The Paris Review is serializing Roberto Bolano's The Third Reich (El Tercer Reich), an early novel discovered in his papers after his death. Bolano wrote the novel in 1989, before his hyper-productive decade that produced 2666 and The Savage Detectives, but rather than displaying a nascent version of his talent, the novel bears a strikingly resemblance to his later work.
It has the same hallmarks of style, with the paucity of metaphors, and the same frequency of dreams. It has the familiar international scope (this time of Spain and Germany) and the regular cast of writer protagonists. In fact, because of the striking similarities, it feels quite unusual that there wasn't a gradual evolution of Bolano over the years. It's almost as if he emerged, during his early efforts, as a fully formed novelist.
To be fair, I've only read the first installment of four (The Third Reich will be published in its entirety in late 2011 by FSG). The advantage to my readers is that it's impossible for me to give away too much of the plot.
The Third Reich features the journal of Udo Berger, a German boardgame aficionado vacationing with his girlfriend Ingeborg at a Spanish resort. Udo is not a particularly pleasant fellow: he's demanding, boorish and critical. It's not that he's out and out an unreliable narrator, as much as he's offering a heavily mediated view of events. You always should worry when an off-balanced narrator says of himself: "Really, I've always been a well-balanced person."
The boardgames Udo devotes his life to require study, tournaments and strategizing. He plays mostly wargames, such as Fortress Europa, World in Flames, and The Longest Day, which recreate pivotal battles from WWII and WWI. This culture of boardgamers — insular, fanatical, culturally peripheral, and, let's say it, nerdy — anticipates the poet culture Bolano creates in The Savage Detectives and in his short stories.
A whole cast of characters float in and out of the narrative, including French men nicknamed the Wolf and the Lamb (nicknames which sound better in Spanish – Lobo and Cordero), a burned man appropriately named El Quemado (The Burned), Frau Else, the older maitre d' of the hotel, and vacation friends Charly and Hanna. The characters cycle through the story much like the enormous cast of Savage Detectives, but at least for this novel Bolano keeps it semi-manageable, so you won't have to scribble notes in the back of the book to help you remember who is who.
Write Better Books.
Receive a free copy of "DEFEAT WRITER'S BLOCK"
when you subscribe to my weekly newsletter.