jeremy's Reviews > The Third Reich

The Third Reich by Roberto Bolaño
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Nov 21, 2011

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bookshelves: translation, fiction
Read in November, 2011

at the time of his death in 2003, roberto bolaño was all but unknown to english audiences (despite accolades aplenty throughout the spanish-speaking world). earlier that same year, by night in chile became the first of his works to be published in english. now, some eight years later, sixteen of the late chilean's books (not including melville house's interview collection) are available in english translation; an average of two per year since his passing.

the third reich (tercer reich), found amongst bolaño's papers following his death, was originally serialized in the paris review in quarterly installments beginning in the spring of this year. with yet another lucid translation by natasha wimmer (the savage detectives, 2666, antwerp, and between parentheses), english readers are offered a glimpse into the formative days of bolaño's writing career. written in 1989 (nearly a decade before the savage detectives was published in spanish), the third reich is a foreboding novel that incorporates some of the themes that would later distinguish bolaño's more accomplished works.

set in the costa brava region of spain over the course of a month in late summer, the third reich takes the form of daily journal entries written by the novel's vacationing narrator, udo berger. at a resort with his girlfriend, ingeborg, udo spurns his time in the waning sunshine to instead focus on his avocational responsibilities- playing, writing about, and developing techniques for popular strategic war board games. third reich, udo's current focus, deals of course with the second world war. when udo and ingeborg encounter another german couple and later become entangled with some locals, the story takes a sinister turn.

the third reich is at times compelling, and while bolaño, as always, masterfully builds the suspense, the novel lacks some of the narrative thrust of his later works. per another of bolaño's trademark qualities, the book's characters, especially udo, are skillfully conceived. motifs that bolaño would explore (and more fully realize) in later writings are evident in a gestative form, including the use of skywriting (which figures prominently in distant star), the thematic incorporation of nazis, the examination of evil incarnate, and the use of detectives as central characters.

the third reich is not a minor work, per se, as it is central to understanding the trajectory of bolaño's liteary output, but it hardly compares to the dazzling stories he would go on to write as he matured as an author. the unique voice that characterizes bolaño's major works is absent, or, rather, present in only its most undeveloped form. as a novel that presages so much of what was to come in the realm of bolaño's fiction, the third reich is indeed a valuable read. as an engaging, if imperfect, story, it leaves one to wonder, however, whether bolaño himself ever thought it demonstrative enough of his talent to see its way into print.

today's events are still confused, but i'll try to set them down in orderly fashion so that i can perhaps discover in them something that has thus far eluded me, a difficult and possibly useless task, since there's no remedy for what's happened and little point in nurturing false hopes. but i have to do something to pass the time.
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