Roberto Bolano’s “The Third Reich,” reviewed by Marie Arana

December 22, 2011

“Any thoughts about the word ‘posthumous’?” a cheeky interviewer asked Roberto Bolano in the last, waning days of his life. “It sounds like a Roman gladiator,” Bolano said. As in: Spartacus , Commodus, Posthumous. “An invincible Roman gladiator,” he added. “Or so poor Posthumous would like to think, in order to give himself courage.”

Bolano was hardly short on courage, at least in literary matters. Nor did he need valor to speak his prickly, spirited mind. He is, if critics around the world can be believed, the most fearless Latin American novelist of his generation. Born in Chile, raised in Mexico, a resident of Spain, he straddled the Spanish-speaking world, flouted its assiduously guarded boundaries. His peripatetic characters — obsessed geeks who played, read and wrote as if it were their last day on Earth — had something of Posthumous in them. Prickly, spirited, invincible, many saw life between a book’s covers only after their author was gone.

Bolano died of a liver ailment in 2003, a few years after the release of his masterwork “Savage Detectives.” He was 50 years old. With his illness diagnosed as incurable in 1993, Bolano spent 10 years battling “the hot whore” of death, writing as much as his feverish mind could summon. He was tireless, manic, producing a veritable flood of poetry and prose — so obsessed by the work at hand that he forgot to go to medical appointments. He would be spotted now and then in the streets of the small Spanish town where he lived: gaunt, his book bag slung over one shoulder, hair askew, the eternal cigarette dangling from his lips. He knew perfectly well that his remedy was the pen. If Bolano died before his time, his works have been swarming to life ever since. Every season seems to herald a new release by and about him. At the start of 1998, he was a virtual unknown; a decade later, three of his novels — “Savage Detectives,” “2666” and “Distant Star” — were judged among the top 15 Spanish-language books of the past quarter-century. Poor Posthumous, indeed.

“The Third Reich” is the latest of Bolano’s works to stride into the arena. Written in 1989, when Bolano was still waiting tables and selling trinkets at jewelry counters, the manuscript existed only in longhand. But after his death, 60 pages of it were found typed up, signaling Bolano’s intent to rework it for publication. Fascinating and quirky, the novel displays all the elements of a Bolano story: love, death, destiny, obsession and a few of life’s twists that would test even a gladiator’s courage.

At the heart of this tale is young Udo Berger, a German war-games champion who, with his girlfriend, Ingeborg, revisits the small Spanish town where he spent his childhood summers. Anticipating a languid two weeks on the beach, Udo and Ingeborg check into the quiet hotel where he used to stay with his parents. The same proprietors are there: an old, fading recluse and his beautiful young wife. In time, Udo and Ingeborg meet another German couple, Charly and Hanna, whose appetites for danger will take them to a darker, wilder side of town.

As it turns out, there’s far more to that sleepy little idyll than sand and surf. Eventually, Charly and Hanna introduce them to their bar buddies, “the Wolf and the Lamb,” Spanish thugs who are as feral as their names. At night, Udo and Ingeborg plow the town’s bars with these unlikely companions. During the day, they stretch out on the beach and watch a drifter who minds the pedal boats, a man named El Quemado (the Burn Victim), whose catastrophically disfigured face soon worms itself into Udo’s dreams. Udo finds himself staring at him from his hotel window, wondering how he eats, sleeps, lives out there on the sand, under his fortress of pedal boats.

Soon, the sands shift, the story mutates. Charly’s nightly binges intrude into the day, making his daredevil swims downright suicidal. As the summer vacation draws to a close, he goes missing at sea. A police investigation unfolds. Horrified and distraught, Ingeborg and Hanna go home to Germany, but Udo feels obliged to stay. He retreats to the growing disorder of his room, where he has set up the Third Reich, a board game that reenacts World War II. He invites El Quemado to play against him. The story careens again into new territory. The surly burn victim becomes a general, infected by Udo’s war-game obsessions: “Muscular and charred, his torso looms over Europe like a nightmare.” All at once, it is 1940 and the Wehrmacht is swarming into Russia. The ground shifts, mutates again. It is classic Bolano.

As summer turns to fall and Udo awaits news about Charly’s body, the game continues, and the sunny resort becomes a dreary sinkhole. The room is a nest of discomforts. But obsessions are in high gear now, and Udo intends to play to the very end, prosecuting a war that has already been fought, attempting to overturn the inevitable outcome.

So it is that a hard-bitten season follows, a childhood paradise is made into a mortuary, and sunny Spain is filled with inexplicable darkness. “It was as if,” Bolano writes, “autumn had unsheathed a claw and scratched.”

“The Third Reich” is a mesmerizing tale: sleek, linear, easily digested, beautifully translated. But it cannot pretend to rival Bolano’s mature work. Nor will any serious Bolano fan prefer its trim, conventional story line to his sprawling masterpieces. Yet the book shows Bolano as we’ve hardly seen him before: young, sniffing for new ground, applying old-fashioned suspense to a very modern chaos. Four years later, all rules would change for this writer. Apprised of his fatal disease, Bolano would make a bracing leap for immortality. He would fling convention to the winds, take up his shield of invincibility, and fight — like the gladiator Posthumous — for the glorious afterlife that has been his reward.

Arana, a writer at large for The Post, is the author of “Cellophane” and “Lima Nights.”

THE THIRD REICH

By Robert Bolano

Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer

Farrar Straus and Giroux, 227 pp. $25

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