FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Bolaño’s Board Game

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: ronj1955@gmail.com.

 

More articles by:

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

January 21, 2019
W. T. Whitney
New US Economic Attack Against Cuba, Long Threatened, May Hit Soon
Jérôme Duval
Macronist Repression Against the People in Yellow Vests
Dean Baker
The Next Recession: What It Could Look Like
Eric Mann
All Hail the Revolutionary King: Martin Luther King and the Black Revolutionary Tradition
Binoy Kampmark
Spy Theories and the White House: Donald Trump as Russian Agent
Edward Curtin
We Need a Martin Luther King Day of Truth
Bill Fried
Jeff Sessions and the Federalists
Ed Corcoran
Central America Needs a Marshall Plan
Colin Todhunter
Complaint Lodged with European Ombudsman: Regulatory Authorities Colluding with Agrochemicals Industry
Manuel E. Yepe
The US War Against the Weak
Weekend Edition
January 18, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Melvin Goodman
Star Wars Revisited: One More Nightmare From Trump
John Davis
“Weather Terrorism:” a National Emergency
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Sometimes an Establishment Hack is Just What You Need
Joshua Frank
Montana Public Schools Block Pro-LGBTQ Websites
Louisa Willcox
Sky Bears, Earth Bears: Finding and Losing True North
Robert Fisk
Bernie Sanders, Israel and the Middle East
Robert Fantina
Pompeo, the U.S. and Iran
David Rosen
The Biden Band-Aid: Will Democrats Contain the Insurgency?
Nick Pemberton
Human Trafficking Should Be Illegal
Steve Early - Suzanne Gordon
Did Donald Get The Memo? Trump’s VA Secretary Denounces ‘Veteran as Victim’ Stereotyping
Andrew Levine
The Tulsi Gabbard Factor
John W. Whitehead
The Danger Within: Border Patrol is Turning America into a Constitution-Free Zone
Dana E. Abizaid
Kafka’s Grave: a Pilgrimage in Prague
Rebecca Lee
Punishment Through Humiliation: Justice For Sexual Assault Survivors
Dahr Jamail
A Planet in Crisis: The Heat’s On Us
John Feffer
Trump Punts on Syria: The Forever War is Far From Over
Dave Lindorff
Shut Down the War Machine!
Glenn Sacks
LA Teachers’ Strike: Student Voices of the Los Angeles Education Revolt  
Mark Ashwill
The Metamorphosis of International Students Into Honorary US Nationalists: a View from Viet Nam
Ramzy Baroud
The Moral Travesty of Israel Seeking Arab, Iranian Money for its Alleged Nakba
Ron Jacobs
Allen Ginsberg Takes a Trip
Jake Johnston
Haiti by the Numbers
Binoy Kampmark
No-Confidence Survivor: Theresa May and Brexit
Victor Grossman
Red Flowers for Rosa and Karl
Cesar Chelala
President Donald Trump’s “Magical Realism”
Christopher Brauchli
An Education in Fraud
Paul Bentley
The Death Penalty for Canada’s Foreign Policy?
David Swanson
Top 10 Reasons Not to Love NATO
Louis Proyect
Breaking the Left’s Gay Taboo
Kani Xulam
A Saudi Teen and Freedom’s Shining Moment
Ralph Nader
Bar Barr or Regret this Dictatorial Attorney General
Jessicah Pierre
A Dream Deferred: MLK’s Dream of Economic Justice is Far From Reality
Edward J. Martin
Glossip v. Gross, the Eighth Amendment and the Torture Court of the United States
Chuck Collins
Shutdown Expands the Ranks of the “Underwater Nation”
Paul Edwards
War Whores
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail