The late Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño's newly translated novel The Third Reich is an homage to film noir. It's set in a resort town on Spain's Costa Brava, with paddleboat rentals, sunsets over the ocean, and tipsy European tourists trying to cram their holidays full of fun. Yet, as this is an ominously titled Bolaño novel, we can expect that death and evil in some form will rise, vaguely, and prevail. In this regard, the book doesn't disappoint.
As with many of the stories found in the Bolaño short story collection The Return, a book with a similar tone, the dialogue in The Third Reich is peppered with ominous sentiments that hint at larger themes simmering within the plot. "The way you remember tourists is different from the way you remember normal people," says the manager of a hotel called the Del Mar, where much of book's action takes place. "It's like snippets of film, no, not film, photographs, snapshots, thousands of snapshots and all of them blank."
The book, including the above quote, is presented as the daily journal of Udo Berger, a young German tourist from Stuttgart travelling with his girlfriend, Ingeborg. Udo claims to adore her. "A life at Ingeborg's side: could I ask for anything more in matters of the heart?" But with each chapter, a journal entry, Udo adds details to his growing sense that his life is being erased while on holiday in Spain, as his reality changes due to mysterious forces that may be entirely imagined.
The title of the book is the name of a vast and detailed Second World War board game that we learn has grown from a mere hobby for Udo into the centre of his world. The game is not an absurd invention of Bolaño's, it seems to be based on a pair of actual board games called The Rise and Decline of the Third Reich, and Advanced Third Reich, in which each player's turn advances the game time by three months.
We learn that Udo is actually the star of a shallow universe, a master of the Third Reich game who's never lost a match. "The federation of war games players might be the smallest sports federation in Germany," Udo says, "but I was the champion and no one could claim otherwise. The sun shone for me alone." He's a less interesting example of a figure common to Bolaño's work: the dangerously obsessed intellectual, like the group of Archimboldi scholars in 2666 whose shared mania sickens their lust for life.
Bolaño went to great lengths studying war history to make the game-playing scenes sound like authentic geekspeak as Udo sweats over each move on the hexagonal game board: "Of the fourteen infantry corps ... at least twelve should cover Hexes Q24, P24, O24, N24 ... one should probably be in Hex 022 ... replacement units will be in Hexes Q22 ... Situation of the Axis armies in the Mediterranean: unchanged; Attrition Option." There are dozens of such robotic, tedious passages. Even as examples of Udo's madness and a metaphor for mankind's fascination with war, Bolaño stretches the joke beyond usefulness in dozens of needlessly detailed passages like the one above.
For broader plot, he employs a series of mysteries to keep Udo trapped at the hotel, playing Third Reich and slowly eroding his sanity. The first mystery is established when Udo and his girlfriend Ingeborg meet another German couple named Charly and Hanna. Hanna is beautiful and innocent. Charly likes sports, especially windsurfing, and drinks excessively. They all party every night. Charly's carousing soon attracts a pair of locals known only as the Wolf and the Lamb. The German tourists are from then on saddled with these two creepy characters, who ogle women and act like petty criminals.
Udo also develops a fascination with Frau Else, the German woman who manages the Del Mar hotel, and, in a twist that strains suspension of disbelief to near-breaking, he befriends a maimed homeless man called El Quemado (the burn victim) who lives on the beach near the hotel under a "fortress" of paddleboats. He is covered in terrible scars, which Udo describes in callous terms as "dark and corrugated, like grilled meat or the crumpled metal of a downed plane". Meanwhile, Udo grows increasingly suspicious of all these people's motives, imagining they're all in cahoots to do far worse than bully tourists into buying their drinks, as the Wolf and the Lamb often do when the group spends time together.