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The Third Reich by Roberto Bolano

thirdreichI’m not convinced that The Third Reich was the best introduction to the work of the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. It’s one of his early pieces, written in 1989  but discovered only after his death in 2010. Although it apparently prefigures much of his later work it feels very much the product of someone who hasn’t yet found his form.

The chief narrator is Udo Berger, a German champion of war gaming who takes his girlfriend Ingeborg to a small coastal town on the Costa Brava where he spent his childhood holidays. Udo is a serious gamer, recently having won a German championship and turning semi-pro. While his girlfriend wants to lie on the beach, drink at cafe terraces and spend the evenings in disco, Udo prefers to stay in his hotel room perfecting his strategy for a board game called The Third Reich. It’s essentially a re-run of World War 2 with markers to represent armies and weapons that can be deployed by the players.

Fortunately for Ingeborg relief arrives in the form of Charly and Hanna, another young German couple who have rather more of an idea how to enjoy a holiday. Through these new friends they are introduced to the seedier side of the town, and some shady characters – two beach bums known only as the Wolf and the Lamb and El Quemado (nicknamed The Burns Victim because of hideous scars on his face), who operates the pedal boats on the beach. These characters provide a signal that there are dark aspects to the otherwise idyllic seaside resort.

Fairly soon, the intimations of danger become reality when Charly disappears while out windsurfing. When he is still missing after a few days, Hanna and then Ingeborg return to Germany. For an inexplicable reason Udo decides to stay put until Charly’s body is discovered, spending his time in heavy drinking sessions, playing his fantasy war with El Quemado and observing real life from the balcony of his hotel room.  His grip on life appears to disintegrate, sending Udo into a spiral in which he stalks the hotel owner and her terminally ill husband and  creates a fantasy that El Quemado is a torture victim out to get revenge for his injuries.

Described like this, the plot suggests a very powerful novel. The problem for me was that it led nowhere other than to an awkward message about the blurred lines between reality and fiction. There are also threads about guilt and identity buried deep but these never get fully developed. As for the protagonist – I will respectfully disagree with NPR who felt Udo is “someone complex, sometimes frustrating and absolutely unforgettable.”  True Udo is a frustrating character but that was really because his  raison d’être was so unclear  that when his fears and suspicions lead him to see menace at every turn, it was hard to take him seriously.

 

The Infinite Plan, Isabel Allende

Infinite PlanWhen I asked some work colleagues in South America for recommendations on authors to represent Chile in my world literature project, the name most frequently mentioned was Isabel Allende. I duly bought The Infinite Plan, her fourth novel. It’s been lingering unread on the bookshelf for the last two years. The Spanish Literature Month readalong hosted by Winston’s Dad blog and Richard at Caravana de Recuerdos, gave me the nudge I needed to actually open the pages.

It’s an ambitious novel that charts the progress to self awareness of Gregory Reeves. He’s the son of an itinerant preacher who claims that nothing in life is random but is governed by an infinite plan. It takes Gregory five decades to realize there is no plan; there is ‘just the strife of living’. Or maybe in his case it would be more apt to say the strife of surviving since Gregory is a man who seems to have more than his fair share of obstacles and calamities. As a child he is taken to live in a crowded Los Angeles barrio when his father is taken ill and is forced to abondon his ministry. As an outsider in a Latino world, he is a target for racial discrimination and sexual predatory behaviour. All that sustains Gregory is the friendship of of the Mexican Morales family, especially their daughter Carmen, and the caring love of an exotic midwife come fortune teller called Olga.

Gregory stumbles into two disastrous marraiges only to discover – far too late – that they resemble his mother, an ethereal figure who effectively separates from life in horror over the bombing of Hiroshimia. He’s an even more disastrous father. The only part of his adult life that seems to go well is his career as a wealthy lawyer, but even that turns out to have been built on rocky foundations.

This is a man who seems to court disaster. Instead of creating a character who evokes our sympathy, Allende’s narrative had the reverse effect for me with the exception of the hallucinatory effects Gregory suffers as an aftermath of his Vietnam war experience. I never felt drawn into his predicament so by the time we get to his breakdown and his redemption I was just wishing he would get the whole therapy and healing thing done with quickly.

There were moments when the writing was elegant and lyrical and I could glimpse the qualities that have made her such a well respected author. But one stylistic technique she employed proved irritating to an impossible degree. I don’t know what the correct terminology would be to describe this but the closest description I can get to is ‘foretelling’ or giving us some hints that the situation she is describing would change in the future. As an example, in the midst of a section explaining how Carmen developed a habit of wearing multicoloured ‘gypsy’ style clothes and began to gain success designing and making jewellrey the narrator suddenly breaks in with “but all this is in the future.”. I really couldn’t understand how this glimpse of the future added any value, in fact for me it became intensely irritating. I wanted to know more about the here and now, and wanted to let the story takes its course, not have all these hints dropped.

I also found the switch of narrative voices rather disconcerting. Most of the novel is told via a third party narrator but then would switch to first person narration from Gregory without any preamble. Not until the final pages do we learn that all the time he has been telling his life story to an unidentified person.

This could have been a great novel but the flaws were too many for me to class it as anything more than okay.

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