I’ve just finished The Third Reich by Roberto Bolano. He fascinates me, as both a writer and a reader, and I’ve now only two novels left before I’ve read all of his work. The Savage Detectives is my favourite ever novel, and I think Bolano’s prose is pretty much close to perfect. There’s no doubt, however, that a lot of his unpublished work wouldn’t have seen the light of day (in English, anyway) without his posthumous rise to fame. Some of his novels should have stayed in the drawer, and The Third Reich only just squeezes out of that category.
It’s an intense, engrossing study of one man’s slide into paranoia, returning to Bolano’s common themes – Fascism, the birth and death and being of nations, poetry, love, sex, anxiety, terror, innocence, dreams, language – but is very insular, very claustrophobic, and too long.
German war games champion Udo Berger goes on holiday with his partner Ingeborg. They meet another German couple, Hanna and Charly, and the four of them fall in with local layabouts and petty crooks. When Charly goes missing, only Udo stays, against all reason, drawn deeper into his WWII game, deeper into his obsession with the hotel owner.
The game allows Udo to replay World War II, as Germany, and win. He dominates the first few turns of a game against a complete novice, and then he starts to lose. His fatalistic delusions – like Adolf Hitler’s – drive him to a bitter defeat. As the net of Allies closes around him in the game, so Udo’s paranoias choke his spirit in real life, and his dreams merge with the everyday. His psychological collapse mirrors that of the Axis. ‘I’m not a Nazi,’ he bleats, at one point, ‘I’m more like an anti-Nazi.’ His protestations are interspersed with hero-worship of successful German generals. Bolano (who fought against Pinochet in Chile, and despised Fascism) uses The Third Reich to crush the Nazis all over again.
It’s a profound and complex book. As Udo unravels, his thought processes make increasingly random connections – this is one of Bolano’s greatest strengths, in both dialogue and inner monologue – and his claustrophobia is compelling. But Third Reich is also too slow and too long, and once Udo’s hubris has been established, his collapse is prolonged and the climax, when it comes, is vague and dissatisfying. This deliberately mimics the real War, I suppose (each turn of the board game is marked out in quarters – Winter ’42, Spring ’43, and so on) but means the narrative drags in a mirror of the attrition on the board.
It remains an interesting addition to Bolano’s astonishing canon, and I’m glad I had the chance to read it, but it’s far from his best or most interesting work. As with all his novels, though, the prose is nothing short of scintillating. Bolano was a truly gifted writer. Whenever I’m flagging, I read a sentence or two at random from one of his books, and it reminds me of what I should be aspiring to.