Roberto Bolaño. I’ll admit that he’s a writer that I struggle with. I was so annoyed with his novel The Savage Detectives that I posted an angry 1000+ word snarky review venting my frustration – “To say that this book disappointed me is a bit of an understatement. Frankly, I was a pissed off, if not relieved, when I finally reached the end of its 592 pages.” I was taken to task for my “typical hipster-hype” reaction in the comments. Contrary to that commenter’s opinion, I get no joy in writing negative reviews. I want to like the books that I read. I want to share my love of great books. Bolaño is widely regarded as an important literary voice, and I wanted to get that novel. But I didn’t.
Bolaño’s next super critically acclaimed novel released in English was the mammoth 2666. At almost a 1000 pages, it didn’t seem to be the novel that I should try again with. I’ll freely admit that I was intimidated. Bolaño’s latest work in translation, The Third Reich, weighs in at a svelte 277 pages. If I was going to give Bolaño, this appeared to be the ticket. So with some trepidation, I dove in.
The Third Reich, I should quickly point out, is not a World War II novel and has little to do with historical Nazis. The title refers to a World War II themed board game. Udo Berger, a young German, is the national champion of a federation of war game enthusiasts. He begins the narrative as a journal entry of his first day of vacation in Spain with his girlfriend Ingeborg. This will be, in part, a working vacation. Udo is excited to set up a few tables in the hotel room and test various strategies that he’ll write up for war game newsletters and journals. His actual job job is of little consequence. Udo is upbeat as he reflects on the weeks ahead:
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that my life has never been better. Most of the credit goes to Ingeborg. Meeting her was the best thing that ever happened to me. Her sweetness, her charm, her soft gaze, put everything else–my own daily struggles and the back-stabbing of those who envy me–into perspective, allowing me to face facts and rise above them.
Despite Udo’s sunny self-assessment, he reveals through his actions that he is petulant, full of himself, and a bit of a bore.
Udo and Ingebord soon make the acquaintance of another vacationing German couple, Charly and Hannah. Charly is a good-time windsurfer who immediately tests Udo’s patience. Through Charly, Udo also comes to know some seedy local beach characters, known as the Wolf and the Lamb. The most indelible new acquaintance of the summer will be El Quemado, which translates to “the burn victim” in Spanish. True to his name, El Quemado’s body is covered with horrible burn scars. The source of the disfigurement is not immediately revealed.
El Quemado is essentially homeless, choosing to live on the beach in a depression dug under the stack of paddle boats that he rents during the day. In time, El Quemado and Udo begin playing a game of Third Reich. Udo is very condescending in engaging Udo in the game. The self-evident distastefulness of playing a game in which one tries to relive World War II and emerge with the German army victorious seems completely lost on Udo. For Udo, the game is entertainment. El Quemado, however, may view warfare in an entirely different light that becomes more apparent as the game plays out over weeks.
The game, coupled with Charly’s mysterious disappearance, casts a pall over the beach vacation. Udo remains in Spain as the sunlight begins to disappear into fall, waiting for news on Charly and the conclusion of the game. Over the course of these events, Udo’s early “perspective” on life is shown to be inaccurate and completely shallow. At its heart, The Third Reich is a coming of age story – wait, he’s German – let’s call it a bildungsroman. Udo’s experiences force to come to grip with an immature view of the world and his place in it.
I enjoyed this novel. It appears that Bolaño and I can get along after all. I’m not sure that I am ready to tackle 2666, which everyone seems to agree is his masterwork. At least now I can see myself considering the possibly of tackling that tome, which was not the case prior to reading The Third Reich.
Book Pitch: I can readily imagine an upated US version of this book where an American video game blogger takes his X-Box on vacation with him to work on mastering Modern Warfare 3 and meets someone who doesn’t view playing warfare as “fun”.
Also: I received copies of the hardcover and the audiobook at roughly the same time. In an unusual move for me, I went back and forth from the novel to the audiobook as time allowed. The chapters are mostly named for dates, so it was relatively easy to listen in where I had left off in the book and vice-versa. The audiobook is read by Simon Vance who does an excellent job. Through the audiobook I was better able to get a handle on pronunciations of names, places, and words in languages that I don’t speak than I would have otherwise had. Vance’s world-weary approach seemed to capture Udo perfectly. Check out an audio clip from the first chapter: