The Third Reich is a mystifying book.
Reich (Farrar Straus Giroux) was written by the late Roberto Bolaño, who was known for his critically acclaimed books such as The Savage Detectives and 2666. In this novel, German Udo Berger and his girlfriend, Ingeborg, visit a Spanish resort town that he used to visit as a child. While there, they meet a couple – Charley and Hanna – and spend a good deal of time with them.
But Udo is more interested in his war games that he’s set up in his hotel room. The game, called the Third Reich, is a simulation of World War II battles. Udo is Germany’s national champion at war games – a hobby even he finds a little odd when he goes to one of the conventions. “For my part, I came to the conclusion that eighty percent of the speakers needed psychiatric help,” he says.
But he has distractions from the game. Udo flirts with the hotel’s owner, Frau Else, who returns his affections despite having an ailing husband. Charley has an explosive, unpredictable personality that puts him in danger. Udo strikes up a friendship with a man named El Quemado, a muscular man with horrible burns all over his body – and soon rivals Udo at his own game.
While that seems like a lot of plot, it’s not. The book moves slowly. Udo has a passive personality that makes you wonder what he’s truly thinking, even though the book is told in first person. The book, translated by Natasha Wimmer, is easy to read, but readers may wish there was more action other than reports of his breakfast and technical descriptions of the game.
Fortunately, the conclusion of the book moves quickly and keeps you intrigued. The book has some deep observations, with World War II serving as a metaphor between Udo and El Quemado. And Bolaño, who wrote the book in 1989, is eerily prescient about how some of today’s gamers are isolated from society.
• Roberto Bolaño was born in 1953, grew up in Chile and Mexico City and died at age 50. The Third Reich was written in 1989 and found after his death. He won the National Book Critics Awards in 2009 for 2666.
Source: I received an advanced copy of the book from the publisher.