THE THIRD REICH by Roberto Bolano

Book Quote:

“And until you have possessed
dying and rebirth,
you are but a sullen guest
on the gloomy earth.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate  (NOV 22, 2011)

Bolaño cites this quotation from Goethe (also given in German) towards the end of this early but posthumously discovered novel. It is as good a key as any to what the book may be about. The protagonist, Udo Berger, a German in his mid-twenties, is literally a guest — in a hotel. He is taking a late summer vacation with his girlfriend Ingeborg in a beach hotel on the Costa Brava where he used to come with his family as a child. Together with another German couple, Hanna and Charly, they engage in the usual occupations: swimming, sunbathing, eating, drinking (a lot), and making love. But shadows hang over this idyll. They become involved with a group of slightly sinister local men, called The Wolf, The Lamb, and El Quemado (the burnt one), a hideously-burned South American immigrant who hires out pedal boats on the beach. Their contentment is marred by small acts of offstage violence, and by an unexpected death that touches them more directly. Udo will stay on until the hotel is about to close for the season, a change in atmosphere that is summed up by Bolaño in itchily discordant images:

“The regular muted sound of the elevator has been replaced by scratching and races behind the plaster of the walls. The wind that every night shakes the window frame and hinges is more powerful. The faucets of the sink squeak and shudder before releasing water. Even the smell of the hallways, perfumed with artificial lavender, breaks down more quickly and turns into a pestilent stink that causes terrible coughing fits late at night.”

The biggest shadow of all is that cast by the title, The Third Reich. We learn early on that it is the name of a war game played with counters on a stylized map. The war that the game replays is a purely military operation of armies, deployments, and supply lines; the text has no hint of Nazi ideology or the Holocaust. Yet those associations are inevitably in the mind of the reader, who waits for some at least symbolic equivalent to surface, for the dream holiday to become a nightmare. And Bolaño, who is a master at generating angst from a meticulous compilation of detail, makes a fine start to building the tension here. Udo is the German national champion of war-gaming. Like one of those solipsistic characters out of Ishiguro, he is obsessed in his hermetic world, working out variants of the games, publishing them in obscure magazines, corresponding with gamers in other countries. Alone of the German quartet, he remains pale while the others develop suntans, since he prefers working in his room to lounging on the beach. There is a danger in him, a potential for mental instability, at least as great as any threat posed by the low-life characters with whom the four associate.

This is a beautifully produced book with an evocatively surreal cover and a fluid translation by Natasha Wimmer. I leaped into it the moment it arrived and truly wanted to like it. But I have to say that, for all the fascinating hints of ideas he would develop in The Savage Detectives and especially in 2666, this is not vintage Bolaño. It seemed to be all wind-up and no punch. As so often with Bolaño, there is a surreal element competing with the meticulous realism, but here I felt they canceled each other out rather than reinforcing. Udo, of course, lives much of his time in a totally irreal world, “essentially ghosts of a ghostly General Staff, forever performing military exercises on game boards.” Ingeborg, his girlfriend, is forever reading a mystery featuring the detective Florian Linden, but although reportedly near the end she never reaches it. A vacation involving so great a consumption of alcohol is in itself somewhat unreal, and Udo’s imagination verges increasingly on paranoia. Yet while nightmares, in the sense of actual dreams, play a larger and larger part in the story, the nightmare fails to materialize in reality; the book ends in distinct anticlimax.

All the same, I do see the point of the Goethe quotation. “Dying and rebirth” are certainly among the ideas in play, and Udo is a different person at the end. The novel makes a fascinating addendum for existing fans of Bolaño’s work. But though it is an easy read, even lighthearted at times, I would not recommend it as an introduction for those who do not know the author. For them, and especially for those leery of tackling the vast scale of his major works, I would suggest the novella By Night in Chile, whose compact power is merely hinted at here.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 24 readers
PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (November 22, 2011)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Roberto Bolano
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

Bibliography (translations only):

November 22, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Facing History, Germany, World Lit

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.