Roberto Bolaño’s manuscript map for his novel The Third Reich



The Third Reich: Part II — Roberto Bolaño

Literature has a unique power to echo not just from the past into the future, but also backwards through time—later works can somehow cast shadows on earlier ones, and later details of a writer’s biography sometimes seep into fiction that the writer produced earlier. Take for example Edgar Allan Poe. He published his long poem “The Raven,” about a man mourning his lost love, two years before the death of his wife, yet the autobiographical detail nevertheless freights the work with deeper emotional weight. Poe was a hero to Roberto Bolaño (“The honest truth is that with Edgar Allan Poe we would all have more than enough good material to read”), whose own early death seems to haunt the writing that came before it. In turn, the late opus 2666 seems to cast a huge shadow over the rest of Bolaño’s fiction, which of course preceded it. I’ve argued before that 2666 is the labyrinthine culmination of the Bolañoverse, a mirror-world of dread and paranoia and violence and literary criticism and strange beauty. The Third Reich, one of Bolaño’s earliest novels, now in its second part of a four-part serialization from The Paris Review, continues to show Bolaño gesturing toward the beast that would become 2666.

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters -- Goya (1797)

If 2666 impossibly haunts The Third Reich from the future, then paranoid Poe haunts it from the past. Last time we checked in, Udo Berger and his beautiful girlfriend Ingeborg had made tentative friends with another German couple while spending the summer at a seaside resort in Spain. Through this pair, they meet up with two nefarious locals, the Wolf and the Lamb; Udo also begins obsessing over a man named El Quemado, a burn victim who rents paddle boats to tourists. For Udo, the holiday is meant to be a working vacation—he’s a wargame enthusiast, and he plans to write a defining strategy for a new game called “The Third Reich” (implicitly, he plays the Nazi’s side). In the meantime, he’s also taken with the hotel’s owner, Frau Else, a German transplant who mysteriously disappears to take care of an ill husband who no one seems to see.

The first part of The Third Reich (published in the Spring ’11 issue) set the stage for dread, mystery, and extreme paranoia—all while on a sunny seaside holiday. The set-up recalls the seemingly innocuous first section of 2666, “The Part About the Critics,” where four European literature professors spend a vacation of sorts in sunny Mexico while ostensibly searching for a mysterious author. The Third Reich showcases the same sinister tension, describing—but never explaining—the stress between differing cultures, the radical alterity of “being on holiday,” of “vacating,” of being in a different place for a different purpose than what is usual, normal.

The second part of The Third Reich (in the new Summer ’11 issue) increases the dread and paranoia, all with a strange, mordant humor. The novel’s conceit is that the writing is Udo’s holiday’s journal; as such, he controls not only perspective and tone, but what details we learn—or don’t learn. It’s what Udo leaves out that becomes increasingly distressing and fascinating. Indeed, at a crucial point in the novel, Udo fails to explain to us why he remains in Spain after his holiday should be over, even as Ingeborg returns to Germany. There is an ostensible explanation—Charly has disappeared and Udo perhaps wants an answer to the mystery (I will withhold further details for fear of spoiling the plot). It seems more likely that Udo remains to work out his strategy for “The Third Reich”; he finds an unlikely gaming partner in El Quemado. Indeed, the wargame begins to define Udo’s perspective at all times—

When I saw from the balcony that the bathers were beating a mass retreat toward the hotels and campgrounds, I went down to the beach. It’s a sad time of day, and the bathers are sad: tired, sated with sun, they turn their gazes toward the line of buildings like soldier s already sure of defeat; with tired steps they cross the beach and the Paseo Maritimo, prudent but with a hint of scorn, of arrogance in the face of remote danger, their peculiar way of turning down side streets where they immediately seek out the shade leading them directly—they’re a tributue—toward the void.

German nihilism on holiday! Still, Udo finds perverse joy in his gaming sessions with El Quemado; in these episodes, his tone escalates to a manic pitch, reminiscent of some of Poe’s crazies (the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” comes to mind in particular), as well as the mounting insanity of Oscar Amalfitano in 2666. And, just as in the early parts of 2666, The Third Reich begins to buzz with rumors of rape. Udo hints at these rumors, but is unwilling to explore them. Also mysterious is the identity of Frau Else’s husband, a pointedly Gothic conceit, of course, that nonetheless may be the beating heart of horror at the center of the story. He haunts Udo’s sleep—

I dreamed that someone was knocking at the door. It was nighttime and when I opened the door I saw someone slipping down the hall. I followed. Unexpectedly we came to a huge dark room filled with the outlines of heavy old furniture. The smell of mildew and dampness was strong. On a bed a shadowy figure was twisting and turning. At first I thought it was an animal. Then I recognized Frau Else’s husband. At last!

I’ve done my best to omit some of the sharp twists in this section of The Third Reich for fear of spoiling the book, but I will add that Part II ends with something of a subtle cliffhanger (as I write the term “subtle cliffhanger” I realize that it is pure oxymoron; mea culpa). In any case, I’m enjoying the serialization very much and look forward to reading Part III.

The Third Reich: Part I — Roberto Bolaño

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.

The Paris Review Will Publish Roberto Bolaño’s The Third Reich; Read an Excerpt Now

Beginning with its next issue, The Paris Review will serialize Roberto Bolaño’s “lost manuscript,” The Third Reich. The Wall Street Journal’ Speakeasy blog has a (very short) excerpt. An excerpt of that excerpt–

“Poor man,” I heard Hanna say.

I asked to whom she was referring; I was told to take a closer look without being obvious about it. The rental guy was dark, with long hair and a muscular build, but the most noticeable thing about him by far was the burns—I mean burns from a fire, not the sun—that covered most of his face, neck, and chest, and which he displayed openly, dark and corrugated, like grilled meat or the crumpled metal of a downed plane.