Two years ago, a typed manuscript for Roberto Bolaño’s unpublished novel The Third Reich The Third Reich was discovered. The Paris Review is serializing the novel, publishing it in full over four issues in a translation by Natasha Wimmer. I finished the first part of The Third Reich last night, reading the 63 pages in one engrossing session.
Udo Berger, a German from Stuttgart with a passion for war games, narrates the story in the form of a journal he keeps, detailing the daily events of a vacation he is taking in a Spanish resort town with his girlfriend Ingeborg. The couple checks in to the Del Mar, a seaside hotel where Udo spent a few teenage summers with his family. He seems driven to return to this particular hotel, at least in part, by memories of the enigmatic Frau Else, an alluring German woman who married the hotel’s Spanish owner. Frau Else barely remembers Udo, a fact that disappoints him, yet he nevertheless pursues strange awkward conversations with her; it’s unclear to both Udo and the reader what, exactly, he hopes to gain from talking to her.
Indeed, Udo’s intentions and motivations are strange and murky in general. He’s the classic unreliable narrator. In particular, Udo’s perceptions (and descriptions of those perceptions) seem to be clouded by a radical fear of otherness, and an underlying contempt for almost everyone. He’s also a little paranoid, perhaps, in part anyway, because we get the sense that Ingeborg might be just a bit out of his league. Consider the following scene—
Ingeborg was at her most radiant, and when we walked into the club we were greeted with covert admiring glances. Admiring of Ingeborg and envious of me. Envy is something I always pick up on right away. Anyways, we didn’t plan to spend much time there. And yet as fate would have it, before long a German couple sat down at our table.
That German couple is Hanna and Charly, and Udo quickly comes to detest them, although he repeatedly points out that he covers his disgust at all times (and, by the end of Part I, it’s clear that he has an unvoiced sexual attraction to Hanna). Charly is boorish, foolhardy, and quick to make friends with the locals. Through him, the Germans become acquainted with two locals Udo dubs the Wolf and the Lamb. The Wolf and the Lamb take the four tourists to the kind of working class haunts that only locals go to; Charly and the girls find adventure in this, but Udo is contemptuous and disgusted of these clubs, bars, and restaurants. His depictions of the local spots veer into classic Bolaño territory, that mix of unnerving dread and surreal energy, a kind of Lynchian anxiety that suggests abyssal darkness looms under the veneer of every “normal” surface.
Udo would rather stay in the hotel and work on his war game; he’s devoted the summer to playing out a new strategy and writing an essay about it for one of the various magazines devoted to the hobby. Ingeborg is embarrassed and ashamed of Udo’s passion for games, and when Hanna shows interest in the large hexagonal board set up in their room, Ingeborg quickly rushes her out to the beach. Udo, for the first time realizes this division in his relationship with Ingeborg, who spends her time on various daytrips (perhaps, although Udo doesn’t seem to recognize this, with the Wolf and the Lamb)—yet he fecklessly makes amends by buying cheap gift store jewelery, and avers that losing Ingeborg would destroy him. A dark set up.
The only person apart from Frau Else who Udo takes any interest in is El Quemado (“the Burned One”), a horribly burn-scarred, well-muscled man who makes a living renting paddle boats to tourists. Udo becomes obsessed with El Quemado when he realizes that the man seems to build a shelter out of the paddle boats each night; over time, he strikes up a strange friendship, leading to the revelation that they share a trait: both consider themselves writers.
The Third Reich, composed at the beginning of Bolaño’s career as a novelist, doesn’t feature the labyrinthine syntax or heteroglossia of later works, but it does showcase the particularly Bolañonian sense of dread that seethes under so many of his works. The novel feels like a slow burn, with plenty of sinister elements in play—but there’s also the possibility that this nervous dread stems from Udo’s internal paranoia. In any case, Bolaño is beginning to play with the tropes of the detective novels and crime fiction he loved so much. As I argued in my review of Amulet last month, the more one reads Bolaño, the more difficult it is to parse his fictions from each other. Instead, they seem part of the Bolañoverse, a dark visceral inversion of our own world. Thus The Third Reich strongly recalls the title story in the collection Last Evenings on Earth, where the narrator B and his father take a bizarre, sinister vacation in Acapulco. The Third Reich also obviously recalls Nazi Literature in the Americas, which featured an entire chapter on neo-Nazi boardgames.
Of course, my observations are only drawn from the first fourth of the novel, but as a Bolaño fan I was not disappointed. I just wanted more—but I guess I’ll have to wait for the summer issue.