Roberto Bolaño left behind an impressive amount of work that, as Marx and Engels said, during his lifetime was submitted “to the gnawing criticism of the mice.” While for the most part it has been lackluster (The Return, The Insufferable Gaucho and The Skating Rink) – Bolaño spent his early career as a poet and sometimes seems to have forgotten the need for fiction to have a plot – his latest offering, The Third Reich, seems to go beyond that, although this may not be enough.
The book concerns a young German man, Udo Berger, a strategy gamer whose drug of choice is the game “Third Reich,” which seems to be a more complicated version of RISK drawn out on the map of WW2-era Europe. Udo plays as Germany, which is always challenging given the massive advantages the Allies have from the beginning. When he and his girlfriend Ingeborg travel to Spain, he brings the game with him to write out a paper on a strategy that if successful will change forever how the game is played. Bolaño, ever the expert at weird, marginalized communities (echoes of Neal Stevenson and China Miéville) lets us know enough about the game but not too much. We find it somewhat odd, along with Ingeborg, that Udo is so obsessed with the game, and so ignorant of the political specters it raises for him, a German, to be enthusiastic about winning even a board game on behalf of the Nazis.
Udo and Ingeborg hang out with a fellow German couple, Charly and Hanna, and a trio of somewhat odd locals: El Lobo (the Wolf), El Cordero (the Lamb) and El Quemado (the Burn Victim). Bolaño draws us into the inexplicably sinister atmosphere of a Spanish resort town at the end of the summer, into which Udo enters into somewhat like the literary critics Pelletier and Espinoza in Santa Teresa, Mexico in his masterpiece 2666. Charly gets drunk too often, goes off the rails and beats Hanna, then disappears into the sea on windsailing board without a trace. Udo and Ingeborg become increasingly alienated from each other, which culminates in her leaving after Udo sets up a game of Third Reich with El Quemado to test his strategy.
The reader expecting building tension leading to a climax would do well to look elsewhere, as with all of Bolaño’s work. Dead ends abound: Udo tries to start a romance with the hotel’s manager, a beautiful German woman by the name Frau Else, whose husband is off in a room in the hotel somewhere dying of cancer. Instead he starts an inconclusive liason with the maid. He suspects that El Cordero and El Lobo are going to kill him. He waits for Charly’s body to be recovered but when a body is found, it is so deteriorated that it may not be Charly at all. Meanwhile he plays Third Reich with El Quemado, who is increasingly obsessed with beating him, the Third Reich champion of Germany. He suspects that El Quemado is receiving advice from Frau Else’s husband. He sleeps little and has confused nightmares. Despite that the season is over and Charly’s body has been found (or at least will not be found) he refuses to leave Catalonia for reasons that seem obscure even to himself.
Previous readers of Bolaño may be most intrigued by the figure of El Quemado, a man who one of Udo’s friends back home suggests may be the devil or a Mephistopheles of strategy gamers. Like many Bolaño characters and the author himself, El Quemado is a young Latin American living on the coast of Catalonia. The burn scars that cover his body give him a sinister appearance causing him to be shunned by the locals, though from all appearances he is harmless enough just working a one-man paddle boat renting operation and living on the beach under his boats. The monomaniacal fixation he develops toward Udo’s game creates the implication that El Quemado, like Bolaño was a refugee from the political turmoil and military coups of Latin America. Readers of Distant Star will be struck by a scene in which a propellor plane tries to write messages in the sky on September 11, an inauspicious date which is the anniversary of the coup in Chile but also happens to be Catalonia Day.
The sinister atmosphere vanishes after Udo loses the game to El Quemado. He seems to be cured of his love for Third Reich, and leaves his board on the beach for his victorious opponent. He goes back to Germany. Such is this early effort from Bolaño. I personally enjoyed it, although for obvious reasons I find it hard to recommend wholeheartedly. It is certainly interesting in terms of his development as a writer, which enthusiasts like myself will appreciate. Anyone else can probably find better uses of their time.
Roberto Bolaño, The Third Reich, trans. Natasha Wimmer. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, $25.