'The Third Reich' by Roberto Bolano
Bolaño’s tale of a World War II strategy-game champion on vacation with his girlfriend gets sidetracked and loses its way
If it’s true that all novelists dream of living on through their work after their death, then it also must be admitted that the dreams of Roberto Bolaño (who died in 2003) must have been more vivid than most of his peers. His latest posthumous novel, “The Third Reich,’’ (His latest? Shouldn’t a writer be allowed just one? And how aggravated it makes one to read that this book was “found among Roberto Bolaño’s papers’’! I mean, who has one book, let alone several, hidden in one’s “papers’? For that matter, who has “papers’’?) is a good book with a great premise: Its narrator, a German named Udo Berger, is on vacation with his beautiful girlfriend, Ingeborg, on the Costa Brava, but all he can think about is Third Reich, a World War II strategy game at which he is a champion.
We get a sense of Udo’s obsession with the game early in the novel when he asks his hotel to supply him with a certain kind of table on which to play his game, and when the hotel gives him a table that does not meet his requirements, Udo “swept everything that was on the table onto the bed and ordered [the hotel employee] to take the table away and come back with one that matched [his] specifications.’’
Clearly, Udo takes this game seriously, and to a somewhat lesser degree, so does Bolaño. When I say “to a somewhat lesser degree’’ I don’t mean that Bolaño’s treatment of the game is jokey: On the contrary the book is full of agreeably sober accounts of Udo’s war games, including this marvelous, all-in paragraph:
“Then came the Stuttgart tournament, preceding by a few months the Interzonal (essentially the national championship), to be held in Cologne. We [Udo and his friend Conrad] both entered, promising half in earnest and half in jest that if fate pitted us against each other, we would be ruthless despite our steadfast friendship. Around that time Conrad had just published his Ukrainian Gambit in the fanzine Tötenkopf.’’
This passage - in its straight-faced treatment of the ridiculous (a fanzine called Tötenkopf!), in its awe-inspiring and also potentially ruinous refusal to wink at something that seems to demand to be winked at - reminds me of three other novels: Robert Coover’s 1968 proto-fantasy baseball novel “The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.’’; Kazuo Ishiguro’s great 1995 novel “The Unconsoled’’; and Bolaño’s own earlier (by which I mean later - “The Third Reich’’ was actually, apparently, finished in 1989) novels, especially 1998’s “The Savage Detectives.’’
In each of those three books, the writer does something incredibly brave: He takes an absurd situation and sees it through the eyes of people who cannot afford, or bear, to consider or admit to its absurdity. In other words, the novels don’t just take their absurdity seriously; they also argue - implicitly and otherwise - that novel writing itself is the purest and fullest expression of the logic of the absurd, and that to treat it winkingly is to break the contract between writer and book. This is not to say that those books aren’t funny - they’re often hilarious - nor is it to say that they do not create a feeling of joy in their readers - there is no book written in the last 30 years that makes me happier than Ishiguro’s “The Unconsoled’’ - but it is to say that these books don’t laugh at themselves, or their characters. This was true of Bolaño’s “The Savage Detectives,’’ and insofar as Udo’s war games are concerned, it’s also true of “The Third Reich.’’
Unfortunately, the novel gets distracted by things having nothing to do with the Third Reich, and this is what I meant when I said that the novel is serious about Udo’s war games “to a somewhat lesser degree.’’ If it was truly serious about the game - as metaphor, as logic, as structure, as plot - then it would prevent Udo from seeing anything else in the world: The reader would be able to see the world, but Udo would not (the friction between two different ways of seeing, and not seeing, is what we mean, or should mean, when we refer to something as being “a novel’’). But unfortunately, the novel and Udo too easily surrender to the busyness of the world (and this is what we usually mean when we talk about a novel’s plot: We’re talking about a novel’s surrender to the busyness of the world). Early in the novel, Ingeborg and Udo run into another tourist couple - the drunken Charly and the beautiful but passive Hannah - and in turn the four of them run into locals with nicknames like the Wolf, the Lamb, and El Quemado. They drink. They fight. They have sex. They go to the beach. Repeat. Until one day Charly disappears. And then the novel concerns itself with Charly’s disappearance.
To be fair: This novel is much, much better than most novels that are posthumously found among a writers “papers.’’ And, to also be fair: The writing devoted to the abovementioned plot points is often quite good, if not quite as brilliant as the writing devoted to the Third Reich. But that’s my point: Of all the characters listed above, only the scarred, sinister-seeming El Quemado has anything to do with Udo’s war games, which after all, is not just reason for Udo’s existence, but for the novel’s. The novel is aware of this problem - when Udo asks Conrad “But what is my turf?’’ that might as well be Bolaño asking himself what kind of novel he’s writing - but seems unwilling or unable to do anything about it.
The critic James Wood claimed that Ishiguro’s “The Unconsoled’’ “invented its own category of badness.’’ Wood was wrong, except insofar as all great novels must have the courage of their convictions, and that courage makes them refuse to turn their backs on what makes them so distinctive in the first place, and what makes them distinctive is that they embrace what might, in lesser hands, make them bad.
“The Savage Detectives’’ was great because it had the courage of its convictions. But at the end of “The Third Reich,’’ after all its loose ends are secured, Udo grudgingly goes to a war games convention and comes “to the conclusion that eighty percent of the speakers needed psychiatric help.’’ It’s understandable why someone might want to turn his back on a group of people inventing their own category of badness. But I much preferred Udo, and his novel, when he was among the 80 percent.