I’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.