalling reminds me of so many of my own strip mall nights: disappointing and easy to forget.

–Shane Patrick Murphy

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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