Summer Read: The Third Reich by Roberto Bolaño
When I was asked to read and review The Third Reich, I have to say I was dubious. It sounded like heavy-reading, and the khaki war figurines that marched in aggressive rows across the white hardback I held in my hands, did little to persuade me otherwise. But of course, as these confessional first sentences go, I must admit that I was completely mistaken and that what I had presumed to be the historical tragedy of Hitler’s Germany, was in fact a brilliant work of fiction combining the nostalgic fever of adolescence with the heady mix of love, fear, memory and intrigue, as well as the tangible proximity between life and death. Confessions that I in fact loved The Third Reich drew concerned looks from passers-by.
When the Chilean-born literary genius Roberto Bolano died in 2003 from liver failure aged only 50 years old, he already had an impressive list of successful publications to his name, and was hailed as one of the most important figures of his South American generation. Yet The Third Reich was not yet amongst these publications. Rumoured to have been found in a desk drawer after his death, The Third Reich was published posthumously and was Bolano’s first novel since the epic 2666, published, also posthumously, in 2003. It is difficult to say whether the withholding of this newest release was a decision made by publishers or the author himself, but either way, Bolano’s popularity, and his ingenuity undoubtedly keeps his legacy alive.
The Third Reich follows German national war-games champion Udo Berger and his girlfriend Ingeborg, on holiday to the Costa Brava, and starts off as a compelling, but unremarkable, tale of sun, sea, sex and Spanish nightclubs. They quickly become acquainted with another German couple, Hanna and Charly, but also a fairly grim mix of notorious-looking locals, and when Charly goes missing, the situation becomes suffocated by terror, madness and the materialisation of dangerous thoughts. The girls flee the summer horror that has surfaced but Udo refuses to leave, and the nightmarish quality of the eerie, emptying town that Udo feels is ‘tinged with catastrophe’ seems determined to bring about his destruction. As the threatening world of the war-game begins to absorb his reality, Udo drifts into a catatonic state of obsession and hallucination that is reminiscent of Richard’s temporary insanity in Danny Boyle’s version of The Beach, when he imagines he is a character in a video game overcoming the hallucinated forces around him. Suddenly for Udo too, the consequences of the game become more menacing than he ever could have imagined.
Bolano’s blissful prose is elegant, refined and occasionally humourous, and greatly supports the second half of the novel which relies purely on atmosphere to maintain its momentum. Udo’s artistic reflections, as well as his constant drinking, smoking and womanizing may seem slightly unrealistic to readers who still can’t help imagining gamers as socially-awkward, anaemic-looking adolescents, but he is a richly complex and compelling protagonist who navigates us expertly through the imagined, invented and idealistic worlds he occupies. The Third Reich is an exhilarating work of stylish modern fiction which could as easily be the perfect introduction to Bolano’s work as the continued reading for those already familiar with one of South America’s most exciting authors.
Words: Lucy Holden