cover image The Third Reich

The Third Reich

Roberto Bolaño, trans. from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25 (288p) ISBN 978-0-374-27562-4

Many hallmarks of Bolaño’s work are present in this novel, written in 1989 and found among his papers after his death in 2003. Presented in diary-like entries over a two-month span late in an unspecified year after WWII, the book follows the unstable Udo Berger, a man who veers between love and hate and is barely able to control his violent impulses. Udo has come from Stuttgart with his girlfriend, Ingeborg, to the Costa Brava in Spain where he vacationed a decade before. A self-absorbed, egotistical autodidact war game champion, Udo obsessively plays a strategy game called the Third Reich while Ingeborg enjoys the beach with Charly and Hanna, another German couple they’ve met, and three local characters: the Wolf, the Lamb, and a badly burned beach worker called El Quemado. Charly goes for a swim and disappears, and Udo makes advances on the hotel manager, an older woman who calls his game “obscene... horrible... tasteless.” Udo soon lures El Quemado to play and events turn feverish and surreal; the novice defeats Udo, symbolically repeating the Nazis’ downfall. Infused with unease and menace, deliberately ambiguous about reality vs. perception, Bolaño’s novel is a psychological thriller without a convincing payoff. Its atmosphere, however, clearly prefigures the preoccupations of the author’s later masterpieces. (Dec.)