Friday, September 30, 2011

The Third Reich by Robert Bolano

An 1989 manuscript by Robert Bolano, discovered after his death, and scheduled for release in December 2011. (The Paris Review serially published the novel beginning early in 2011.) Sort of a Borges-meets-Raymond Chandler story set on the Costa Brava in Spain. Noted war-game champion Udo Berger vacations with his girlfriend Ingeborg at a small beachside resort where he spend childhood summers. They meet another couple, Charly and Hanna, and several locals: the Wolf, the Lamb, and most crucially, El Quemado (in Spanish, "burned" or "burned out" or simply "tanned"), a burn victim who runs a pedal-boat service on the beach.

There is much drunkenness, idleness and nighttime clubbing. Berger spends much of his time in the hotel room, staring at his favorite war-game, The Third Reich, which he is supposed to be writing an article on for a big industry publication. He begins pursuing Elsa, the owner of the hotel, a woman he remembers from his childhood, who is later revealed to be caring for her terminally-ill husband in another room in the hotel.

Charly, a bit of a wild man, disappears out at sea while wind-surfing. Berger begins an intense session of The Third Reich with El Quemado, a pathetic figure with severe burn scars, a pedal-boat vendor who lives beneath the "fortress" of pedal-boats he builds each night when the day's work is done. Ingeborg and Hanna return to Stuggart, but Berger stays on, obsessed with his war-game, waiting for Charly's body to be found, and half-enmeshed in a never-consummated romance with Elsa.

It's a Borgesian novel in that it circles obsessively from Berger's single point of view: one thinks variously that Berger is paranoid, paranormal, crippled by nostalgia and trapped by childhood, a violent man, a Nazi-glorifier, in that the story about a game soon becomes actually playing the game and ends up possibly not a game at all, as Berger slowly loses position and strength in the game he is playing with El Quemado (Berger is Germany, El Quemado is the Allies) and ends up on the verge of losing and worrying that El Quemado will demands Berger's own life as a reward. Berger has long, vivid dreams that blur into his waking: was it all imagined, or was some of it real?

It's Chandler in its seedy coastal town mystery of Who Killed Charly? and Where's the Body? Everyone is suspected, nothing is proved.

It's certainly a moody little book: dark and creepy. Berger is not the most reliable narrator, one wonders if he is up to something besides his crippling obsessions and passiveness. The hotel and the local beaches and bars are creepy, filled with lively, chattering passionate drifters. Certainly Bolano is discovering some of the motifs and styles he will later use to much stronger effect.

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