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.


About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on December 29, 2015, in Book Reviews, Chilean authors, Nobel Prize for Literature and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. I’ve never read anything by Bolano. I really feel like I should, mostly because there are so few Chilean authors who get published in English so he must be doing something right. Then I read the blurbs and realise they still aren’t for me. It’s actually rather a relief to feel I can cross ‘The Third Reich’ off the list now…

    • I’ve not read a lot of south american authors and he is such a big name I thought I should give him a go. Im not ready to give p yet after just one book but am struggling to find something else that will appeal.

  2. Everytime i hear about Bolano’s work I get the distinct feeling it’s not for me. I feel the testosterone oozing out of the review and I just say no. Maybe I’m wrong but when people talk about his work it doesn’t urge me to want to flip to Amazon and buy one of his books. Am I wrong?

  3. Bolano has been on my list of writers to try for sometime but this doesn’t really tempt me to do anything about it. Do you have any suggestions as to what might be a good alternative novel as a first read?

    • I’m struggling to find a recommendation Alex. The book I hear mentioned most frequently is The Savage Detectives but I found some reactions to this via a group read and it seemed a number of people abandoned the book. It’s more than 500 pages long. Then I found a blog site with multiple reviews of his books. I’ve looked at a few of these but nothing takes my fancy at all.

  4. I’ve not read this but so far I’ve found Bolano’s books very much like Marmite! I really enjoyed both 2666 and Savage Detectives but then read Amulet – one of those books where I struggled so much I was on hand and knees by the end! But in fairness the other two were really good and made up for the fact Amulet was a dud for me!

    • Thanks for those recommendations Col. I have been reading the reviews of both books yiu mention, they sound rather fragmentary so not sure how I would get on with them. That’s when our local library can come to the rescue – I can try them out for free so if I don’t get on with them at least I will not have the added guilt of wasting money.

  5. I’ve only read one of a Bolano’s books, a collection of short stories called Last Evenings on Earth. Even though it was probably a reasonable intro to his work, I found the stories somewhat hit or miss. It left me wondering whether this author is for me.

  6. I tired the novel a while back – abandoned it. Glad to see I’m not the only unenthusiastic reader.

  7. Interesting. I’ve often wondered about reading Bolano, but on the strength of this review I won’t start with this one….. !

    • Im 100% sure that he produced far better books than this Karen. He wouldn’t have won the Nobel Prize otherwise. So I haven’t given up on him – I’m hoping someone else can recommend what I should have read….

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