The Third Reich is the latest in the long string of Roberto Bolaño works to be translated into English, but it stands out. Written in 1989, and discovered among his papers after his 2003 death, it isn’t one of his most accomplished works—The Savage Detectives and 2666 are far more ambitious, complete, satisfying novels. But it does shed light on his history. To be fully appreciated, The Third Reich needs the context of Bolaño’s career, since it’s almost impossible to separate the author he became from the mystifying, gripping work that appears out of the shadows here.
Udo Berger and his girlfriend Ingeborg are vacationing near Barcelona at a resort where Udo spent the summers as a child. They meet another German couple, Charly and Hanna, and a few locals, named the Lamb and the Wolf, who bore, annoy, and fascinate Udo to varying degrees. The last they meet is El Quemado—”the burnt one”—a scarred man who rents paddleboats on the beach. Udo obsesses over El Quemado’s mysterious backstory, and over resort owner Frau Else, due to a lingering childhood crush that festers into lust.
Udo is the German champion of The Third Reich, a tabletop-game jumble of chess, Risk, and Dungeons & Dragons that replays the events of World War II, with players controlling various armies. During his vacation, Udo is supposedly working on a gaming-journal article on a strategy variant, but Ingeborg and the others distract him. They all go to clubs, drink, and get into fights, while Udo provides commentary in his diary.
Everything changes when Charly disappears after windsurfing, setting off a manhunt on the sea. Hanna and Ingeborg return to Germany, but Udo can’t bring himself to leave the hotel. He lingers beyond his return date, playing The Third Reich with El Quemado, first dominating the board, but slowly relinquishing control as the nameless stranger surprises Udo with fierce intelligence and a violent past. Bolaño conveys all this through Udo’s recollections, which eschew flowery detail except when describing his game. As Udo slowly, methodically descends into madness as everything slips away—like the German army he controls against El Quemado—Udo’s writings become more erratic and fantastical, evolving into long, eloquent dream sequences.
Udo is his country’s champion, exerting German dominance over the rest of Europe, but he fails to grasp that no matter how well he plays the game, the Nazis must fall—not because of his opponent’s skill, but because mystical, higher powers can’t allow even the fictional implication of their victory.
It’s clear that Bolaño never fully completed The Third Reich. The novel trails off with little direction, limping to the finish in the final pages, which only adds to its air of mystery. During one of many encounters between Udo and Frau Else dripping with unfulfilled sexual tension, she asks him what it means to be German. Udo responds “I don’t know exactly. Something difficult, that’s for sure. Something that we’ve gradually forgotten.” There are much larger issues of guilt and identity buried deep within the simple spiral into darkness, but Bolaño never fleshed them out. Even in an unfinished state, though, The Third Reich still sheds some fascinating light on how a totemic literary force rose to his creative peak—or, in Udo’s words, how he came to create the “literature written in blood” that defined his career.