I always get the sense that Roberto Bolano is up to no good. He’s doing something very sneaky in his novels, but I can’t quite pin down what it is.
The Third Reich is my third Roberto Bolano novel, after The Savage Detectives and Nazi Literature in the Americas. This is what I’ve noticed.
In all three of these novels Mr. Bolano deals with a set of characters who are big fish in a little pond. The Savage Detectives is about a group of radical poets, Nazi Literature is a survey of National Socialist authors living in exile and The Third Reich is about the best player of a complicated board game. The characters in each book are engaged in what they think is a serious struggle to gain dominance in their worlds. In all of their situations they have no real power, no one outside their circle of competitors cares about them, or even knows they exist at all.
(It’s been many years since I read The Savage Detectives, so I’m going off of feint memories of it, but I think I’ve got this aspect of it correct.)
The narrator of The Third Reich, a German tourist named Udo who is spending his summer vacation on the coast of Spain, is perfect character for Bolano’s little game. He is the grand master of a particular board game, a complex battle strategy game based on Europe during the Second World War. The Third Reich is such a complicated game, involving battle strategy, logistics, diplomacy even weather conditions, that it takes several weeks to play.
While on vacation, Udo meets a strange man called El Quemado who runs a pedal-boat rental business. El Quemado sleeps underneath his boats at night, but he turns out to be a master at The Third Reich. El Quemado is able to out strategize all of Udo’s plans and after weeks of play defeat the grand master.
The Third Reich is the story of this particular game and of the events in the lives of it’s main player. While Udo’s attempt to lead Germany to victory progresses and then fails, his own personal life does the same. His friend and travelling companion disappears and then is discovered drowned. His girlfriend goes back home to Stuttgart. He begins an affair with the hotel manager. All this while the summer guests begin to leave as the season comes to a close until just Udo and El Quemado remain, determined to see their game to its finish.
Has Bolano placed his slightly crazy main character in a more luxurious bunker to satirize what happened to the leaders of the real Third Reich? Udo knows all about military history, but he cannot understand why his board game version of Germany fails to defeat the novice moves of his opponent who has never played the game before. He is surprised and frustrated when the game begins to play out just like it did in real life.
It makes for entertaining, if a little unsettling, reading. Unsettling in a good way. The whole thing reminded me of A Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, with its atmospheric decay as all the tourist leave town.
However, I can’t help but ask what about the Jews? Here, and in Nazi Literature in America, Bolano makes the Nazi’s central to his book’s structure without dealing with the Holocaust. While it basically made sense in Nazi Literature in the Americas, this absence is much more disquieting in The Third Reich. Any historian with even a minor understanding of the period will tell you that Germany spent considerable effort on the Final Solution at serious cost to its own war effort. While war games avoid moral issues in favor of military strategy, which I can understand, a novel, even a novel about war games, can’t avoid these issues without raising suspicion.
This is one book I really wish I was reading for a book club or a college class. I still have a lot of questions.
This book counts as book number 15 in The 20 Books of Summer Reading Challenge.