The best thing about this book is that it was written by Roberto Bolaño. The worst is that he had Roberto Bolaño to compete with. Although discovered after the author's death, and apparently quite complete, this is a relatively early work. Beautifully produced, and with a fluid translation by Natasha Wimmer, the publishers have done it proud. Aficionados will find many hints of what Bolaño would later do in THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES and 2666: an almost obsessive concentration on detail, a touch of surrealism, and hints of offstage violence. But the ingredients, instead of reinforcing, here tend to cancel each other out. It is a book in which you keep expecting something to happen, but very little actually does.
The story is simple. Udo Berger, a German in his mid-twenties, is taking a late summer vacation with his girlfriend in a beach hotel on the Costa Brava where he used to come with his family as a child. Together with another German couple, they engage in the usual occupations: swimming, sunbathing, eating, drinking (a lot), and making love. But shadows hang over this idyll. They become involved with a group of slightly sinister local men, called The Wolf, The Lamb, and El Quemado (the burnt one), a hideously-burned South American immigrant who hires out pedal boats on the beach. Their contentment is marred by small acts of offstage violence, and by an unexpected death that touches them more directly. Eventually only Udo remains as the weather worsens and the hotel prepares to close for the season -- slight echoes here (as so often) of DEATH IN VENICE!
Less simple is Bolaño's choice of a title. It will become obvious that this is merely the name of a war game that Udo is playing, studying, and writing about. The German national champion of war-gaming, he seems at times like an Ishiguro protagonist, a man of distinction in his own self-absorbed world, but a nonentity outside it. But the game is concerned only with the military history of WW2, "essentially ghosts of a ghostly General Staff, forever performing military exercises on game boards." It might as easily have been called "Fortress Europa" or something. By choosing the title he did, Bolaño invites other associations, which permeate the story like a miasma, but ultimately come to nothing. This was an easy and relatively absorbing book to read. But when I think what Bolaño did by loitering on the edge of horror in BY NIGHT IN CHILE, an even more compact work, I am disappointed by the almost facile use of the associations here.
on December 5, 2011
Udo Berger, a twenty-something German too young to have tripped over the cracks of life, suffers the arrogance that comes from knowing he is one of the best. Udo works as a clerk while he hones his skill as a war game-board player, hoping to earn a living writing columns about his unassailable intellectual strategies. He takes his girlfriend to vacation in a declining hotel on the Costa Brava, the polluted Spanish coast north of Barcelona. Udo spends his vacation immersed in analyzing the strategy of his favorite game, "The Third Reich," the battles of German, Russian and Allied armies, consuming his time and emotions as he searches for those perfect German maneuvers that would have won the war.
Udo and his gaming buddies are part of the Bavarian working class in the late 1980's who viewed the war from the prospective of the elite Wehrmacht officer corps, conveniently ignoring the Nazi-directed genocide ("I'm not a Nazi," he says). Udo and his friends were the grandchildren-generation of the Bavarians that led the Nazi putsch some fifty years before. The story revolves around an extended game between Udo, as the German supreme commander, and a poor, struggling paddleboat operator, El Quemado, badly burned and disfigured from some unknown event in the past, a man somewhat shunned for the ugliness of his scars. Udo executes his strategy while writing a paper to present at a Paris convention. The game stretches over several days as Udo slowly realizes the inevitability of history.
Bolano shrouds the resort in gloomy September weather as the vacation season winds down. There is a constant undercurrent of lurking violence, the beating of a girlfriend, a possible rape, an unresolved death and imagined threats, a lightweight, modern version of Emil Zola's naturalism. Udo loves trying to change history, without understanding history; he professes love for Goethe's poetry, without understanding the meaning of "until you have possessed dying and rebirth." He sinks into a malaise as he realizes the pointlessness of his solipsistic passion and identity, his folly and hubris of his youth.
Roberto Bolano died in 2003 at the age of 50. Born in Chile, his family migrated to Mexico City when he was a teenager. He played with communism, claiming to be a Trotskyist, and in his twenties, returned to Chile in support of Allende, only to be imprisoned for a short period by the subsequent Pinochet government. He meagerly supported himself as a poet and short story writer until, in the late eighties and settled on the Costa Brava, he turned to novels in order to support his family.
The Third Reich was apparently his first novel, written in the late 1980's when he was in his mid-thirties, and laid in his desk until his publishers finally decided to publish it for his Spanish audience in 2010. Bolano was well recognized with two of his novels, Savage Detectives and 2666, in Latin America, but none of his novels were translated into English until after his death. The Paris Review thought highly enough of the novel to serialize it over the past year. Perhaps Bolano felt the same way about The Third Reich as I do, a book that doesn't quite come together. His prose is as beautifully crafted as the poet he was (and the translation retains that wonderful voice), but he left this first novel in the back of his desk drawer for fourteen years for a reason: the lack of something to make it a compelling narrative.
This was my third Bolaño novel, (the first two being "2666" and "The Savage Detectives"). Familiarity with where he would eventually end up as a novelist makes reading "The Third Reich" an eerily fun experience. It also illuminates the central themes of his later works. "The Third Reich" is the name of a strategic board game that mirrors the battle chronology of World War II, and Bolaño has made the champion player a young German on vacation in Spain. It's worth noting that Bolaño had a special interest in the ineffable qualities of evil that seem to pass through time and space in a steady, yet unknowable, way. The real-world migration of Nazi war criminals to South America seems connected in an almost spiritual way to Bolaño's fictional portrays of German war veterans and Nazi mystique.
"The Third Reich" is a surprisingly good novel, even though it often feels like it was written a century ago. I know that doesn't make sense, but I kept thinking about Thomas Mann while I was reading this. Some plot points and characters don't appear to make sense, but they somehow fit. It's a gloomy, old-world novel that keeps reminding you that it is actually rather contemporary.
on December 23, 2011
So this is an early work. Okay. There seems to be a general sense among these works that this doesn't measure up to other Bolano. Okay. I neither agree nor disagree. This is different than his other novels-- It isn't the short burst of fire that is most of his shorter novels-- By Night in Chile, Amulet, Distant Star, etc. It also certainly isn't like the two masterpieces, with their endless digressions and unimaginable structures. It is more akin I suppose to The Skating Rink-- not only does it share a setting (the Costa Brava of Spain), but it also uses a chronologically progressive structure. This structure is important in distinguishing it from BNiC or Amulet, both of which are remembrances from one moment, and therefore hold the potential to go anywhere at any time.
Spoiler alert-- the title's sneaky implications, the narrator's gradual disintegration. There is so much hinted at about the whole history of Europe here. So much hinted and unsaid. Bolano retells Germany's WWII narrative in what at first seems to be a minor subplot, but becomes everything, and how could it not? WWII is replayed between a German self-described "anti-Nazi" and an essentially anonymous burn victim (presumably he was imprisoned (and burned) after the Chilean coup and the rise of Pinochet-- though this is only vaguely hinted at). And this Risk-like board game version of WWII becomes an obsession, an actual consequences. And the narrator, the anti-Nazi. He is anti-social, obsessive, utterly self-consumed-- and it is thus that his destruction is inevitable. His self-obsession absolutely opposes any notion of self-knowing. And then, some kind of kicker-- the game attains the importance of War-- his loss should mean his death-- but he loses and nothing happens, and in fact he returns home, and resumes his relationship with his beautiful girlfriend, and apparently he has even abandoned his obsession. Is this not the perfect metaphor for Germany, for the Third Reich? As in all Bolano, without being "realist" with all the ploddingness that that label connotes, it emanates the real like almost no other literature. Its situations and language and narrative and description are rife with paradox, with the unexplainable, with unharessable and unaccountable emotion, with missed opportunities. He presents a near-perfect approximation, devoid of the frame of literary technique, in a way that is wholly unique. Also, if you like this and you haven't read them, I recommend WT Vollmann's The Royal Family and Paul Auster's City of Glass-- without getting into other simiarities/differences, both these novels have the "slowly-disintegrating-protagonist" narrative that I love dearly.
Spoiler over-- The Point of my review is that I came into this book having read Bolano's other novels and expecting a letdown because of the seeming consensus that it is a "letdown," that it is worthy as a forecast of Bolano's later work but not necessarily as a stand-alone piece. And I wholly reject that notion. Sure it is interesting in conversation with his other work-- all his work inter-converses, such is the nature of Bolano, and that is present here. But reading this novel I was drawn in and shaken, and I finished literally shaking, and I could not sleep the night after, and it was the most profound literary experience I've had in months (probably since I finished The Savage Detectives, haha). SO my advice: you like Bolano, go into this expecting Bolano, you won't be let down. Here's to looking forward to whatever forthcoming translations remain, I know there are a few.
on January 12, 2012
I opened The Third Reich because it seemed like an easy starting point to appreciate Bolano. One immediately discovers his ability to intensely characterise, this time using the first person, both the protagonist and other players. Even the smaller roles are characterised adequately. Names like Wolf and Lamb may sound like caricatures, but they work. Arrogance, misanthropy and despair propel Costa Brava natives and tourists around its bars and beaches.
The other strength of Bolano's prose is his evocation of setting and mood. The hot days, hedonistic nights, the tourists trying to discover the local mystique of this proud but tourist dependent town - one could have been reading Camus, even McEwan - and this enfolding of character and setting seamlessly support a tightening storyline. Natasha Wimmer, the translator, must share in the achievement of bringing an existentialist quality to Bolano's voice.
There is a story line but barely a plot. The protagonist's holidays as a child have a connection with the story but the mystery seems manufactured. The snowballing war games scenario, volatile characters and the passing of a tourist season are all of interest, even amusing, but not compelling. Bolano's characters are so well moulded that they become brittle and tedious. Hints can only be glimpsed of storyline elements such as the decline of humility, the allure of fascism and the madness of obsession. After reading this novel, I thought for some time about what this finely written story needed and then the penny dropped. The protagonist errs close to the edge in his reckless life and one recognises his downward spiral, but one doesn't really care. Comeuppance and redemption are nowhere to be found.
The Third Reich was not published until after Bolano's death and, no doubt, the publishers then considered that it retrospectively showcases his talent as an emerging author. I concur with this ambition and look forward to tackling his forays into more plot-driven territory, perhaps in his beloved Latin America.
An early novel written in 1989 and found among the papers of Roberto Bolano after his premature death in 2003, The Third Reich, is an odd but often mesmerizing story of obsession--specifically with the playing of a war game based on the actions taken by the German Reich during World War II. Udo Berger, the German national champion of this highly competitive and addictive game, is a young man, barely out of his teens, when he and his lover, the gorgeous but shallow Ingeborg, take a vacation to the Costa Brava, where Udo used to vacation as a child. They stay at the Hotel Del Mar, the small hotel where his family stayed, and where he has vivid memories of Frau Else, the hotel's owner, a lovely woman about whom has had childhood fantasies..
Shortly after their arrival, they meet Charly and Hanna, fellow Germans also on vacation. Charly and Hanna are out for a good time, with non-stop drinking and partying, and Udo would rather stay in his room where he pores over strategy for The Third Reich. Inge often goes off with Charly and Hanna, to the beach, to Barcelona, or to nightclubs, where they soon become friends with two low-lifes, Wolf and the Lamb, through whom Udo also meets El Quemado, who owns one of the paddleboat concessions along the beach. "El Quemado," which translates as "the burning," is a former soldier who is grotesquely burned on his head and upper body, and though he is untutored, he soon becomes as avid a player of The Third Reich as Udo.
As Udo and El Quemado replay the Second World War late at night while the others are out, Quemado proves to be a worthy challenger to Udo. While Udo is involved with all this, real life is taking place in the real world. One of the other characters disappears and is presumed dead, the women face possibly life-threatening crises and assaults, and suggestions of real, on-going evil pervade the action on all levels.
Ultimately, the novel takes on some of the themes and, certainly, the tone of the German Faust legend. Udo, the champion, playing the role of the Germans, resembles the intelligent but somewhat naïve Faust, and El Quemado, "the burning" or "the burned one," playing the Allies, resembles the devil, at least from Udo's point of view. Ultimately, the Faust parallels, though intriguing and atmospheric, are not complete, however, and the reader is left without a sense of real resolution. Overall, the novel is fun to read, but this is a very early novel which Bolano himself decided not to publish during his lifetime. The whole concept of obsession so dominating a person or group of people that it controls their entire raison d'etre is a fascinating one, certainly one we saw with the real Third Reich, though the description of the game and its moves is less interesting , if not dull. Had the subordinate characters been more fully developed and more plausible, the novel would have been stronger, but overall, this lesser Bolano was more fun to read and more interesting than many contemporary novels by lesser authors. Mary Whipple
on March 8, 2016
One of Bolaño's early novels, 1980s, published posthumously.
The novel's title refers to a strategy game that the narrator, a young German named Udo Berger, has developed. He is the German champion at war games, which is a very specialized 'sport'. Udo is also a gaming writer. He talks about it all the time, but he never really explains the fascination to people who don't have access to this world. (I wouldn't normally believe that this sub-culture even exists, but I happen to have a nephew, a highly qualified young physicist, who is devoted to something like this.) Udo's interest extends to actual war history. He reads intensively, but with a narrow focus on strategy. Purpose or morality don't matter to him. In the course of the novel, Udo becomes ever nuttier. Why believe a word that he writes?
The action, of which there isn't all that much, happens during a vacation in a Costa Brava beach resort. Udo travels with his girl friend. He keeps praising her beauty, but the relationship is oddly stale. The couple makes friends with another couple. Udo doesn't like them much. The new friend, Charly, is a drinker and not above beating his girl friend. Some dubious local characters are also showing up daily, for a drink, a joint, for clubbing and dirty jokes about rape and such charming subjects. One of them starts a Third Reich game with Udo. Then Charly disappears. Udo is curious and puzzled, for no obvious reason. His girl friend leaves him. Strange things happen.
Looking across genres, it seems to me that David Lynch's films could be compared to some of Bolaño's fiction. Just to give an idea of the flavor, if you never read Bolaño. With this comparison I don't mean to imply a lack of originality in Bolaño. Few people are real islands. Bolaño came close to being a rock. The fact that this novel wasn't published during his lifetime is not surprising. It is so weird, only a star could get away with it. Bolaño wasn't one yet. After he died, publishers hastened to print whatever could be found.
Bolano's posthumously published novel was probably abandoned for good reasons in 1989, because it's a thin and sketchy work of fiction. Udo Berger is a German vacationing on the beaches of Costa Brava with his girlfriend. The early scenes do bristle with the kind of intrigue that Bolano would later develop, but nothing much emerges. Berger is a German war games champion-so we are forced to consume pages of monotonous game play in the form of endless lists of moves and strategies. This method foreshadows the way in which Bolano would present his list of murders and rapes in 2666 in a stenographic form, without passion or feeling. Yes, we do see the emergence of certain central themes: e.g. offstage violence, displaced characters, and the impression of past violence. Nevertheless, this novel never gets off the ground-it will only be read by the devoted.
on November 4, 2013
It was quite different from what I expected. I have never read any of Bolano's novels and this was a good one to start with. It ws kind of like being in a dream and a bender at the same time. I really enjoyed this novel and would recommend it to anyone who likes a good story.
on June 21, 2012
As a self-proclaimed Roberto Bolaño aficionado, I eagerly awaited the publication of this novel. Although I pre-ordered it, it arrived in the middle of the semester and thus languished on my shelf, unread, until I was completely packed up and flying home. I carried it on the airplane with me and in those 5 hours engrossed myself in this enchanting work.
Although this isn't the best Bolaño, one has to remember that it is an early piece and probably lacks the many rounds of editing that Bolaño would have done had he lived to publish this novel himself. The major flaws: the beginning of the novel is slow, the middle is repetitive, and the conclusion is anti-climactic. Happily, it is easy to overlook these issues. Like always, Bolaño writes with extreme elegance, in a timeless, vivid, and wholly unique vernacular (beautifully translated by Natasha Wimmer). The characters are well described and emerge seamlessly from the picturesque landscape. The descriptions of the Spanish beach resort are a gem: although sitting uncomfortably in the airplane cabin, Bolaño had me feeling the warm air on my face and the dry sand between my toes.
I understand the frustration that many readers have with this author. Bolaño tends to hint towards genre without actually using generic conventions/plots/archetypes/conclusions. At times, The Third Reich seems to be a mystery, with mysterious rape and murder occurring just beyond the confines of the text. Elsewhere, the war-strategy game (which forms the heart of the novel) seems to overflow into the real world: characters assume broad, nationalist roles that are confusingly mixed into their more ordinary, colloquial selves. I think it's impossible as a reader/human being to not want a solution/easy answer, but one must remember that Bolaño is one author who will never acquiesce to his readers's demands.
I finished the novel just before my plane landed and, stepping off the plane, I felt as though this novel had wiped away all the stressful drudgery of the semester. That is the power of fiction that opens up and asks questions instead of offering an easy conclusion. I heartily recommend to all!