Making sense of Roberto Bolaño’s life and sprawling literary history has come to require something akin to detective work. “By Night In Chile,” originally published in 2000, was translated by Chris Andrews and released to the English-speaking public in 2003—the same year that Bolaño died at age 50 from liver failure—and it was this work and the event of his death that introduced this heir of the Latin American greats like Gabriel García Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges to English readers. Since then, several more of his works have been translated into English, and more papers are still being found among his estate. Bolaño already exists in the world in full, though perhaps aspects are still unfound, and readers must put the pieces together from what has been given after the fact. It is thus haunting and eerie—even verging on the prophetic—that puzzles and detective work figure so largely Bolaño’s oeuvre.
“The Third Reich” was written by Bolaño in 1989 but was not published at the time. The manuscript was found posthumously, and was serialized earlier this year by The Paris Review in a translation by Natasha Wimmer. The work bears all the characteristics that will later come to full fruition in his long-form masterpieces “Savage Detectives” and “2666.” Idiosyncratic formal elements, like hand-drawn diagrams and a first-person journal structure, as well as thematic elements of violence and anxiety, can be seen here. Yet it would be reductive of “The Third Reich” to view it simply as an addendum to the established Bolaño or as an extraneous detail. “The Third Reich,” itself exhibiting elements of the detective genre, should be viewed through the lens of a master detective: every sign is indicative of a narrative, and every detail further complicates the layers of complexity already present.
“The Third Reich” is the journal Udo Berger begins to keep from August 20, when he goes on vacation to Spain from Germany with his girlfriend Ingeborg. He is the German champion of the titular war game, and has garnered modest attention as an essayist and strategist on these types of games. He comes on his first vacation with his new, beautiful girlfriend to a beach town in a hotel where he stayed with his parents when he was a child. His plan is to finalize his strategy for an important article he needs to complete by the end of the summer. Starting with the setting itself, Bolaño begins to juxtapose binaries—starting with the simple mix of work and play Udo plans to achieve—a device he continues to use to strange and devastating effect throughout the novel.
The concept of a war game lends itself easily to such a trope. In the game called “The Third Reich,” players take on the roles of countries involved in World War II and use strategies often divergent from history to arrive at different results from what we know to have conspired. Having a game based on the most devastating event in world history is unexpected enough; another inversion takes place in that most players of this game take it very seriously, becoming involved in clubs, going to conventions to discuss papers, and publishing “scholarly” magazines. Play becomes work, and work becomes play. The result is a constant revision: on the level of the game, history is being retold and reformulated, and in a wider sense, boundaries between categories and concepts are becoming blurred while symbols take on completely different meanings from their original ones.
One of such upturned details is the book that Ingeborg reads throughout her vacation. It’s a “Florian Linden detective novel,” and Udo claims to have figured out who the murderer is from the beginning, despite only having leafed through pages. Ingeborg, curiously, does not seem interested or invested in the mystery, and even leaves the book behind when she goes back to Germany at the end of the summer. At first, Udo’s mention of the novel seems to be a mere device for him to be able to comment on his girlfriend’s fickle, carefree nature, but as the novel progresses, this small aspect of his life takes on sinister dimensions. In the September 6 entry, Udo writes, “Why, I don’t know, maybe because it was the nearest thing to me, I picked up the Florian Linden book and opened it at random. ‘The Killer is the owner of the hotel.’ ‘Are you sure?’ I closed the book.”
The seemingly disparate elements in “The Third Reich” undergo this type of transformation on their own terms. By the end of the novel, it is clear that despite Udo’s lack of reliability as a narrator, everything he has chronicled so far has come together, as if in a conspiracy, each event building irrevocably and irreversibly to a predetermined end. As in a strategy game, it is in looking back that Udo and the reader can pinpoint the decisive moment that led to the conclusion. Thus “The Third Reich,” yet another gift given to the literary world by Bolaño from the grave, is the perfect war game. The table is set, and the very first moves may well determine the entire play—but Bolaño is a worthy opponent, and his strategy will only be understood when it’s too late.
—Staff writer Susie Y. Kim can be reached at email@example.com.