The Third Reich, By Roberto Bolaño (trs Natasha Wimmer)

A newly translated novel, written in the 1980s, reveals the preoccupations of a Chilean master as well has his trademark sarcasm and dark humour

The longest time that Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003) lived in any one place was in Blanes, the last town travelling north from Barcelona before the Costa Brava.

There he settled, with his Catalan wife and, eventually, two children, for the 20 years before his death from liver disease.

Chilean by birth, he was a drop-out in Mexico City by his teens. When asked about his origins, he would say: "The Spanish language is my homeland." An apt epithet for a writer who revolutionised the Latin-American novel with his two huge, bold masterpieces, The Savage Detectives and 2666.

The Third Reich is no masterpiece, despite the hyperbolic claim by Picador, which is engaged in publishing in translation Bolaño's entire output. Written in the late 1980s, it was only first published in Spanish in 2010. Like The Skating Rink, his most recent novel in English (2010), it is set in a version of Blanes, a rather anodyne holiday resort. And like The Skating Rink, it is a very good novel, but one written a decade before Bolaño fully found his themes and voice.

Bolaño's characteristic tone – which is one of dread underlying life's normal rituals – is fully present, as are many of his later themes: the uprooted feeling and exile of his two main characters; Nazism and the nature of evil; violence against women and murder; the importance of literature (or games). And his style, too, is already in place: the colloquial, easy-going sentences that combine strangely with telling detail or click suddenly into intensity. He brings to mind Jack Kerouac: despite an impression of carefree, careless writing, the evidence suggests it is very finely worked. His descriptions may seem just sketched in – a generic square, bar, hotel room or alley – but the words are precise. Often wonderful images erupt, like primary colours in a grey landscape: for instance, a mat with a price-tag, sticking in the narrator's memory while more important events blur into forgetfulness, has "the sharpness of a tattoo".

The novel's title (Bolaño's good at titles, too) refers to a board game, The Third Reich. Udo has just won the German championship and comes on his summer holidays with his new and beautiful girlfriend, Ingeborg. She wants to lie on the beach, drink too much on café terraces, dance in discos, and make love. The other Germans she meets, Charly and Hanna, are also normal, hedonistic holiday-makers, but Udo is the only tourist in the hotel who doesn't get a tan, though he doesn't mind alcohol and sex. He prefers to stay in his room practising the complicated Second World War game and observing the town and beach from his balcony. Voyeur of life, Udo aspires to rewrite the war, neatly controlled on his board.

Udo is the novel's first-person narrator, honing his writing by keeping a diary. From the start it is clear that Udo is weird: for instance, he fails to grasp that Ingeborg might feel embarrassed at his holding forth in public on his war game. Udo looks at events from outside, putting the name of love on his relationship with Ingeborg, but not feeling it. He treats people as if they were counters on a board. Yet he is interested in what he sees, and is more intelligent than the drunken fool Charly or Hanna. Bolaño has constructed skilfully a semi-unreliable narrator.

Inevitably the holiday deteriorates. Udo and Ingeborg meet local people, the characteristic outsiders of Bolaño's novels, the Wolf and the Lamb, who may or may not prey on tourists, and El Quemado ("the burn victim"), a South-American who lives on the beach in a fortress erected by night of the pedal boats he rents out by day. Bolaño is a master at creating, among the normal chaos of a holiday town, an atmosphere of underlying violence that could break out at any moment. The cheaper, non-tourist discos and the locals' bar are the background to Charly's erratic behaviour and dangerous drunkenness.

When the dread that Bolaño builds up through Udo's obsessive fears turns into real disaster, Ingeborg leaves the town, but Udo stays on alone in his hotel room. Increasingly buried in a fantasy life, stalking the hotelier Frau Else and her sick husband, he fights out an all-too-real war game on the board with El Quemado. Is Udo mad? Is he a Nazi? Is El Quemado a torture victim seeking revenge?

The Third Reich peters out towards the end, though an argument could be made that it is unended and unendable, like 2666. It feels, though, that in this case Bolaño was not able to round off his themes. Yet it is essential reading for fans of his later books: you can see and touch the voice and themes developing. And for those who do not yet know Bolaño, it is a fine novel in itself, enthrallingly written and well translated by Natasha Wimmer. Overflowing with Bolaño's exuberance, dark humour, and sarcasm, The Third Reich is a good introduction to this great and disquieting novelist.

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