The OF Blog: Roberto Bolaño, El Tercer Reich (The Third Reich)

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Roberto Bolaño, El Tercer Reich (The Third Reich)

When word came out in late 2008 that a complete, unedited novel of the late Latin American author Roberto Bolaño, labeled as El Tercer Reich (The Third Reich in English translation), had been discovered, along with several other lengthy narratives, by the executor of his literary estate, I was in turns excited by the news that these works would be published over the next few years and very skeptical about the quality of these works.  There are often very good reasons why "trunk novels," those completed but unedited/unpublished novels, are rarely ever published during an author's lifetime; they generally are poorer in quality than the author's best published works at best and at worst they are veritable garbage that serves to downgrade the public's estimation of the author.

So when I received my copy of Bolaño's novel in the mail Saturday, I read with great trepidation that it was probably composed in 1989, well before his 1996-2003 writing/publishing frenzy that saw the release of virtually all of his fictional output.  I was not comforted by the publisher's claim on the blurb that it was "pure Bolaño - detectives, extravagant characters and a descent into hell" since for me the importance of his work revolved less around these staples of several of his works and instead more around the terse, raw prose that served to accentuate the emotional outpourings that were spilling out inside his sometimes-fevered narratives.  However, when I put aside these preconceptions of El Tercer Reich's qualities, or rather its deficiencies, I was pleasantly surprised by the narrative.

Unlike The Savage Detectives or 2666, the only novels larger in length than El Tercer Reich, the narrative here is largely linear and the point of view is limited to only the first-person narrative provided by tabletop game enthusiast Udo Berger.  Set along the Costa Brava of the Catalonia region of Spain, El Tercer Reich is divided into chronological chapters that span from August 20 to September 30 of a non-specified year before five person-related chapters and an October 20 brief narrative close out the 360 page novel.  Over the course of these six weeks or so, Bolaño sets up two sub-narratives, that of Berger's fixation on remaining the national champion of the tabletop game The Third Reich, and the mystery surrounding the disappearance of a visitor (and fellow game enthusiast), Charly, one night after he visited Berger and his girlfriend, Ingeborg. 

It is interesting how Bolaño intertwines the two narrative threads.  Berger's mindset is paralleled in how his campaign against a top contender, Quemado, evolves.  At first flushed with apparent triumph, Berger begins a descent into frustration and near madness just as details surrounding Charly's disappearance begin to emerge.  Seemingly innocent asides and character interactions began to take on a more sinister tone.  Who has ulterior motives and what might they be?  Why exactly does Berger have this fixation with this tabletop game and how will things change?

On the whole, the story unfolded at a quick, measured pace.  Bolaño did a competent job weaving together the two main narrative strands, but ultimately, there were places where the story felt flat, especially in comparison to Bolaño's latter works.  While there were indeed detectives in this novel, Bolaño use of them was more ancillary and less metaphorical than in his latter works, particularly The Savage Detectives.  In addition, the narrative, while fairly well-executed, felt more distant somehow, even when told in first-person, than does most of Bolaño's longer fictions.  There was not that sense of urgent immediacy that flavors several of his stories; the action, even the central mystery (which only truly began just before the halfway point of the novel) seemed "off" in comparison to what the author later achieved with similar elements.  In many ways, perhaps to be expected considering the date of conception, El Tercer Reich is more proto-Bolaño than anything truly approaching what Bolaño accomplished toward the end of his life. Many of the elements that he later used to masterful effect in his two major novels were present in this one, but in a more tentative and limited fashion.  The outline was present, but Bolaño had yet to fill in the shades and contours and perhaps this is why he apparently shelved this work and never bothered submitting it late in his life; it was good, competent work, but it lacked that narrative fire that his latter novels and short fictions had.

This is most apparently in the final, quasi-thriller part of the novel.  Bolaño has set the stage for what might be a great finale, but due in large part to the remoteness of the narrator, there isn't quite the frisson that I suspect Bolaño aimed to create.  Thus the conclusion is somewhat intriguing, but it is not as memorable as it could have been, due again to the sketchiness within the narrative and  the underdeveloped aspects of Berger's interactions with certain other characters.  El Tercer Reich felt more like the germ of an exciting, psychological quasi-thriller than anything truly approaching the narrative layers he experimented with in his latter fiction.  As a trunk novel, El Tercer Reich does not embarrass its author's legacy.  It was competently told and doubtless could have been published and regarded as a solid novel soon after its completion.  But when compared to his latter works, El Tercer Reich certainly is the lesser in comparison.  While it illustrates the genesis of several of Bolaño's later narrative experimentation, it lacks the confident narrative voice that is the hallmark of the mature phase of Bolaño's prose compositions.  El Tercer Reich perhaps may be best valued as a look into how an author comes to develop future narrative riffs rather than trying to read it as a proto-masterpiece.  It is a solid, early novel, but it certainly is far from the author's best.  Recommended, with some reservations, for those curious about Bolaño and his writings.

Publication Date:  January 2010 (Spain); March 9, 2010 (US). Spanish language.  Tradeback (US).

Publisher:  Anagrama (Spain), Vintage Español (US)

English Translation:  2011 (Tentative)


Eileen said...

That publisher's blurb might have actually piqued my interest. Having read only 2666 and The Savage Detectives (which are basically companion books), those really are the things I associate with Bolaño. I generally don't read unfinished or "trunk" novels but this one, despite the flaws you mentioned, does sound promising. I'll be on the lookout for it.

Lsrry said...

Be sure to read the shorter novels and collections that New Directions have put out in recent years, especially By Night in Chile. That short novel is outstanding, perhaps my favorite of his shorter novels. That reminds me, I still need to write essays on those novels, The Savage Detectives and 2666 this month. Don't know if I'll have the time, though.

But as for this novel, if it had been published under another name, I probably would have thought of it as a solid, promising effort, with perhaps a few more positive words and not as many negative comparisons to his latter writings.

Unknown said...

Since you read Bolaño in Español, I am curious what you think of the quality of the English translations by Natasha Wimmer and Chris Andrews. I think they have been almost universally praised, but do you share this view?

Lsrry said...

Hard for me to answer that, since with the exception of The Romantic Dogs (which was a bilingual edition of poetry translated by Andrews), I haven't read any of the prose translation. The book I mentioned above rendered the poems well, I thought.

Unknown said...

I've been enjoying Los perros romanticos myself, it's a fantastic way for me to absorb some Spanish, which I wish I knew more of. I think it's actually translated by Laura Healy, who to my knowledge hasn't done any other Bolaño translations.

Lsrry said...

Ah, I stand corrected (as I wasn't looking at my copy at the time). Interesting way of learning Spanish, to say the least. Just finished reading César Aira's Fantasmas, which is Ghosts in the English translation. It's up for a major translation award this spring and while I haven't read the English translation that Andrews did, I would have to say that it was a very good, hard-hitting story that took only 123 pages to tell. Would recommend that book if works that Bolaño's recommended interest you.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the recommendation! I have purchased many of the English Bolaño translations but check some of his books out from the library, too. When I search for his name in the library catalog César Aira's An episode in the life of a landscape painter came up, but I never thought to check it out even though Bolaño had done the preface. They don't have a copy of Ghosts, but hopefully soon. I would just buy a copy if I could stop spending my money on beer.

Lsrry said...

You're welcome! Going to be buying more of Aira's works in the future, that's for certain :D

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