The danger with previously unpublished works being published posthumously is that there may well have been a good reason they weren’t published while the author was alive. Because of the insane amount of hype surrounding the cult of Roberto Bolaño after his death, any chance of new writings was always going to be pounced upon by both his publishers and fans, no matter the quality of the work.
Udo Berger comes to a small Spanish town at which he holidayed with his family as a child, with his girlfriend, Inga, for a relaxing summer holiday, as well as to work on his strategy papers. Udo is a gamer, and plays, amongst other things, a war-game called The Third Reich – though Inga seems more concerned with her tan than any kind of game. When another German couple checks in, though, Udo’s plans for a relaxing holiday are turned upside down.
Originally written in 1989, The Third Reich languished in a drawer somewhere in Bolaño’s house until some diligent researcher found it, and eventually had it published. That context is important to remember when we look at the work, because the Second World War, the Cold War, and the tensions this placed on Europe cast a surprisingly large shadow over a book that is ostensibly about board games.
It’s funny to think that such a devastating historical event such as the Second World War in Europe is now used as a kind of background for people’s entertainment. And not funny ha ha. This thought is made even more uncomfortable here, with a young German man seemingly oblivious to the fact that he is playing with recent history that ravaged Europe, and that his status as a German – whether fair or not – will influence what people think of his playing these games, reliving history that many Germans want to forget. Those small glimpses we get into the lives of other gamers, too, brings into the fore a world and culture that seems to meet every expectation a non-gamer might have of the world. These men are slightly dysfunctional outsiders, who spend their time wrapped up in fanzines and conventions about their favourite board games – there seems to be no sense of connection to reality.
As the face of this subculture, Udo seems almost autistic in some of his obsessions, and complete inability to read certain social situations. His lust for Frau Else, the German owner of the hotel in which he is staying, born out of a childhood obsession, borders on the obsessive, and his quest to find her husband and tell him that his wife has cheated on him is bizarre. Maybe this is just Bolaño feeding in to the late 80s gamer stereotype of young, slightly chubby, socially awkward men escaping real life into the worlds of their “silly games.” Cartainly, when Udo is faced with real life danger from people like the Wolf and the Lamb, and El Quemado, he doesn’t seem to quie know what to do with them.
This undercurrent of violence that permeates the novel is never acted upon by Bolaño – most of it remains off stage, forcing the reader to decide what happened, if anything at all. Ironically, it is not the Wolf and the Lamb – the two thug characters most likely, it would seem, to attack someone – from where this sense of unease comes. It is Charly, half of the other German couple, that becomes the symbol of repressed German violence in the novel. Obviously we can only construct his identity from the clues Udo himself gives us in his diary, but he comes off as a deeply unpleasant young man, and though this may make me sound like a terrible person, his eventual fate is not unexpected or particularly heart wrenching.
In the end, Udo is forced to consider and remember the crimes that were committed in the name of the German Reich, and not in a pleasant way. I’m glad the denouement happened the way it did, because it ties the rest of the novel, which tended to be a little rambling and disjointed, together very nicely, both plot-wise and thematically. The two important revelations in the final chapters make sense in the context of what we’ve already been told, and it really brings into focus these questions of post-war memory and reparations that have been bubbling under the surface for most of the novel. Bolaño’s answers are not pretty, particularly if you are German, but perhaps there’s some optimism to be had in finally having it all out in a big brawl, and them being able to move on? Maybe not.
The Third Reich is, ironically, a lot better than some of Bolaño’s other earlier works, like The Skating Rink. But it never reaches the dizzying heights of, say, The Savage Detectives, or (I can only assume) 2666. This is one of the few times Bolaño writes outside of South America, and it’s a nice change of scenery, with an important, if somewhat obfuscated, engagement of ideas at its centre.