There are some musicians and composers whose style is so unique one recognizes their work instantly upon hearing them. Beethoven and Stravinsky. Dylan and Screaming’ Jay Hawkins. John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Billie Holiday and Lene Lovich. Likewise, there are writers whose style is so unique one recognizes their work within a paragraph or two. Dickens and Pynchon. Vonnegut and Heinrich Böll. Ishmael Reed and Melville. Toni Morrison and Anais Nin. Roberto Bolaño belongs on this list too. Since his death in 2003, his unique and cleverly written stories have recently been translated and published in English with a frequency not often seen in the publishing world.
The 1989 novel, titled The Third Reich, is the diary of a German office worker named Udo Bergen and his vacation in Spain. There is a girlfriend, a couple they meet, the hotel owner Frau Else, a man named Quernado who rents paddle boats to tourists and has grotesque burn scars on his body. The girlfriend leaves after a fright; the man in the couple drowns and the hotel owner’s husband is taken away to hospice with terminal cancer. The presence of a board game based on the second world war and also called The Third Reich hangs over the story like a surreal presence. Udo is an expert in board games based on World War Two and even makes extra money writing about strategies for different gaming magazines. For most of the book he and Quernado are engaged in a the Third Reich game. Udo is hoping that he can win as Germany while Quernado’s pieces represent the allies. It is as if the game is as real as life and life is only a game. Bergen even says to his game-playing friend Conrad upon his return from Spain: “We (are) all essentially ghosts on a ghostly General Staff.”
It seems that Quernado identifies Bergen as not only an opponent in the game, but as a potential embodiment of Nazi Germany itself. This is despite Bergen stating specifically to Quernado that he is much more of an anti-Nazi than any Nazi at all. Quernado ignores Bergen and plays the game as if he were fighting the war. Like much of Europe and certainly Germany, the fact of World War Two’s horrors defines everything, albeit in a rather murky manner. The game is nothing but a game except when it becomes more, as it does in the mind of Quernado. History has a similar trajectory. As long as it remains in books and museums (or games) it has little threat. It is when history becomes real that it constitutes something potentially more dangerous.
Like most of Bolaño’s novels, The Third Reich comes across as if it were written in a detached fog. Although the narrator Bergen is part of every scene that occurs, his narration of the life he is in the middle of is simultaneously distant and intimate. Like fog, the closer one gets to the situation or person being described, the clearer Bergen’s tale become. Observations about the other characters in the novel are provided with an omniscience that, once considered, are mostly Bergen’s selfish perceptions. As one follows the interactions of the various characters in Bergen’s beach vacation, the egocentric nature of modern individuated society becomes apparent. Every single person portrayed lives alone amongst the crowd in the Spanish resort town. Relationships easily formed are just as easily dismissed. Friendships seem to be anything but that and love is barely more meaningful than renting a room.
Bolaño is a master of style and story. The seemingly innocuous life of Udo Bergen the office worker and gamer is on second glance not what it appears. Death, sex, intrigue and the threat of violence simmer beneath the thin flesh of Bolano’s tale. After all is said and done little has changed. That is our curse. I am reminded of the line from Eliot’s The Waste Land: “Oed’ und leer das Meer.” Post industrial equals post-meaningful. Nothing plus nothing is still nothing. The charm is in the telling, not necessarily in the living. Bolaño comprehends this fact and tells his story well.
Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American Night is now available and his new novel is The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.