Roberto Bolaño’s Playful Obsession: ‘The Third Reich’

Natasha Wimmer’s English translation of The Third Reich was published in 2011. The manuscript was discovered in Roberto Bolaño’s papers after his death and is believed to have been written in 1989, making it his first crack at a novel (that we know of).

Posthumously, his reputation precedes him. The publication of The Savage Detectives in 1998 won Bolaño a seat at the table with the golden boys of the literary firmament. The Savage Detectives and his later 2666 create a prism through which most people coming to The Third Reich will read the book. These two hugely popular books are of varying quality. For my money, The Savage Detectives is a small book bursting with cheap thrills, although I have heard it described as a radical reinvention of the traditional family novel. On the other hand, 2666, is a monsoon of an achievement.

I sometimes question my objectivity when it comes to new work from a writer I already adore. Much like Bolaño’s characters I find it hard to tell the difference between what I have read and who I am.

The Third Reich is narrated by Udo Berger, who is accompanied by his girlfriend Ingeborge on their vacation to a Spanish beach town. Udo’s family has been vacationing there all of his life and he remembers the stern but alluring manager, Frau Else from his youth. The sensual temptations of tanning one’s skin to leather or windsurfing do not interest Udo. His heart belongs to a board game called The Third Reich.

It’s a strategy game much like Axis and Allies. Players roll dice and position armies and currency in a struggle to conquer Europe; a simulacra of World War II. Udo’s descriptions of the game verge on sentimentality: “An amnesiac Europe, with no sense of the epic or heroic. (It doesn’t surprise me that adolescents spend their time playing Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games.)” There is a fairly straightforward thematic harmony between the reconstructed reality of the game and Udo’s active imagination.

It is mentioned, unassumingly, that Udo always plays the German side. It’s not clear whether this is a benign habit or a more insidious choice and the novel tends to leave his nationalism opaque. This juxtaposition of naiveté with violence, like a precocious child encountering madness, is distinctive of Bolaño.

Despite Udo’s aversion to the sunlight and the hoi polloi of the beach, his plucky girlfriend finds a way to get him to come out. The summer nights roll on in Spanish clubs with German friends Charly and Hannah, whom Ingeborge has rounded up. Not one for confrontation, Udo hides his inward disdain for them and their two local friends, The Wolf and The Lamb. Udo is emasculated by Charly’s physicality and his charming confidence, which, lubricated by alcohol, often spills over into posturing and occasionally violence. Charly imagines the possibility of rape more than once and the consequences never.

Udo is awkward and neurotic around his fellow Germans. He is both repulsed by and jealous of Charly’s ability to be present in the world. He is protective over Ingeborge but finds her something of a ditz. Their intimacy is further strained by the fact that she looks down on his profession as a professional game player, never making an attempt to learn anything about it. In fact, she prefers to hide his profession from her new found friends. A sense of shame clouds their relationship.

Udo takes refuge from the galavanting Germans in his game. He is able to maintain this tenuous escapism until he befriends an archetypal Noble Savage named El Quemado ( The Burned One) on the beach. His companion is large, muscular and unsurprisingly covered in burns. Poverty has driven him to sleeping under pedal boats that he rents out on the waterfront.

Udo is drawn to El Quemado’s reticent humility. After some cajoling, Udo convinces El Quemado to join him in the hotel for a game of The Third Reich. This game will take weeks. As the game progresses, Udo’s social cadre deteriorates. Oblivious to the solitude, he remains at the resort after his girlfriend and summertime companions have gone home to finish the game with El Quemado. As he lingers at the resort, his world becomes more hallucinatory. It eventually dawns on Udo that El Quemado is less of a colloquial cipher than Udo’s angstgegner. Late in the novel there is a joke made that El Quemado might be from South America. Fans of the movie Little Nicky will immediately recognize this as an allusion to Hell.

As Udo’s mind spins chaotic and the threat of retribution for the sins of history compound around him, he retreats deeper into the game. Despite the fact that Udo is the national champion of The Third Reich, he finds himself on the losing side against a novice. It must be due to assistance, Udo muses. As he gets closer and closer to defeat he believes he has discovered a diabolical core in El Quemado. The narration begins to spiral into a terror that is kept in check by Bolaño’s penchant for humorous irony. There’s always the wink that makes you wonder whether it’s all just this young man’s active imagination.

Both of Bolaño’s most famous novels take an obsession with books as their root theme. While writers like Thomas Pynchon or Don Delillo took real world paranoia to be their parallax view, Bolaño’s reality is instead mediated through literature. His characters dream of being revolutionaries. They want to be writers, all of them, but only because they are most at home in their hermetic kingdoms of language. Reading, as an obsession, as a life-consuming addiction is the wellspring for the ubiquitous sex and violence in his work.

Bolaño frequently straddles the line between the real and the imaginary via the medium of the word. Philosophers since Attic Greece have claimed that they encounter truth, while their counterparts the sophists deal in images. Bolaño is a novelist who believes in the truth of a dream’s vision. At one point Udo says “How stupid to die on vacation.” It is a lovely phrase that wobbles at the vertiginous height from which he sees the world. Everything is refracted in Bolaño’s world.

While a quick, engrossing read, this novel feels somewhat unfinished. There’s much tension and build up. The suspense becomes the life of the novel, leaving the reader itching for the final reveal. In the end though, the denouement is stillborn. The last sections read like fragments that could have been turned into full chapters. I was reminded of sections of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King that were indelibly his but fall short of the divine fullness of his polished work. Most of the characters are not fully realized. This might be the hallmark of a young writer, who has a voice and talent but hasn’t yet developed the artisanal craftsmanship necessary to tell a story.

The truest and most telling virtue of the book is that it is ‘alive’ in that vital way of literature. In the end this makes all the difference.

RATING 7 / 10