It is one of the ironies of contemporary publishing that Roberto Bolaño, author of 2666 and The Savage Detectives, is marketed as a novelist. Despite the Tupac-worthy slew of releases in the eight years since his death—which includes four collections of stories, three collections of poetry, and no less than nine novels—Bolaño was actually master of a different, less reputable, and certainly less marketable form: the novella. The apparent exceptions—such as 2666 and The Savage Detectives—confirm the rule: 2666, which appears as a sprawling epic, is really five, short 'parts'; in The Savage Detectives, two longish diaries bookend a few dozen scrappy testimonies. Of the rest, there are few which stand above 200 pages, and most are chopped into various kinds of fragment—diary entries, multiple perspectives, and the like.
This is not a fault, but a form, and one that, on the evidence, took some trial-and-error to perfect. If Bolaño's books were cricket innings, we have seen a steady run of forties and fifties—replete with compact drives, elegant nudges, and a few risky spanks into the stands—but nothing to quite approach the forbidding, game-changing triple-figures of 2666. In this company, The Third Reich, initially written in 1989 and found among his papers after his death, is a middling half-century, full of edges, french cuts, and ambitious mishits, yet accompanied by that unmistakeable blend of youth, vigor, and violence—and, to drop the analogy, that ineffable tone of sardonic horror—that has made so many tired critics lose their shit.
The book opens in the hotel Del Mar, in a town in the Costa Brava, with Udo and Ingeborg, a young German couple. As a boy, Udo would spend his summers at the Del Mar, and it is with these rather sappy memories that the story begins. “I haven't forgotten the laughter at the tables on the terrace,” Udo scrawls into his diary. “Random images. My father's happy smile and approving nods, a shop where we rented bicycles, the beach at nine-thirty at night, still with a faint glow of sunlight.” Frau Else, the hotel manager and Udo's schoolboy crush, is “even more beautiful and at least as enigmatic as I remembered her from my adolescence.”
He goes on: “Ingeborg is asleep, her face placid as an angels,” he is made to say. “Meeting her was the best thing that happened to me...My life has never been better.” You'd assume that Bolaño, never sympathetic to the sweet or the pretty, would rather lose his thumbs than write this kind of fluff—and you would, for the most part, be right. These initial lines of tranquility are roughly equivalent to the white pickets fences in the opening shots of Blue Velvet; and while there is nothing quite so menacing as Lynch's severed ear, it doesn't take long for The Third Reich to descend, uneasily, into the familiar Bolaño world of bruises and blood.
As the summer days unfold, Ingeborg meets another German couple, Charly and Hanna, and the three of them spend their afternoons on the beach. Udo, too 'intellectual' for sunbathing, holes up in his hotel room, with the curtains shut, squinting over a map of Europe, moving forgotten armies and perfecting strategies for his most beloved wargame, The Third Reich:
To assure a breakthrough, the airborne corps must be launched from Hex O23 of the English corps is in P23, or from N23 if its in O23. The initial strike will be made by two armoured corps and the follow-through will be carried out by two or three different armored corps that must arrive at Hex O23 or N22...
Udo, a serious guy, treats this game as though it might affect the course of history: he plots the defeat of the Soviets, the capture of Britain, the defense of Europe against an American advance.
Bolaño is clearly mocking Udo, who comes off, for the most part, as an irredeemable mope. The pages of his diary, which form the entirety of The Third Reich, are rich with severe waffle and bombastic self-analysis. In this sense, Udo is a rather obvious stand-in for the poets, artists, critics, and painters which populate Bolaño's later fiction. And like these other misfits and obsessives, Udo is never exactly a hero: Bolaño's artists are, for the most part, just one more kind of asshole. Bolaño's technique is to place the figures of culture—the critics and poets in 2666, for instance—against the plentiful horrors of late capital, and then raise a quizzical eyebrow in the reader's direction. What good is culture, he seems to ask—and all those claims about “the best which has been thought and said”—for the women dying in the city of Santa Teresa?
As the novel unwinds, so does Udo, and his visions of the town, from an early nostalgic joy, begin to sour. “The day was yellow,” we are told, one hundred pages in, “and from everywhere there came a glow of of human flesh that made me sick.” Escaping his hotel room for a night on the town, Udo witnesses a brutal fight. Several nights later, Udo sees Hanna's left cheek covered with “a violet and pinkish bruise”—given to her by Charly.
Charly, pressured by Udo to explain his actions, tells him how he spied on a German couple making love on the beach:
Do you know what the Wolf said next? That we should get in line so we could take our turns when the guy was done. My God, I laughed so hard! He thought we could fuck her after that poor jerk! A bona fide rape! So funny. All I felt like was drinking and staring up at the stars...It was a gorgeous night, Udo...A quiet night, full of dangerous ideas but no bad behavior...A quiet night, let me try to explain, quiet and yet without a still moment, a single still moment...
Later, Charly, stumbling to an explanation, claims, “I could have done it, but I didn't. See what I mean? I could have wrecked Hanna's face, really wrecked it, and I didn't.”
After this explanation, Charly walks away, and he is soon back together with Hanna. We, for our part, start to realize that this is not a world in flames, but a world in ashes. Udo becomes obsessed with rape: whether the town has a history of rape; whether Charly himself was raped; whether the Wolf and the Lamb, two local louts, are rapists. Things fall rather quickly apart. By the middle section, we find that we are reading an altogether different story. In a rush of events, a central character drowns, Ingeborg returns to Germany, and Udo begins to play wargames with a man who may or may not have been tortured by Nazis, whose skin is “dark and corrugated” with burns, “like grilled meat or the crumpled metal of a downed plane.”
None of this is especially coherent. While Ingeborg is in Germany, Udo's visions of events cloud. There are, as you might expect, the requisite catalog of Bolaño dream sequences. While the tension never quite dissipates, the story becomes rather tired and flat. And yet, for those of us who return to Bolaño again and again, who forgive every mishit, who plow through his back-catalog like Elvis obsessives, this is almost beside the point. It is not the form of the novels that matter; it is their mood. In the background to all Roberto Bolaño's fiction, even his most sardonic and oddball short stories, there is a clenched fist. We read, uncomfortably, and wait to be punched in the mouth.
Matt McGregor is currently living in Vancouver, BC, where he works as a teacher.