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Thursday, December 02, 2021

Is it all a game?

Roberto Bolano is back with a war boardgame,mixing fact and fiction

Written by Sudeep Paul |
February 4, 2012 12:17:05 am

Book: The Third Reich

Author: Roberto Bolano

Publisher: Picador

Price: Rs 499

Dead men don’t write. But they do publish. For a long dead man,Roberto Bolano has been very prolific. If it were not for the religiosity of the Bolano industry,his posthumous novels would not end up on our desk at the rate they do. Chilean-born Bolano died of liver failure in Spain in 2003,after a brief life and a briefer writing career. How he was elevated to a one-writer pantheon eclipsing the Boom and all subsequent,successful attempts at literature in Latin America is less pertinent to his readers in English than the 2008 publication of Natasha Wimmer’s translation of 2666. The Third Reich appeared in Spanish last year as El Tercer Reich. One suspects another instalment of celebrations is beginning. Borges,who never wrote a novel,lives,and his name is Bolano,albeit still dead.

The Third Reich,Bolano’s first published novel since 2666,was found,reportedly and in a very Bolanesque manner,at the bottom of a drawer. Written around 1989 (the East German team is still playing football in the novel),it is one of the early missing texts that gain,or suffer,from the gamut of veneration the reader brings to them from reading the later books. And she would be forgiven for believing it is a Bolano struggling with his prose,clumsy,lazy,easy and self-conscious,very unliterary,till the rising disappointment is cleverly and neatly erased by the device of a narrator’s journal. Now,Bolano’s contribution to the development of Spanish-language literature,well-preserved in his translations,was the chiselling away at language,Hemingway-like,till only the bare bones were left — almost anti-literary,but for a useful murder of rhetoric and poetry. Nobody had quite done this before,in Spanish,like Bolano did. Add to this experimentation in style that in form (say,Nazi Literature in the Americas,1996/ translated 2008,or By Night in Chile,2000/ translated 2003) and the attempt at the totality of experience in the “epic” 2666 and we end up with a writer whose desperation for literature is the obverse of a post,postmodern lack of faith in it.

Udo Berger,Bolano’s anti-hero,or perhaps anti-character,is a German gamer. His obsession is war boardgames,and he is the “national champion” as he reminds himself. He writes gaming strategies and theory in journals and needs to improve his prose. His diary entries are the account we read. Vacationing on Costa Brava in Spain with his pretty girlfriend Ingeborg,Udo spends most of the day inside the hotel room sharpening his gaming strategies. He tells us: “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that my life has never been better.” But trouble comes with Charly and Hanna,another German couple,who talk a lot but of little apart from sex and love,respectively. Charly is also a binge drinker and pulls them into the orbit of two locals,the Wolf and the Lamb,who open up the seedier side of town for the visitors. The Wolf and the Lamb are not especially menacing,more beach bums than thugs,but Udo is no stranger to Spain. In the ill-lit bars on the edge of town,he feels the festive atmosphere lends itself to camaraderie “with a hint of something dark and murky,a quality particular to Spain that,paradoxically,inspires no misgivings”. Till,one night,Charly disappears. Hanna leaves,as does Ingeborg. But Udo stays on,ostensibly to await news of Charly although he cannot quite explain to himself why.

Udo begins a game called “Third Reich” with El Quemado — literally,the “burned one”,given the Spanish-speaking world’s propensity for blunt and unabashed nicknaming. El Quemado,utterly disfigured,looks after pedal boats and sleeps on the beach. He may have suffered his injuries in South America,allowing the tone of a well-known narrative of violence to hang over the rest of Udo’s story. Udo,not used to nightmares,slips into delirium and mentally disintegrates as the game with El Quemado takes on more than a sporting dimension. The effect his gaming words — the Wehrmacht jargon of divisions,campaigns and moves — have on others has never struck Udo except for Ingeborg’s visible embarrassment. When El Quemado brings photocopied Nazi documents,Udo is somewhat disturbed but soon justifies the “documentary”advantage added to their game. Is a game then just a “mode of communication” or an “obligation” as El Quemado argues? And how does a German,with a particular burden of national memory,separate a war boardgame from actual war? Udo always plays the Germans — the Wehrmacht winning a war the Germans actually lost. And yet,he is taken aback when asked if he is a Nazi. Another German comforts Udo that a game is nothing more than what it appears to be. But it does have consequences.

Bolano did not just play with his readers by severely distorting his narrative modes and contents. Just as “Third Reich”,both book and game,is ultimately a game with history — the revenge of fiction on fact in both cases — Bolano,it now seems,exacted that same revenge on the facts of his own life,bequeathing us a myth that we take very seriously while he roars with laughter in the grave. He may never have used heroin; more shockingly,he was perhaps never jailed by Pinochet’s regime after Allende’s fall because he was perhaps not there in Chile at all at the time. What does such an irreverent soul leave us in this book found in his drawer? Fragmented world,dystopia,the persistence of violence beneath the noblest pursuits — all of these have been said before in reading Bolano. Udo’s disintegration is moral and psychological,but is it because his unawareness of the implications of his game’s name is innocent? Third Reich’s power lies in taking the moral dimension out of an obvious moral problem.

In Udo’s attempts to undo the German mistakes in World War II and thereby re-write history,the lines between war and game,between memory and desire,between past and future,blur. Udo will have his Nuremberg,not for participating in an evil or immoral project,but for losing the game to El Quemado. After all,had the Nazis won the war,they wouldn’t be the ones to be tried and sentenced,right? World War II too would then,irrespective of the Holocaust,be just another war. But in losing the game,Udo loses much more. He is guilty not of association with evil,but of the fall of Berlin. As Frau Else,the hotel’s owner and Udo’s old acquaintance,says,atoning is also a game. Bolano’s fictional Germans,much like real Germans,cannot ever make sense of the past and therefore must escape,forget or change it. And it is all a game. What we don’t know is if Udo sees his obsession and destruction in that light.

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