Wednesday, 12 July 2017

The Third Reich - Roberto Bolano

Like virtually everyone else, I first heard of Bolano when he died ridiculously young in 2003. Like lots of my fellow literati I bought his final novel 2666 when it came out. And like a large proportion of my peers I struggled to love it.

However it turns out 2666 was not the last of Bolano. He left archives, drafts and outlines. He left The Third Reich, which seems to have been written towards the start of his career and, for whatever reason, discarded. It finally appeared in 2010 (2011 in English). This I absolutely loved.

Bolano was Chilean but he lived most of his adult life, such as it was, in Spain. In fact the lived in a minor resort on the Costa Brava, just like the one where The Third Reich is set.

The title naturally suggests the Nazis, and our anti-hero Udo Berger is indeed German, as is his girlfriend Ingeborg, her holiday friends Charly and Hanna, and the owner of the hotel, Frau Else. But The Third Reich is actually a war game. This is the 1980s when war games came in boxes rather than downloads and Udo is the German champion, lined up for a big match in Paris, who is developing a new strategy for publication.

The Germany Bolano actually plays with is that of Kafka. When Charly goes missing Udo's exceptionally ordered life starts to crumble. Even though he doesn't like the louche and feckless Charly he becomes overwhelmed by the need to stay on, long after Charly's body has been found and repatriated, long after the season has ended and the hotel around him is steadily heading for hibernation.

Udo fills his days by playing The Third Reich in his room with El Quemado, a disfigured beach bum of unknown origin who lives inside a pile of his own pedalos. El Quemado knows nothing about gaming but is "a quick study" - very quick. Soon Udo finds himself in retreat...

Like Kafka, nothing is really resolved. Mysterious linkages appear and fade. All that really matters is the carefully documented narrative of Udo's disintegration. Found among the papers is not usually a great indicator of quality, but in this instance it really is.

I am usually snitty about blurbs. Fair's fair, though. The cover blurb here - from the now defunct Independent on Sunday - couldn't be more right:
Overflowing with Bolano's exuberance, dark humour, and sarcasm, The Third Reich is a good introduction to this great and disquieting novelist.

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