Third Reich by Roberto Bolano
Wanting to join in Spanish Literature Month hosted by Stu and Richard, I grabbed the first book I came to on my shelves which turned out to be my second experience of reading Chilean author Roberto Bolano. My first was reading the confusing and slightly surreal Amulet which I talked about here, my second would be his earlier novel Third Reich. I picked up a copy of the slipcased hardback edition in the Waterstones sale a couple of years ago.
Third Reich was written in 1989, but it wasn’t published until 2010 in Spanish and 2011 in English translation (by Natasha Wimmer), having been discovered posthumously amongst Bolano’s papers.
Narrated by Udo Berger, the novel is a diary of his holiday on the Costa Brava with his girlfriend Ingeborg. It’s late in the season, and Udo is returning to the hotel where he spent many summers as a child, which is still run by a German woman, Frau Else.
The sight of Frau Else brought me back to my adolescence, its dark and bright moments: my parents and my brother at breakfast on the hotel terrace, the music that at seven in the evening began to drift across the main floor from the restaurant speakers, the idle laughter of the waiters, and the plans made by kids my age to go night swimming or out to the clubs. […]
Of all the faces only a few linger in memory. First, that of Frau Else, who won me over from the start. (p4)
We immediately wonder if Udo will get stuck in remembrance of times past and his crush on Frau Else, or will he and Ingeborg be able to make new friends and new memories?
Ingeborg does make new friends at a bar, dragging a reluctant Udo along with Charly and Hanna, two young Germans who seem to live for spontaneity, at the beach, in clubs and bars, a day trip to Barcelona. Udo is simultaneously suspicious of Charly and Hanna, and relieved that Ingeborg has friends so he can get on with the work he brought with him.
In Germany, Udo is a champion war-gamer. He writes articles for magazines on the subject and, encouraged by his friend Conrad, is hoping to make a career out of it. He has an article on the WWII game Third Reich to write this month – so he brought the game with him to set up in their hotel bedroom. Playing himself, this is Ingeborg’s first experience of his gaming geekery and there’s no room for her when he’s concentrating on the board of hexagons and counters. What Udo needs is an opponent.
Meanwhile, Charly and Hanna introduce more companions, rather more seedy characters known as the Lamb and the Wolf, who take them to less reputable drinking holes. There Udo encounters the man known as El Quemado, which translates as ‘The Burn Victim’. They had watched and pitied El Quemado on the beach as he plied his trade renting out pedal boats.
The rental guy was dark, with long hair and a muscular build, but the most noticeable thing about him by far were the burns – I mean burns from a fire, not the sun – that covered most of his face, neck, and chest, and that he displayed openly, dark and corrugated, like grilled meat or the crumpled metal of a downed plane.
For an instant, I must admit, I was hypnotized, until I realized that he was looking at us too and that there was an indifference in his gaze, a kind of coldness that suddenly struck me as repulsive. (p19)
Udo is fascinated by him, as he is also still fascinated by Frau Else too.
Several days into the holiday, and Udo is fed up with Charly and Hanna. Then Charly goes missing on his wind-surfer, and they are all thrust into limbo. After days of searching, the girls decide to go home back to Germany. Udo stays behind and El Quemado agrees to play Third Reich with him. Udo will play the Germans, and El Quemado the Allies.
The two men soon get obsessed, and Udo is sure that El Quemado, a gaming novice, is being coached by Frau Else’s sick husband, such is his beginner’s luck – or is it? The game becomes everything, well, nearly everything – there are still Udo’s unresolved feelings for Frau Else to deal with and how Charly’s disappearance will pan out. Udo can’t leave until the game is finished though.
I must admit, I skimmed over the detailed descriptions of the moves in the game, especially once Udo starts playing El Quemado. You only need to know who has the upper hand at any one time which, given my limited knowledge of the chronology of WWII, was a bonus. A day in real life represented a whole season of the year in the game’s 1940s timeline, and both were given in the text, becoming increasingly autumnal. You can certainly miss out the list of Udo’s favourite generals too – it’s nearly two pages long! Despite being an enthusiastic player of Risk and D&D at university, I never played this kind of uber-complicated wargame based on real battles and campaigns, where planning and strategy are everything, yet each skirmish can be decided by the roll of the dice.
Udo becomes an increasingly unreliable narrator, the game takes over from real life and dominates his dreams too. Doubtless, the choice of game in the novel is chosen to reflect the effect his obsession has. He is determined to psych El Quemado out, but his enigmatic opponent gives precious little away. Doubtless too, there are many other literary and historical allusions in the text that went straight over my head. He quotes Goethe at one point, but I didn’t really see a Faustian compact being struck.
The supporting characters in this story are so much more interesting than Udo, but self-obsessed as he is, they remain tantalisingly out of reach most of the time. There is an underdeveloped side plot involving the detective novel that Ingeborg was reading and Udo reckoned he knew whodunnit without reading more than the first page, resulting in the detective Florian Linden invading Udo’s dreams. Frau Else tries to get Udo to disassociate himself from Lamb, Wolf and El Quemado as being unsavory characters, but any sense of threat is never really built upon either.
Third Reich was much easier to read than Amulet, but the war-game sections will not be for everyone. (I would be interested to know if Natasha Wimmer, the translator, learned how to play the real game Bolano’s one is based on to help in her task!)
Because I never warmed to Udo and wanted more of the other characters and less loose ends, I’m left feeling a bit undecided about this novel. Maybe Bolano would have tightened up the plot and developed the story a bit more in due course, or maybe having filed it away just thought it unfit for publication. It wasn’t a waste of time to read, but is probably one for completists; I wouldn’t start here with Bolano. (7/10)
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Source: Own copy
Roberto Bolano, Third Reich, Picador paperback – 288 pages.