My trip through Roberto Bolaño's bibliography has been meandering, to say the least. I'm not following publication order or themes, just seeing what the library has in stock whenever I'm in the mood for another book. The latest I've read, The Third Reich, immediately evokes "Nazi Literature in the Americas," and more broadly his periodic ruminating of far-right-wing violence.
The Third Reich is different from his other books in a lot of ways. Most of them have been set in Latin America and feature Latin American characters, while this one is set in Spain with a German narrator. His books are often populated by poets and writers and artists, while this one features office workers on vacation. And this is the only novel of Bolaño's I've read that centers a nerdy activity: tabletop wargaming.
The narrator and protagonist is a youngish German man named Udo, on holiday with his even younger girlfriend Ingeborg at a Spanish beachside resort town. They are here to enjoy a romantic time together, but Udo also has a specific goal in mind. He has won the German championship for tabletop gaming, and his friend Conrad has convinced him to write a magazine article on his winning strategy for The Third Reich, a game that covers the events of World War II. Upon arriving in their hotel room, Udo immediately sets up the board and commences "working"; that is, playing the game.
Ingeborg seems to genuinely love Udo, but she detests his game, seeming baffled and annoyed at it. While she's out sunning on the beach, he's studying the board, musing about his next moves, or napping after being up too late the night before.
I should pause here to note that Udo might be the least pleasant narrator from any Bolaño novel I've read. By the second or third chapter we've seen lots of examples of his internal thoughts and internal actions that set our teeth on edge: he's incredibly rude and hostile to the hotel staff, seems to dislike almost everyone he meets, has a grossly inflated sense of himself, belittles Ingeborg's interests, and has a tendency towards paranoia. He isn't the worst person that Bolaño has written, probably not even the worst person in this book, but I can't think of another narrator that seems as intentionally off-putting as this one.
The structure of the story is pretty interesting: it starts out small, then expands, and then contracts, growing increasingly suffocating in the second half. But in the early days, Udo's universe consistently expands, much to his frustration and disgust. Ingeborg makes friends with another vacationing German couple, Charly and Hanna, who are staying at a nearby hotel. Udo is very annoyed by these people, especially Charly, but is outwardly polite and endures going out with them for dinner and drinks most nights, and often abandoning Ingeborg to their circle while he "works".
Through Charly, Udo comes to meet two Spaniards whose names he never learns, but who he calls The Wolf and The Lamb. They have a more dangerous sheen to them: they're locals, partiers, blue-collar people who talk crudely and lead the Germans off the beaten path into wilder environs.
Through The Wolf and The Lamb, Udo finally meets El Quemado, a badly-burned paddle-boat vendor who Udo has studied from a distance for a while. Udo is disgusted by Quemado's appearance, but there's a weird magnetism between the two, and Udo seems obsessed with getting to know Quemado, despite the latter's reticence and their very different backgrounds.
While Udo spends most of his time by himself closed up in his hotel room, he doesn't seem to be actually doing much: he isn't writing his article, and isn't playing the game, just "studying" it. He eventually invites Quemado to play against him, and pushes hard until Quemado eventually relents. Udo plays the Axis powers, while Quemado plays the Allies and USSR.
As another side note, Bolaño's description of the progress of the game are amazing, very accurate to my experience. (Which is limited, but there was a time of my life when I was very into Avalon Hill games like Bull Run or Axis and Allies.) A lot of Udo's behaviors are strange, but spending over a day to set up a game is not at all unusual. Once Udo and Quemado get into a cadence of playing, they typically do one or two turns per session, with those sessions lasting several hours. Again: that's how these kind of games go!
The specific cadence of Third Reich also matches my experience in every simulation of a World War II game. Germany is always very strong out the gate, romping through nearby neighbors, expanding to the coast of Europe, often surpassing their historical reach. But there's almost always an inevitable apogee to the Axis expansion: the thrilling sense of endless victory fades, the industrial might of the Allies' superior production ramps up. Things reach a stalemate, then gradually shift in the other direction, with the Axis powers pushed further back.
That flow of the game parallels the flow of the novel. The turning point seems to be when Charly goes missing; he has previously disappeared and then returned, so the other three aren't as concerned at first, but it gradually dawns on everyone that he has likely drowned. Hanna returns home. Things grow frostier with Ingeborg, and she departs as well. Udo, oddly, remains behind, well after his scheduled vacation is over. He claims that he needs to do this to handle bureaucratic tasks associated with Charly's death, but nobody believes him, and his continued presence after the matter is closed proves that it wasn't a real consideration.
He spends more time with The Lamb and The Wolf, but is put off by their increasingly predatory vibe. One very unpleasant element of this book is repeated references to rape. It's never clear whether anyone is actually raped during the book, but it's one of those ominous hovering clouds that Bolaño is so good at invoking. Charly and the Wolf and the Lamb laugh about the possibility that they will rape someone, there are swirling rumors of rapes occurring, Udo contemplates the possibility that Charly himself was raped, the Wolf and the Lamb seem to be on the verge of raping Clarita before Udo interrupts them, and so on. Of course this all felt really off-putting, and seems more jarring than in Bolaño's other novels, though that may be because of the time since I've read them. I do know that 2666 refers a lot to widespread sexual violence in Santa Teresa, and multiple novels have grimly borne witness to the rape and murder of the sister-poets. Maybe it's the causalness of references to rape here that make it seem particularly wrong.
While most relationships wither away in the back half of the book, there's a sort of undertow with Frau Else. When Udo stayed at this hotel years ago as a teenager, he had a crush on Frau Else. He seems determined to make her remember him, and tries hard to establish a rapport with her. She's generally distant with him, but as the book goes on they spend more and more time together, even spending nights full of passionate kissing. Her husband is dying, which seems to delight Udo on some level. I never really got a bead on Else's deal. She generally turns him down, but remains present and occasionally encouraging: does she harbor some deep-seated feelings for him that she suppresses? Is she overwhelmed by her husband's terminal illness and acting erratically? Or is she just put off by this deeply weird nerd, and trying to fulfill her basic duties as a hostess with as little awkwardness as possible?
There are two techniques Bolaño uses in his novels that I absolutely adore and keep me coming back for more: absence and ambiguity. He's possibly the best novelist I know at writing around a subject, pointedly leaving things left unsaid, or making someone's absence loom larger than their presence ever could. And he's also a master at forcing us to examine a subject while considering multiple overlapping and contradictory interpretations of what that subject is or means. Both of those techniques are on fine display here.
There are a lot of absences in this book, but one of the most striking is that of Frau Else's husband. Seemingly everybody other than the Germans knows him and talks with him and sees him, but the tourists never lay eyes on him. It's a bit of a surprise when, in the last few chapters of the book, Udo finally confronts him and has a conversation with him. And what a conversation! As Udo notes, it feels like they're talking past each other: they're using the same words, but seem to be referring to different concepts, each one baffled and vaguely frustrated by the other's inability to grasp what they're saying.
Another odd absence is one of description. After several play sessions, Quemado gifts Udo with some photocopies. This puts Udo into a very odd frame of mind, kind of passively-aggressively-hostile, and he goes out to bully the hotel watchman into giving him some push-pins and then attaches the photocopies to the wall. And yet... Udo doesn't describe just what those photocopies are! Are they photographs of the war? Newspapers? Game rules? Strategy articles? It's as if, by throwing a mini-tantrum in pinning the photocopies up, Udo can avoid having to actually look at them and consider what Quemado is trying to say through the gift.
Quemado himself is probably the most mysterious figure in the novel. Conrad has a premonition early on that Quemado is the Devil. Frau Else's husband is very friendly with Quemado, but also fears him, and has pointed warnings for Udo about the terrible danger Udo faces in his relationship with Quemado: again, there are undertones of sexual violence (explicitly rejected, but poisoning the mood by even being mentioned), as well as bodily harm. Udo had somehow made the (accurate!) leap that the husband was consulting with Quemado on strategy, but it turns out that Quemado didn't need any help, and has the raw intelligence and drive to succeed at the game.
The last few chapters also bring in the specter of Naziism. Clarita asks Udo if he is a Nazi; he's surprised she would even ask, and denies it, saying something like "If anything, I'm an anti-Nazi." Which... that's an interesting and odd thing to say! Despite living inside Udo's head for the entire novel, I don't think we've ever really gotten any hint of his personal politics. He is enjoying playing the Nazi faction in the Third Reich, but this doesn't seem to be connected to nostalgia for the party or a desire that they had won. But I also can't think of any actions he has taken or thoughts he'd have that would qualify him as an Anti-Nazi. Really, he's mostly defined by a broadly malevolent misanthropy. It doesn't seem racialized, but he dislikes almost everybody. Anyways, I just think that's kind of interesting, given Bolaño's very specific and pointed polemics against far-right movements in his other writings, for him to raise that flag here and let it just sort of flap weakly in the air.
After finishing the book, I did a bit of light research, and learned a few relevant things. First, The Third Reich is a real game! On the one hand that makes me slightly less impressed that Bolaño so accurately nailed the lingo and cadence of wargaming, since it's based on a real game; but I also think it's really cool that this literary novelist was secretly a super-nerd all along.
Secondly, like a lot of Bolaño novels this one was posthumously published. I'd assumed that it was a late manuscript of his that was eventually finished after his death. Apparently, though, this was the very first novel he ever wrote: it was written way back in 1989 and just never published. So, while there were several parts in the book where I thought "Ah, Roberto is once again doing that thing he likes to do", but no: this was the first time he did that thing! I think that makes me like and admire this novel even more, since he already had such a mastery of his prose and characterization.
But that factoid also confused me, since there's one chapter where Udo is wandering the street, and realizes that it's September 11 and everything is closed in remembrance. Naturally, I assumed that this was a reference to the 9/11 attacks in the US, and was a little surprised that a sleepy Spanish resort town would shut down to observe it. But anyways I've done some additional Googling, and learned that September 11 is the date that Barcelona fell, and is honored in Catalonia as a sort of anti-Independence day. Interesting!
Anyways, back to the actual book: As usual, I really loved this. I've read a couple of Bolaño novels that seem like remixes of other pieces: a short story that spins out into a novel, or the same event told from multiple perspectives, or familiar characters resurfacing at different stages of life. On the one hand, The Third Reich stands apart: its setting, characters and concerns seem wholly unique to anything else Bolaño has done (that I've read, at least!). On the other hand, it's a really powerful demonstration of his fantastic writing chops: creating a sense of a kind of heavy, sleepy, humid summer that saps away your dreams of productivity, conjuring up vaguely ominous presences that hover at the periphery of your vision, following along a mind that's obsessed and yet curiously reluctant to make eye contact with its obsession. I do hesitate a little to recommend it as a "first Bolaño book" mostly because the narrator can be so off-putting, but anyone who already enjoys this author will get a lot out of it.