San Francisco Chronicle // The Third Reich by Roberto Bolaño

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Third Reich

By Roberto Bolaño; translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 277 pages; $25)

It’s difficult to remember a time when the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño wasn’t considered a giant of contemporary literature.

But I beg you to work your thoughts all the way back to those halcyon days of 2003, for that was when a translation of his novella “By Night in Chile” washed up on our shores in the dark of winter. It was an amazing work of art signaling the emergence in the English-speaking world of a remarkable talent. His massive novels “The Savage Detectives” and “2666” would eventually earn Bolaño the hyperventilating sort of praise reserved for the American discovery of brilliant voices already read and respected throughout the rest of the world.

Since then, despite his untimely death at age 50, more of his books arrived here with Whack-a-Mole-like persistence. Novellas, short stories, essays, poetry collections – you name it and someone has published it.

Just when it seemed as if his estate had plundered every legible scrap from his papers, another book has come to light. Bolaño wrote “The Third Reich” early in his career, but the novel remained buried in a drawer and unpublished at the time of his death. What’s next? Right this minute, I imagine editors somewhere bidding on the rights to the Collected Shopping Lists of Roberto Bolaño. Whisky, cigarettes, cough drops.

Has the reputation of any author ever benefited from the publication of his juvenilia?

The title of “The Third Reich” refers to a complex board game in which competing dictators struggle for control of World War II-era Europe. Udo Berger is a champion-caliber player who also writes for a series of magazines devoted to war gaming. His obsession with the Third Reich game is such that even on vacation in Spain with his girlfriend Ingeborg he spends most of his time in the room poring over his maps and keeping the journal that forms the text of this novel. “It’s as if we want to know exactly how everything was done in order to change what was done wrong,” he explains. It turns out that he had been a guest of the same hotel as a child, and his relationship with the aging proprietress borders on impropriety.

When Udo finally ventures out, he does so in the company of other tourists, Charly and Hanna, who show him the town’s seedy underbelly. The locals include El Quemado, a disfigured man who rents out paddleboats on the beach in front of the hotel. Despite his gruff exterior, El Quemado – which means “The Burn Victim” – proves to be a sharp and formidable player of Third Reich. His game with Udo lasts for days, and we’re meant to believe that some harm will come to Udo if he loses.

The game itself is rendered in intense detail, as is Udo’s growing panic at his opponent’s skill. “Summer 1941. Situation of the German Army in England: satisfactory. Army corps: Fourth Infantry in Portsmouth, reinforced in the Strategic Redeployment phase by the Forty-eighth Armored. The Tenth is still at the beachhead, reinforced by the Twentieth and Twenty-ninth Infantry. The British are gathering their forces in London and reserving their airborne units in case of air-to-air attacks. (Should I have marched straight on London? I don’t think so.)”

When a member of the hotel staff asks Udo if he’s a Nazi, he explains, ” ‘No. No, I’m not. In fact, I’m more like an anti-Nazi. What makes you think that, the game?’ On the Third Reich box there are images of swastikas.” Similar images and questions will crop up later in many of Bolaño’s subsequent books, including “By Night in Chile,” “Distant Star” and, of course, “Nazi Literature in the Americas.”

“The Third Reich” is a fun and engaging read, perfectly suited for your own beach vacation, but the ending does little justice to all that precedes it. All the parts are in place for a very smart thriller. Udo’s competitive nature, Charly’s mysterious disappearance, Ingeborg’s return to Germany, El Quemado’s growing confidence and menace – all of these things build toward what should be an exciting finish. But it never arrives, and the story fizzles. It feels almost as if the young Bolaño gave up on the plot before seeing it through to the end.

If getting this novel out of his system was necessary in order to produce “2666” – which is a masterpiece by any definition – that’s just fine with me. While there are certainly great pleasures to be found in “The Third Reich,” it’s a book that will appeal most immediately to those devout Bolañophiles looking for clues to his artistic development.