Written in 1989 and discovered among the author’s papers after his death in 2003, Roberto Bolaño’s The Third Reich is a moody, atmospheric story of obsession—obsession with love, history and the impenetrability of the human psyche.
Set in resort town on Spain’s Costa Brava, the novel is narrated by Udo Berger, returning with his girlfriend to the hotel where he had vacationed with his family as a child. Udo is a champion wargamer—absorbed in board games that recreate famous battles—and he plans to spend part of the holiday quietly playing and writing about them.
But soon he finds himself entangled in the lives of another German couple, Charly (whose disappearance while windsurfing is a mystery at the core of the novel) and Hanna, as well as those of a pair of shadowy locals known only as the Wolf and the Lamb. But the person whose presence will affect him most profoundly is El Quemado, a man disfigured by terrible burn scars who runs a pedal boat concession on the town beach. He eventually joins Udo in a game that recreates the European battles of World War Two—the game that gives the novel its title. El Quemado quickly overcomes his novice mistakes to give Udo more of a match than he’d bargained for.
Udo is also obsessed with Frau Else, the hotel manager. Her husband supposedly lies gravely ill in one of the establishment’s rooms, but Udo wonders whether the man may be implicated in some disturbing events (a rape, secret coaching of El Quemado in the game) as he engages in serious flirtation with the older woman.
Bolaño displays consummate skill in describing the pace of life in the sleepy beach town, as the pleasant days of late summer give way to the ominous fall. While the pace of the novel is languid and much of the story is told through Udo’s interior monologue, Bolaño effectively winds the tension and sustains an air of growing menace for the novel’s length. The Third Reich is unquestionably slight when compared to Bolaño masterworks like 2666, but it’s not a bad point of entry into his impressive body of work.