Audiobook Contemporaries: The Third Reich by Roberto Bolano
A Posthumous Discovery
If you've ever wondered how Catalonian locals feel about the throngs of German tourists that invade their coast every August, or more specifically how Catalonian locals feel about a young German champion "wargamer" and his three German companions, Roberto Bolaño's The Third Reich is a good place to start, though it would be barely scratching the surface of this complex multi-tiered pseudo-detective novel and psychoanalysis of German post-war fantasy and guilt.
I’ll admit that if I hadn't done a little snooping around I might not know that Bolaño spent most of his short adult life with his wife and daughter writing detective novels in a beach town on the Costa Brava in Catalonia, and I wouldn't have been able to make a supposition that the springboard for The Third Reich was Bolaño's personal experience and observations he made around his own home. I wouldn't have known that he worked, as most of the Catalonian characters in the story, at odd jobs in the area, sleepwalking through his days and writing at night. I might not have been able to place the author of the story as the scarred and burned pedal boat vendor, an expatriate from an unnamed South American country where the Nazi's fled after the war. The Third Reich is the type of novel that rewards those that do their research.
For some reason the novel wasn't published when it was originally completed in 1989. In fact nobody knew it existed until after the author's death in 2003. Still, it has many of the same characteristics that critics attribute to Bolaño, so it's not entirely clear why it wasn't published, though we might assume that Bolaño himself did not feel it to be his best work. Ultimately “The Paris Review” published the complete novel in four installments over the course of 2011.
The Classic Unreliable Narrator
What I find remarkable in The Third Reich is Bolaño's ability to be this despicable character - the classic unreliable narrator - probably based on vacationing Germans that he came in contact with on the Costa Brava - and elicit our disgust and our sympathy at the same time. In so doing Bolaño is able to give us somebody truly human: a victim of circumstance, history, desire, and ultimately a victim of his own German arrogance and Aryan superiority, but also a unique individual with psychological complexity beyond the obvious stereotypes.
The whole story begins as sort of a travel log, peppered with some backstory about previous family vacations to the same hotel that provide a then and now backdrop that becomes more important as the story progresses. Then, once our tour guide feels all the pieces are in place, he interrupts his linear narrative to reflect on his own feelings:
“Why am I so afraid sometimes? And why, when I'm most afraid, does my spirit seem to surge, rise up, and observe the whole planet from above? (I see Frau Else from above and I'm afraid. I see Ingeborg from above and I know that she sees me too and I'm afraid and I want to cry.) Tears of love? Do I really want to escape with her not just from this town and the heat but from what the future holds for us, from mediocrity and absurdity...I scarcely move a muscle, though inside I’m falling apart.” (p. 68)
By allowing his narrator to reveal his own insecurity, juxtaposed against his regimented behavior and the regimented, painstakingly detailed chronological account of his vacation (he even records what he eats at every meal), Bolaño invites us into his narrator’s interior struggle. We can’t help but wonder why Udo is afraid sometimes, why he’s falling apart, because based on the account he’s provided up to this point he has no reason to be fearful. Thus Bolaño sets us up, for we now know that at some point something truly fearful will be revealed. We also know that there’s more to Udo than meets the eye, and, as if it were some sort of psychological detective novel, we need to find out what Udo, or the characters around Udo, might be hiding.
Another Great Read by Simon Vance
If you've read any of my other hubs, you'll know I'm a big fan of voice actor Simon Vance. I'm not alone. Mr. Vance has won more Audie and Earphone awards than any other voice actor. You can get a really good feel for Simon Vance and his work by reading the interview I did with him on The Huffington Post.
Bolano's translator with Daniel Alarcon
Dreams of Detective Novels
Dreams also play a central role in Udo’s diary, specifically dreams involving Bolaño’s imaginary novels featuring the detective Florian Linden. Bolaño uses Florian Linden to foreshadow events but also to warn Udo of some lurking and sinister danger.
“A month ago, not to put too fine a point on it, I dreamed about Florian Linden... I remember it very vividly; I was in bed, because I was very cold, and Ingeborg was sying to me: ‘the room is hermetically sealed.’ Then, from the hallway, we heard the voice of Florian Linden, who warned us of the presence in the room of a poisonous spider that could bite us and then vanish, even though the room was ‘hermetically sealed’. Ingeborg started to cry and I held her tight…[I was] going through drawers in search of the spider, but I couldn’t find anything: of course there were many places where it could hide...Ingeborg shouted ‘Florian’...we both knew we were on our own.” (p.30)
Florian Linden keeps appearing in Udo’s dreams both as a protector of the young couple but also as competition for Ingeborg, who is impressed with the detective’s riddle-solving ability. Udo is jealous because while Ingeborg admires the imaginary detective she has no interest in Udo’s wargaming, which he insists is far more strategic and complex than any Florian Linden case. Bolaño expertly employs smoke and mirrors to create a detective novel vibe throughout The Third Reich, even though there is no crime to be solved.
Bolaño thought of himself as poet first, novelist second, which probably explains why the symbolism and broad brush metaphor, along with some very sinister horror movie imagery in The Third Reich (starting quite blatantly with the title) is so prevalent. His poetic sensibility isn’t necessarily demonstrated by the language that he uses, which is translated from his native Spanish anyway, rather it’s demonstrated by his comfort with all the loose ends, the unexplained events, the vague motivations and shadowy alliances. My limited knowledge of poetry tells me that much of the intent with the out-of-focus events surrounding the core action is to evoke a feeling of unease in the reader, resulting in a strong desire for resolution of the core plot. But Bolaño is content to leave us hanging without any sort of definitive resolution.
In the case of The Third Reich the symbolism can probably be read in many different ways, and the depth to which a given reader interprets the symbols and metaphors is largely dependent on the reader’s familiarity with history: World War II, post-war Germany, Spain’s role in the conflict as a non-combatant, Nazis in South America, and the lingering master/slave attitude that is ascribed to vacationing Germans in Mediterranean countries, and so forth. As I read The Third Reich I felt that the story would be more meaningful if I had a deeper knowledge of the war and the psychological effect it’s history has on young Germans like Udo Berger. On the flip side I wonder if the story would be more meaningful if I had some knowledge of the reign of Pinochet in Chile, imagining that there was some connection between it and the burn victim, El Quemado, or perhaps some connection between Pinochet and the Nazis. Or Pinochet and the Jews. Since I know little of these histories, I can’t put my finger on the source of antagonism between the Catalonians, the one South American (possibly Chilean) and the Germans.
Yet even with limited knowledge of the historical significance of these large overriding themes, The Third Reich is still a compelling story on a much simpler level. If we as readers let Bolaño work his poetic magic, using all the characters - Frau Else and her sick husband (whom we might assume is Jewish) Charly and Hannah the self-destructive party-loving German “friends”, The “Wolf” and the “Lamb” (how much research are we to do to fully understand the significance of those nicknames - are they literary allusions?), El Quemado the burn victim, Ingeborg the girlfriend and the setting on the Costa Brava - as sinister contributors to the unraveling of Udo’s proud and arrogant German persona, the story is still fascinating. As hateful as Udo is, we still wish he would read the writing on the wall and go back to Germany where he belongs rather than extend his vacation to play Third Reich against El Quemado - a match we are so certain he will lose we can’t wonder what else he will lose in the process.
In the end it’s Frau Else’s husband (who is never given a name, nor do we know if he is German or Spanish) who gets us thinking that Udo has been set up for some sort of comeuppance:
“What will happen after the fall of Berlin?” [Udo asks]
“As I see it,” he said in a drawl without opening his eyes, “he [El Quemado] won’t be satisfied with a handshake.”
“What do you think he’ll do?”
“The logical thing, Herr Udo Berger, the logical thing. Think, what does the winner do? What traits does he possess?”
I confessed my ignorance. Frau Else’s husband turned on his side so that all I could see was hi profile, haggard and angular. This was how I discovered that he looked like Don Quixote. A weakened Quixote, ordinary and terrible as Fate. The discovery disturbed me. Maybe that was what had attracted Frau Else.
“It’s in all this history books” - his voice sounded weak and tired - “even the German ones. Let the trial of the war criminals begin.” (p. 250)
Again, on one level Bolaño is throwing a bone to the historians in his audience, but he is also using irresistible foreshadowing. A reader doesn’t need to know history to be want to find out what will ultimately happen to Udo, who fears aloud that he will be raped by the disfigured El Quemado in his pedal-boat fortress. It’s a bit of a letdown when Udo’s ultimate loss is punished with a night in El Quemado’s pedal-boat prison on the beach with the burned man parading around outside, laughing in the rain. It is a typically vague and symbolic reference to the source of El Quemado’s disfiguration, which I found both thought-provoking and frustrating.
One chapter of The Third Reich, entitled “My Favorite Generals”, lists nearly two pages of Udo’s Nazi war heroes and their nicknames, revealing Udo’s psychotic obsession with the Third Reich:
“They’re not saints or anything like it, but sometimes I see them in the sky, like in the movies, their faces superimposed on the clouds, smiling at us, gazing into the distance, rehearsing salutes, so noddings as if clearing up unspoken doubts. The share clouds and sky with generals like Frederick the Great...Sympathetic figures, despite everything. Like Model the Titan, Schorner the Ogre, Rendulio the Bastard, Arnim the Obedient, Witzleben the Squirrel…” (p. 217)
...and on and on it goes.
The chapter is fun. But it is also the absurd icing on the psycho-cake: Udo Berger does not play his war games for fun; he truly envisions a world, even tries to live in a world where the Germans won the war. When Udo the champion loses the game against the amateur El Quemado he loses his self-identity, his desire for conquest, and thus his interest in the game entirely. It’s as if this “vacation” is what it took for him to finally realize that the Germans lost the war and will forever be paying the price.
The Paris Review, upon publishing the first installment of The Third Reich, said:
“The irony, the atmosphere of erotic anxiety, the dream logic shading into nightmare, the feckless, unreliable narrator: all prefigure his later work. The young novelist must have been exhilarated, and possibly alarmed, to discover his talent so fully formed.” [2The Third Reich: Part I". the Paris Review No. 196. Spring 2011.
Yet Bolaño hid the novel in a box in his closet and never discussed its existence throughout his short but illustrious career. So, like the novel itself, we are left with an unresolved mystery that only a zombie detective who could travel to the afterlife and back again could solve, which is exactly the kind of puzzle Bolaño would have wanted.