War Games – A Review of Roberto Bolaño, The Third Reich

Roberto Bolaño

To read Roberto  Bolaño  is to enter a world of poetry and violence, where fantasy meets the mundane and writing is a matter of life and death. Since he died in 2003, sixteen of his books, notably the epic novels The Savage Detectives and 2666, have been translated into English.  The latest, The Third Reich, was written in 1989, before these masterpieces, but published only now with the high demand for his work. It is not  Bolaño ’s best book, but is nonetheless an excellent novel: a psychological thriller, a meditation on evil, and a glimpse at the seeds of a brilliant and prolific literary career.

Bolaño  had a lifelong fascination with violence. As a young man, he was imprisoned during the 1973 military coup in his native Chile, after which he lived in exile. His final novel, 2666, catalogues the unsolved rapes and murders of hundreds of women in Ciudad Juarez in graphic and relentless detail.  The violence in The Third Reich is more abstract, yet still terrifying.  While on vacation with his girlfriend in Spain, the German protagonist Udo Berger plays a fantasy board game called “The Third Reich” –a cross between Risk and Dungeons and Dragons –in which he tries to rewrite history and win World War II on behalf of the Germans.

Roberto Bolaño, The Third Reich (Audiobook Excerpt)

Like many of  Bolaño ’s characters, Berger is an obsessive. While his girlfriend enjoys the beach and bars and Barcelona, he stays in his room to play the game about which he says:  “The urge to play is simple a kind of song… the players are singers performing an infinite range of compositions, deep-bone compositions, wish compositions, against the backdrop of a constantly shifting geography.” In such passages,  Bolaño  makes something childish and absurd seem intellectual, artistic, and even noble.

Indeed one of the many joys of The Third Reich is how well  Bolaño  establishes the world of the game, not only its rules, strategy, and tactics –as elaborate and arcane as a newspaper chess  column—but an entire universe of war games, rival players, obscure ‘zines, and even gamer conferences. The result is a grotesque parody of academia, the literary world, or any subculture that takes itself too seriously.

More diabolically,  Bolaño  establishes such sympathy for his unreliable narrator that the unsuspecting reader may be lulled into rooting for the (imaginary) triumph of Hitler and the Nazis.  In essence, he desensitizes the audience to violence and dramatizes the banality of evil.

Like many of Bolaño ’s books, The Third Reich also features a mysterious death, which humanizes the anonymous mass violence of the board game and gives Berger something in common with his girlfriend who reads trashy mystery novels.  In one of his last interviews,  Bolaño  said that if he were not a writer, he would want to be a homicide detective. Elsewhere, he claimed deep admiration for pop crime writers Thomas Harris and James Ellroy.

Besides the blend of literary and genre fiction,  Bolaño  fans will recognize elements from his other work, such as the Costa Brava setting and the diary format later used in the first (and best) section of The Savage Detectives. As always, his prose is deceptively simple, plainspoken and straightforward with the occasional flourish such as a sandwich held “between two fingers like an engagement ring,” a moon the color of “boiling lentils” and a scene remembered “with the sharpness of a tattoo.”

Unsurprisingly, since  Bolaño  is such a writer’s writer, The Third Reich often reflects on the art of writing. Nominally, Berger has a day job in Stuttgart, but his passion is for war games and writing about them for his fellow gamers. Early on, he claims: “I write like lightning.  I play [war games] slowly but I write fast. People say I’m high strung but it isn’t true. They say it because of the way I write. Without stopping.”  Elsewhere, he offers this rationale for the journal that structures the novel:

“The daily practice, compulsory or near compulsory, of setting down one’s ideas and the day’s events in a diary allows a virtual autodidact like myself to learn how to reflect, how to exercise the memory by focusing deliberately rather than randomly on images, and especially how to cultivate certain aspects of the sensibility that may seem fully formed but that in reality are only seeds…The initial reason for the diary, however, was much more practical in nature: to exercise my prose so that in the future no clumsiness of expression or defective syntax will detract from the insights…”

Such passages reflect the author, whose workhorse attitude helped him write so many books in relatively short order. (It’s unclear what else he did besides read, write, and chain-smoke).  And there’s still more to come. In April, New Directions will publish the English translation of the short story collection, The Secret of Evil, which from its title seems an appropriate choice to follow The Third Reich.

Keith Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. For more reading recommendations, see his Top 10 Fiction Books of 2011 and Top 10 Nonfiction Books of 2011. He reviewed Bolaño’s novel The Skating Rink for The Texas Observer and will review his essay collection, Between Parentheses, next week on FP.  If he had to rob a bank and pick his partners in crime, he’d choose a gang of five poets, no question about it.

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