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Roberto Bolaño's posthumous The Third Reich is unripe fruit

The focus on the nature of evil and the dangers of apathy lurking inside a Spanish tourist resort echo some of Bolaño's complex themes, but this novel is a slight example of his early style.
The Third Reich
Roberto Bolaño
Translated by Natasha Wimmer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
The Third Reich Roberto Bolaño Translated by Natasha Wimmer Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The late Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño's newly translated novel The Third Reich is an homage to film noir. It's set in a resort town on Spain's Costa Brava, with paddleboat rentals, sunsets over the ocean, and tipsy European tourists trying to cram their holidays full of fun. Yet, as this is an ominously titled Bolaño novel, we can expect that death and evil in some form will rise, vaguely, and prevail. In this regard, the book doesn't disappoint.

As with many of the stories found in the Bolaño short story collection The Return, a book with a similar tone, the dialogue in The Third Reich is peppered with ominous sentiments that hint at larger themes simmering within the plot. "The way you remember tourists is different from the way you remember normal people," says the manager of a hotel called the Del Mar, where much of book's action takes place. "It's like snippets of film, no, not film, photographs, snapshots, thousands of snapshots and all of them blank."

The book, including the above quote, is presented as the daily journal of Udo Berger, a young German tourist from Stuttgart travelling with his girlfriend, Ingeborg. Udo claims to adore her. "A life at Ingeborg's side: could I ask for anything more in matters of the heart?" But with each chapter, a journal entry, Udo adds details to his growing sense that his life is being erased while on holiday in Spain, as his reality changes due to mysterious forces that may be entirely imagined.

The title of the book is the name of a vast and detailed Second World War board game that we learn has grown from a mere hobby for Udo into the centre of his world. The game is not an absurd invention of Bolaño's, it seems to be based on a pair of actual board games called The Rise and Decline of the Third Reich, and Advanced Third Reich, in which each player's turn advances the game time by three months.

We learn that Udo is actually the star of a shallow universe, a master of the Third Reich game who's never lost a match. "The federation of war games players might be the smallest sports federation in Germany," Udo says, "but I was the champion and no one could claim otherwise. The sun shone for me alone." He's a less interesting example of a figure common to Bolaño's work: the dangerously obsessed intellectual, like the group of Archimboldi scholars in 2666 whose shared mania sickens their lust for life.

Bolaño went to great lengths studying war history to make the game-playing scenes sound like authentic geekspeak as Udo sweats over each move on the hexagonal game board: "Of the fourteen infantry corps ... at least twelve should cover Hexes Q24, P24, O24, N24 ... one should probably be in Hex 022 ... replacement units will be in Hexes Q22 ... Situation of the Axis armies in the Mediterranean: unchanged; Attrition Option." There are dozens of such robotic, tedious passages. Even as examples of Udo's madness and a metaphor for mankind's fascination with war, Bolaño stretches the joke beyond usefulness in dozens of needlessly detailed passages like the one above.

For broader plot, he employs a series of mysteries to keep Udo trapped at the hotel, playing Third Reich and slowly eroding his sanity. The first mystery is established when Udo and his girlfriend Ingeborg meet another German couple named Charly and Hanna. Hanna is beautiful and innocent. Charly likes sports, especially windsurfing, and drinks excessively. They all party every night. Charly's carousing soon attracts a pair of locals known only as the Wolf and the Lamb. The German tourists are from then on saddled with these two creepy characters, who ogle women and act like petty criminals.

Udo also develops a fascination with Frau Else, the German woman who manages the Del Mar hotel, and, in a twist that strains suspension of disbelief to near-breaking, he befriends a maimed homeless man called El Quemado (the burn victim) who lives on the beach near the hotel under a "fortress" of paddleboats. He is covered in terrible scars, which Udo describes in callous terms as "dark and corrugated, like grilled meat or the crumpled metal of a downed plane". Meanwhile, Udo grows increasingly suspicious of all these people's motives, imagining they're all in cahoots to do far worse than bully tourists into buying their drinks, as the Wolf and the Lamb often do when the group spends time together.

Sadly, at the hands of his author, poor Udo is in for one of the kookiest, most depressing holidays in literature. Charly soon vanishes while windsurfing. But it's no great loss, as Hanna is by this time covered in facial bruises thanks to him. Ingeborg is horrified by it all. Udo is indifferent, and tries to distract her with talk of his board game. "I hate it," she says, and her remark indicts their entire holiday at that point.

Hanna returns to Germany alone. Ingeborg pleads with Udo, but can't get him to leave Spain with her, even though their reservation at the hotel has expired. Udo claims that someone must stay behind to identify Charly's body for the police, if it ever washes ashore. But we know that he's really eager for Ingeborg to leave so he can cheat on her, having become infatuated with the beautiful hotel manager Frau Else. Even more importantly to Udo, he's also started to play a game of Third Reich with, of all people, El Quemado, who lo and behold proves to possess skills far beyond those of the novice Udo took him to be. "The Faust of war games," jokes Udo's best friend back in Germany, when Udo explains that for the first time ever it looks like he's going to lose a game of Third Reich.

With that, we settle into the tedium of Bolaño clumsily trying to weave together the threads of an accidental death, the mysterious siren and the monstrous opponent into a compelling narrative. But it's fatally hobbled by Udo's crass, narrow mind, unlikeable from the book's earliest chapters. "Hanna is a pretty girl," he writes, "but it didn't take much effort for me to imagine her covered in burns, screaming and wandering blindly around her hotel room."

The story plods then repetitively through Udo's dreary diary of dream sequences, drunkenness and days feeling ill. Bolaño interjects dark, campy poetry from time to time - "I felt observed ... by nobody in particular: observed by a void, an absence" - but Udo's ennui and mania are tiresome. Bolaño's goal might have been to make Udo's obsession seem like a spiritual poison illuminating the nothingness around him. "Now that the tourists are gone the bar is gradually returning to its true sinister self," Udo says at one point, and Bolaño makes it clear that we're meant to wonder if Udo has somehow lost his soul in all of this. But long before the book's end, not even Udo seems able to muster the energy to care.

The most convincing aspect is that Udo is surrounded by the casual violence that often occurs in holiday destinations. We see people using each other for money and companionship, testing each other's patience while fighting to keep the facade of civilised equality alive. This is one minor point, though, not enough to carry a novel.

The Third Reich is a posthumous find, supposedly written in the early 1980s, decades before the long novels The Savage Detectives and 2666 made Bolaño an international brand. Given the profit motive, a publisher had to pounce on the chance to offer the latest Bolaño discovery. But the Bolaño estate could be chided for making a carrot of the author's lesser works and dangling them in front of publishers. This novel shows hints of Bolaño's concerns about violence against women, and the evils of apathy, but overall it is a slight example of Bolaño's early style, in which devout fans and scholars can see the author unwisely trying to prop up an entire book with the sort of tone that serves more properly as stylistic icing in his later, better works.

Matthew Jakubowski is a fiction judge for the Best Translated Book Award.

Updated: December 23, 2011 04:00 AM