The Third Reich
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, December 2011)
Roberto Bolaño’s lulling prose lends beauty to a dangerous Spanish beach community in The Third Reich, the latest of his novels to be translated by Natasha Wimmer. At the opening, protagonist Udo Berger shares a visceral experience with the reader:
Through the window comes the murmur of the sea mingled with the laughter of the night’s last revelers, a sound that might be the waiters clearing the tables on the terrace, an occasional car driving slowly along the Paseo Marítimo, and a low and unidentifiable hum from the other rooms in the hotel.
But things begin to turn when the finicky Udo badgers the hotel’s management for a longer table so he may set up his game. The reader soon finds out he is a German war-game champion and that his game of choice is known as Third Reich. Bolaño structures the book with Udo’s day-to-day narrative, and dedicates whole chapters to game strategy. The rules of Third Reich are never really explained, however, and one is left trying to make a connection between Udo’s game strategy and real life at the beach resort. The majority of the beginning is dedicated to Udo’s rants about the gaming community and lack of interest in joining his girlfriend, Ingeborg, at the beach, preferring to stay in their room to go over Third Reich scenarios. His world is upset when Ingeborg introduces him to two other young German tourists, Hanna and the outgoing Charly, whom Udo immediately finds annoying. Bolaño keeps his prose steady and fluid, allowing Udo’s quiet observations to continue leading the reader back to a false sense of security, even as threatening local personalities are introduced—the Wolf, the Lamb, and El Quemado.
Whether intentionally or not, Bolaño’s novel turns into a mystery. After Charly goes missing one night, Udo’s every move leads him (and us) through layers of uncertainty. Udo is an interesting stand-in for the detective figure. He appears to have little concern for the absent Charly and finds the disfigured El Quemado much more intriguing. However blasé Udo appears, the novel’s dreamlike narrative flows in and out of reality, as surreal states allude to darker and more serious situations. Bolaño is able to bury information, only plucking out bits on occasion to allow the reader to piece the plot together.
Still, it’s unclear whether Bolaño was utilizing tired plot devices as homage to classic crime novels or was just heavy-handed with clunky archetypes. The hotel owner, Frau Else, ushers her dying husband from room to room in the hotel, disallowing Udo and the reader even a quick glance. His existence is half-doubted. Then, when he finally appears, he comes across as a Sherlockian villain. While the ailing man slumbers in his darkened bedchamber, you expect him to be wearing a cravat and monocle as Udo awakes him for interrogation. “Well, the match will never be finished, which is all for the best…for the sake of humanity!” declares the unnamed husband in regard to a monumental Third Reich match that Udo is playing against El Quemado.
Udo conforms to our impression of him as the detective by identifying more and more with Florian Linden, star sleuth of a novel Ingeborg brought for the beach. Linden infiltrates Udo’s dreams and Udo finds himself flipping directly to pages in the book for answers to The Third Reich’s own mystery. These coincidental moments suggest Bolaño took the easy route, even as the reader continues to wonder how Udo’s excessive attention to game strategy correlates with the escalating tension caused by Charly’s disappearance and the subsequent investigation. To lazily glance over these seemingly mundane passages would be at the expense of discovering the technique Bolaño uses best. The game between Udo and El Quemado is close, but Udo still believes he will win because he is a German champion. In the back-and-forth between them, this outcome becomes uncertain.
Still, it’s hard not to feel that despite the beautifully crafted prose, Bolaño could have summoned his venerable powers to unite the perplexities laced throughout the narrative. He presents a complicated protagonist but doesn’t let him explore the complicated territory. Instead, the mystery becomes predictable and its importance remains unclear. One could argue that the reader needs to find his or her own importance in the novel, but I think that would just be an excuse to defend an exquisitely written but ultimately anticlimactic book.