An early novel by Chile’s Roberto Bolaño foreshadows the ludic brilliance of his mature works, writes Stuart Kelly
AND WITH this, it is over. By a quirk of fate, Roberto Bolaño, the writer who most astonished the first decade of the new millennium, died in 2003, just as the first translations of his work were appearing in English. The sheer joy at novels like The Savage Detectives and the magisterial 2666 – books which redefined what the novel could do, and challenged the very foundations of literary culture – was always tinged with the sense that everything was already posthumous.
The Third Reich was actually written 20 years ago, although not published at the time; it is a forerunner and a laggard at the same time. But in both theme and execution we see the co-ordinates by which Bolaño was steering. Like most such retrieved works, one can imagine why the author was less than satisfied. That said, a work with which Bolaño was dissatisfied is simply on a different plane to the smug, tepid scribbling that passes for literature in some circles.
The Third Reich is narrated by a German, Udo Berger, who has gone to a hotel where he holidayed as a child on the Costa Brava with his new (and unexpected) girlfriend, fresh from winning the German championship in table-top war games. They meet another German couple, the laddish, violent, tearful Charly and his highly strung partner Hanna, who introduce them in turn to two seedy locals, The Wolf and The Lamb.
Udo is mostly bored by them, perfecting in his head his latest innovative game strategies and queasily lusting after the hotel owner he remembers from his childhood. At the margins of their holiday, but playing an increasingly significant role, is a scarred man known only as “El Quemado” (in Spanish, it can mean both burnt and burned out, as well as discredited) who rents out pedal boats by day and sleeps under a “fortress” of them by night. When Charly disappears in a surfing accident, Udo stays behind, even after Hanna and his partner leave, becoming more and more obsessed with teaching El Quemado how to play his Second World War game, and becoming more and more fixated on the hotel owner and his suspicions about her terminally ill husband.
It is a strange and unforgettable little book; like Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice rewritten by Michel Houellebecq in his fullest strain of choking, nauseous pity. The ending is both deliberately enigmatic – a final confrontation just as Berlin falls on the game table – and yet unfocused, as if Bolaño could not quite face yet the structures of horror he had put in place. The ending of the novel is oddly inconsequential, a trite tying-off of narratives, but with a strange kind of optimism and even redemption that he would later make much more vexed and complex.
There are shadows and echoes everywhere of later Bolaño. Udo’s preferred kind of game involves “his” Germany adopting very different and effective military tactics: invading Britain, even invading Spain to secure Gibraltar and impose German naval domination on the Mediterranean. These fantasies link him to the characters in Bolaño’s fictitious encyclopaedia, Nazi Literature Of The Americas. He hears rumours about a rape, or several rapes, but who the victims are (Hanna? Ingeborg? An unknown girl on the beach? The hotel owner?) and who the perpetrators are (The Wolf and the Lamb? Charly?) remains eerily vague.
This connects to the most dramatic section of 2666, “The Part About The Crimes”, where there is nothing vague at all; but any solution or resolution stays frustratingly out of the mind’s reach. Udo, as a creator of fictions, is a precursor to the “visceral realists” in The Savage Detectives and as a scholar of his fictions he also looks forward to the critics searching for Benno von Archimboldi in 2666.
Udo’s reading is important. At home, he likes Sven Hassel, the purveyor of novels emblazoned with “they fought and died for Hitler and the SS”, and Ernst Jünger, the author of Storm Of Steel, Hitler’s favourite novel. In the hotel, he is stuck reading a generic detective novel, and the detective appears in his fevered dreams to offer enigmatic advice. Bolaño’s great theme, and what marks him out as a profound novelist, is his utter conviction that literature is always in a state of complicity with the forces of absolutism and corruption. Udo is one of his earliest attempts at examining the toxic nature of fictions. Although parts of the novel seem first draft-ish (at one point, a friend of Udo’s tells him by telephone that El Quemado is the devil: Bolaño would never be that gauche later) there are also moments of sublimity. The description of El Quemado looking like “a figure rubbed out with an eraser (Like a suitor who, instead of flowers, carries photocopies clutched to his chest)” is the kind of precise, haunted surrealism in which Bolaño excelled. A dream sequence, with a South America Indian playing chess, and throwing the pieces into a fire, is unforgettable and beautifully unexplained.
Bolaño’s work will continue to exasperate and delight readers; and his corpus will be picked over by academics. I wonder where the writers are with sufficient intent and integrity to grapple with his legacy.