REVIEW: The Third Reich, by Roberto Bolaño

Listen to a free clip of the audiobook of The Third Reich here.

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I’m pretty sure Roberto Bolaño’s The Third Reich is the first book that I’ve read by installment. Well, official installments, that is. I suppose any book that takes more than one sitting to read is, in a sense, read in temporal installments dictated by the constraints of one’s daily schedule. In this case, a special arrangement with the Bolaño estate allowed The Paris Review to release his book (allegedly found posthumously in his desk) in four sections over the course of a year. And thus I read the book in pieces, at the end of each issue of my beloved Paris Review. This is also the first time I’ve read Bolaño. Not because I want to be the last person in Brooklyn who hasn’t read 2666. And not because of simple laziness, either. It was the slightly more complex laziness of wanting to read his work in Spanish, which is the only language besides English in which I am even a little fluent. Aside from the fact that I always read everything in The Paris Review, it was somewhat appropriate that I gave up my ambitious plan to read Bolaño in his native language when it came to The Third Reich. It’s a book about a German, Udo, on vacation in Spain, who’s obsessed with a board game of international warfare. The book is shot through with different kinds of translation that take place between people and languages and scenes and moments in time.

Let’s start with time. Udo decides to return to the site of his childhood vacations in Spain, accompanied by his girlfriend Ingeborg. Still running the hotel is someone from Udo’s earlier visits, Frau Else, whose mysterious, melancholy figuring drives a constant blurring of childhood crush and adult infatuation. Returning to a childhood home, Udo occupies his time with The Third Reich, a board game simulating World War II battles, loosely reminiscent of Axis & Allies. I never played myself, but my brother did when we were kids, so I’m proximally aware of its ability to consume a week-long series of evenings and cast a pall of childlike stubbornness over a dining room table. Eventually, The Third Reich creates not just a clash of childhood and adult activities, but of generational change—the book is set in the 1970s, just a generation away from the war the game depicts.

Characters bob and weave throughout the narrative (all of them in pairs, with the exception of Quemado, a local who rents paddle boats on the beach, seriously disfigured by never-explained burns) but the scene largely stays the same, rooted firmly in the hotel. Travelers Charly and Hanna function as foils to Ingeborg and Udo, while locals the Lamb and the Wolf function as a different kind of foil, natives rather than tourists, working rather than the traveling class. Things deteriorate. Charly disappears, Hanna heads back to Germany. Frau Else allows some but not all of Udo’s advances, even as her husband is a haunting figure of her devotion and decay. Ingeborg leaves and Udo becomes increasingly obsessed with The Third Reich and his surprisingly skilled opponent, Quemado. The setting becomes increasingly claustrophobic, simultaneously reminding me of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces and e.e. cummings’ brilliant, autobiographical, out-of-print The Enormous Room. When a rape scene emerges late in the text, it’s almost a relief to have a break in the tension, a ripping through of the layers of machinations and plotting and (usually half-hearted) deception.

There are line drawings throughout the Paris Review installments, quick little brush depictions of characters with captions from the text. I did not care for them (I am resistant to anything that imagines part of a story for me) but I was aware of how they provided a link from one installment to the next. The process of reading in sections, which I think has fascinated me ever since I was told as a kid that Dickens wrote his works in serial form, was oddly welcome given my impression of the book as overtly tied to fixed place. In a sense, this is less a review of The Third Reich and more a review of reading The Third Reich as dictated to me by The Paris Review. I liked letting months go by and then picking up the book where I’d left off, returning after a long absence to characters who were literally stuck in place.

There is a romance to posthumous works and (at least to me) to the structure of installments. The Third Reich resists these romances (or lives up to them?) by placing small things in the midst of big things, dream narratives in the midst of boredom, grotesqueness in the midst of stillness. Perhaps some small part of that is lost if you opt to read it as one piece from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. But not much.

- Jessa Lingel

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