Written in 1989, the complete typescript for “The Third Reich” was discovered in Roberto Bolaño’s papers after his death in 2003. More poetic and captivating than his later tale of crime, suspense and corruption set on the Costa Brava (“The Skating Rink”), “The Third Reich” holds the seed of poetry and depravity that is representative of Bolaño’s work and would eventually culminate in “2666.” It is indeed a seed, bordering on a novella and using the more perplexing but also less ambitious format of a diary. Serialized in four parts this year in the Paris Review, the 288-page novel is narrated day-by-day by a socially inept but quietly perceptive German board-game player, Udo Berger.
Away on vacation from his day job, Udo and his girlfriend Ingeborg head up Spain’s Costa Brava, where she soaks up rays with another German couple she befriends at the hotel, Charly and Hanna. Udo stays inside, mostly, hoping to write an essay for publication on strategy for the board game he plays almost exclusively: The Third Reich. The strategy game seems to be some sort of cross between Risk and Dungeons & Dragons, similarly part of a subculture of its own. As the title of the game suggests, the tasteless scene is World War II Europe; one player acts as the Allies, the other as the Axis. The Catalonian occupants of the small beach town are as uneasy with the German tourist’s obsession as is to be expected; Udo’s proclivity for playing the Axis only contributes to the suspicion.
But it is less the board game and more the complex maneuverings of Udo and the local residents—three men who fittingly go by the names the Wolf, the Lamb and El Quemado (the burnt one)—that occupy Udo’s attention on the trip. With almost placid suspense, Bolaño constructs a beach town eerily uncomfortable with its own tranquility. Or perhaps it is Udo who does this. Clearly only Bolaño, not this apparent narrator who struggles to write one paragraph about board-game strategy, can extract such singular details: A cloud the color of dirty blood takes shape in the east among the dark clouds covering the sky, looking like the promise of an end to the rain. But Udo’s diary entries convey an almost autistic understanding of others.
Udo, prone to a fascination with the bizarre, becomes fixated on El Quemado, the grotesquely deformed pedal-boat operator that lives on the beach, reminding the tourists that whatever horrors they came to escape from their own lives, there are worse ones in this town that sells carefreeness. So too, on closer inspection, do another set of locals, the Wolf and the Lamb, whose own disfigurements only become apparent on closer, internal examination, and the hotel manager, Frau Else, who Udo finds attractive but also satisfyingly easy to irk. Each town dweller—both permanent and temporary—becomes, like a piece in a board game, alternately forgotten and pivotal, but always holding potential, for ascendancy or downfall.
Through Udo, Bolaño turns a picturesque vacation spot into a scene noir, and together they drag out the suspense like any truly adult board game. Page by page, day by day, turn by turn, we wait to see where this desolately beautiful place will take us. (Ella Christoph)
“The Third Reich”
By Roberto Bolaño
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 288 pages, $25