The Many Masks of Max Mirebelais

Roberto Bolaño's Nazi Literature in the Americas presents itself as a biographical dictionary of American writers who flirted with or espoused extreme right-wing ideologies in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It is a tour de force of black humor and imaginary erudition. The novel is composed of short biographies, including descriptions of the writers' works. All of the writers are imaginary, although they are all carefully and credibly situated in real literary worlds. Authors from twelve different countries are included.

MAX MIREBALAIS, alias MAX KASIMIR, MAX VON HAUPTMAN, MAX LE GUEULE, JACQUES ARTIBONITO

Port-au-Prince, 1941—Les Cayes, 1998

His real name was probably Max Mirebalais, although we will never know for sure. His first steps in literature remain mysterious: one day he turned up in a newspaper editor's office; the next, he was out on the streets, looking for stories, or more often running errands for the senior staff. In the course of his apprenticeship, he was subjected to all the miseries and servitudes of Haitian journalism. But thanks to his determination, after two years, he rose to the position of assistant social reporter for the Port-au-Prince Monitor, and in that capacity, awed and puzzled, he attended parties and soirées held in the capital's grandest houses. There can be no doubt that as soon as he glimpsed that world, he wanted to belong to it. He soon realized that there were only two ways to achieve his aim: through violence, which was out of the question, since he was peaceable and timorous by nature, appalled by the mere sight of blood; or through literature, which is a surreptitious form of violence, a passport to respectability, and can, in certain young and sensitive nations, disguise the social climber's origins.

He opted for literature and decided to spare himself the difficult years of apprenticeship. His first poems, published in the Monitor's cultural supplement, were copied from Aimé Césaire, and met with a rather negative reception from certain intellectuals in Port-au-Prince, who openly mocked the young poet.

His next exercises in plagiarism demonstrated that he had learned his lesson: this time the poet imitated was René Depestre, and the result, if not unanimous acclaim, was the respect of a number of professors and critics, who predicted a brilliant future for the neophyte.

He could have continued with Depestre, but Max Mirebalais was no fool; he decided to multiply his sources. With patient craftsmanship, sacrificing hours of sleep, he plagiarized Anthony Phelps and Davertige, and created his first heteronym: Max Kasimir, the cousin of Max Mirebalais, to whom he attributed poems borrowed from those who had ridiculed his first ventures into print: Philoctète, Morisseau and Legagneur, founding members of the Haiti Littéraire group. The poets Lucien Lemoine and Jean Dieudonné Garçon came in for the same treatment.

With the passage of time he became expert in the art of breaking down the work of another poet in order to make it his own. Vanity soon got the better of him and he tried to conquer the world. French poetry provided a boundless hunting ground, but he decided to start closer to home. His plan, noted somewhere in his papers, was to exhaust the expressive repertoire of négritude.

So, after expressing and exhausting more than twenty authors, whose collections, although extremely hard to come by, were placed at his disposal free of charge by the Apollinaire French bookshop, he decided to let Mirebalais take charge of Georges Desportes and Edouard Glissant from Martinique, while Max Kasimir assumed responsibility for Flavien Ranaivo from Madagascar and Leopold-Sedhar Senghor from Senegal. In plagiarizing Senghor his art reached a summit of perfection: no one realized that the five poems that appeared in the Monitor in the second week of September 1971 signed Max Kasimir were texts that Senghor had published in Hosties noires (Seuil, 1948) and Ethiopiques (Seuil, 1956).

He came to the attention of the powerful. As a society journalist he went on covering the soirées of Port-au-Prince, with greater enthusiasm if anything, and now he was greeted by the hosts and introduced in various ways (much to the confusion of the less literary guests), as our treasured poet Max Mirebalais, or our beloved poet Max Kasimir or, as certain jovial military men used to say, our esteemed bard Kasimir Mirebalais. He did not have to wait long for his reward: he was offered the post of cultural attaché in Bonn, which he accepted. It was the first time he had left the country.

Life abroad turned out to be awful. After an unbroken series of illnesses that kept him in hospital for more than three months, he decided to create a new heteronym: the half-German, half-Haitian poet Max von Hauptman. This time he copied Fernand Rolland, Pierre Vasseur-Decroix and Julien Dunilac, whom he presumed were little known in Haiti. From the manipulated, made-over, metamorphosed texts rose the figure of a bard who even-handedly explored and sang the magnificence of the Aryan and the Masai races. After three rejections, the poems were accepted by a Parisian publisher. Von Hauptman was an immediate success. So while Mirebalais spent his days enduring the boredom of his work at the embassy or undergoing endless medical tests, he was coming to be known, in certain Parisian literary circles, as the Caribbean's bizarre answer to Pessoa. Naturally no one (not even the poets who had been plagiarized, some of whom could well have come across the curious texts of Von Hauptman) noticed the fraud.

Mirebalais, it seems, was excited by the idea of being a Nazi poet while continuing to espouse a certain kind of negritude. He decided to pursue Von Hauptman's creative work in greater depth. He began by clarifying—or obscuring—his origins. Von Hauptman was not one of Mirebalais' heteronyms. Mirebalais was a heteronym of Von Hauptman, whose father, so he said, had been a sergeant in Doenitz's submarine fleet, cast up on the Haitian coast, a Robinson stranded in a hostile land, protected by a few Masai who sensed that he was their friend. He married the prettiest of the Masai girls, and Max was born in 1944 (which was a lie: he was born in 1941, but fame had gone to his head, and since he was enhancing the truth, he thought he might as well take three years off his age). Predictably, the French did not believe him, but neither did they take exception to his outlandish claims. All poets invent their pasts, as the French know better than anyone. In Haiti, however, the reactions were diverse. Some saw Mirebalais as a pathetic fool. Others promptly invented European fathers or grandfathers of their own: shipwrecked seamen from German, English or French vessels, adventurers gone astray in some corner of the island. Overnight, the Mirebalais-Von Hauptman phenomenon spread like a virus through the island's ruling class. Von Hauptman's poems were published in Port-au-Prince, affirmations of Masai identity ran riot (in a country where Masai ancestry is probably so rare as to be nonexistent) accompanied by legends and family histories. A pair of adepts of the New Protestant Church even tried their hand at plagiarizing the plagiarist, without much success.

Fame, however, is quick to perish in the tropics. By the time he returned from Europe, the Von Hauptman craze had been forgotten. Those who wielded real power—the Duvalier dynasty, the few wealthy families and the army—had little time for the preoccupations of an idealized, bogus half-breed. Dazzled by the Haitian sun, Mirebalais was sad to discover that order and the struggle against Communism carried more weight than the Aryan race, the Masai race and their common destiny in the universal realm. But quite undeterred, he prepared himself to unleash another heteronym upon the world, in a gesture of defiance. And so Max Le Gueule was born: the crowning glory of the plagiarist's art, a concoction of poets from Quebec, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon, Cameroon, The Congo, the Central African Republic and Nigeria (not to mention the Malian poet Siriman Cissoko and the Guinean Keita Fodeba, to whose works, kindly lent by the old, manic-depressive owner of the Apollinaire French bookshop, Mirebalais initially reacted with howls and later with trembling).

The result was excellent; the reception nonexistent.

This time Mirebalais' pride was wounded; for some years he withdrew to the dwindling, spectral Society section of the Monitor, and was obliged to supplement his income by taking up an obscure position in the Haitian Telephone Company.

The years of relegation were also years of poetic labor. The works of Mirebalais multiplied, as did those of Kasimir, Von Hauptman and Le Gueule. The poets gained in depth; the differences between them became more clearly marked (Von Hauptman the bard of the Aryan race, a fanatical mulatto Nazi; Le Gueule the model of the practical man, hard-headed and militaristic; Mirebalais the lyrical poet, the patriot, calling forth the shades of Toussaint L'Ouverture, Dessalines and Christophe, while Kasimir celebrated negritude, the landscapes of the fatherland and mother Africa, the rhythm of the tam-tams). The similarities emerged more clearly too: they were all passionately devoted to Haiti, order and the family. In religious matters there was some disagreement: while Mirebalais and Le Gueule were Catholic and reasonably tolerant, Kasimir practiced voodoo rites, and the vaguely Protestant Von Hauptman was definitely intolerant. Clashes among the heteronyms were organized (especially between Von Hauptman and Le Gueule, who were always spoiling for a fight), followed by reconciliations. They interviewed one another. The Monitor published some of the interviews. It is not absurd to suppose that one night, in a moment of inspiration and ambition, Mirebalais dreamed of constituting the whole of contemporary Haitian poetry on his own.

Feeling that he had been pigeonholed as picturesque (and this in a context where all the literature officially sanctioned by the Haitian regime was picturesque to say the least), Mirebalais made one last bid for fame or respectability.

Literature, as it had been conceived in the nineteenth century, had ceased to be relevant to the public, he thought. Poetry was dying. The novel was not, but he didn't know how to write novels. There were nights when he cried with rage. Then he began searching for a solution, and did not let up until he found one.

In the course of his long career as a society journalist, he had come across a young fellow who was an extraordinary guitarist. He was the lover of a police colonel and lived rough in the poor neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince. Mirebalais sought him out and became his friend, without a precise plan at first, simply for the pleasure of hearing him play. Then he suggested they form a musical duo. The young man accepted.

And so Mirebalais's last heteronym was born: Jacques Artibonito, composer and singer. His lyrics were plagiarized from Nacro Alidou, a poet from Upper Volta, Germany's Gottfried Benn, and the Frenchman Armand Lanoux. The arrangements were the work of the guitarist, Eustache Descharnes, who ceded his copyright, in exchange for God knows what.

The duo's career was uneven. Mirebalais had a bad voice but insisted on singing. He had no sense of rhythm but insisted on dancing. They made a record. Eustache, who followed him everywhere with an utterly resigned docility, seemed more like a zombie than a guitarist. Together they toured all the venues in the country, from Port-au-Prince to Cap-Haïtien, from Gonaïves to Leogane. After two years, they could only get dates in the dingiest dives. One night Eustache hanged himself in the hotel room he was sharing with Mirebalais. The poet spent a week in prison until the death was declared to be a suicide. He received death threats on his release. Eustache's colonel friend promised publicly to teach him a lesson. The Monitor would no longer employ him as a journalist. His friends turned their backs on him.

Mirebalais withdrew into solitude. He worked at the humblest jobs and quietly pursued what he called "the work of my only friends," composing the books of Kasimir, Von Hauptman and Le Gueule, whose sources he diversified, whether out of sheer pride in his craft or because by this stage difficulty had become an antidote to boredom, effecting extraordinary metamorphoses.

In 1994, while he was visiting a military police sergeant who fondly remembered Mirebalais's society columns and Von Hauptman's poems, he escaped lynching at the hands of a ragged mob, along with a group of military officers who were preparing to leave the country. Indignant and frightened, Mirebalais retired to Les Cayes, capital of the Département du sud, where he rhapsodized in bars and served as middle man on the docks.

Death found him composing the posthumous works of his heteronyms.

From Nazi Literature in the Americas. Forthcoming February 2008 from New Directions. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.