IF ANY UNIVERSAL lesson may be drawn from modern European history, it is that evil cannot be permanently suppressed. Unreason recedes but invariably snaps back to challenge free societies. Today Europe may be at the precipice of such a resurgence, whose symptoms include a vicious anti-Semitism that frequently expresses itself as hostility to the State of Israel and an ascendant far right bent on restaging the previous century’s disastrous blood-and-soil nationalisms. The continent is also the site of a homegrown radical Islam inherently incompatible with the European Union’s lofty liberal ideals.
In 1989, when Roberto Bolaño wrote The Third Reich, his brilliant first novel, Europe’s troubled psyche seemed headed for a period of relative calm. The demise of communist totalitarianism was already underway, and Russian terror would soon cease to loom in the east. Dreams of an eternal Pax Europaea had yet to be shattered by Serbian ultra-nationalists. Bolaño’s examination of the dark undercurrents and primordial animosities churning in the European political unconscious was all the more remarkable for its prescience—a product of the Latin-American exile’s studied familiarity with the pathologies of his adopted continent.
Only recently discovered by the Bolaño estate among his papers, The Third Reich bears many of the hallmarks of the now familiar Bolaño style: a pervasive sense of paranoia and generalized anxiety; a tone at once playful and dead serious; a setting rendered tangible through the almost overwhelming deployment of plausible detail—and simultaneously overlapping a hallucinatory, fantastic realm. Unlike Bolaño’s mature novels, The Savage Detectives and 2666, The Third Reich presents a much tighter and, yes, more accessible narrative. But even if it reads at times like a highbrow psychological thriller, the author retains the rich moral complexity and political insightfulness that have come to be associated with his work.
The novel is written as the diary of Udo Berger, an affluent German twenty-something, who, along with his girlfriend Ingeborg, is summering at the Del Mar, a moody hotel on the Spanish Costa Brava, where he spent many childhood vacations with his parents. Not long after their arrival, Ingeborg and Udo befriend another German couple, Charly and Hanna, despite the many steps on the social ladder that separate them. Udo is hyper-literate and coolly cerebral; Charly is buffoonish and rough; Ingeborg is well-bred and airy; Hanna, the single mother of a child from a different relationship, is worn-down and slightly whorish. Thanks to Charly, they also meet the Wolf and the Lamb, two local louts with a penchant for harassing women. Then there is El Quemado, a hideously burned Quasimodo figure who ekes out a living renting out pedal boats to tourists during the day and spends his nights on the beach in a tent structure made from those same boats. Looming in the background are the Del Mar’s German owners, Frau Else, an ageless beauty and the object of Udo’s childhood crush, and her terminally ill husband.
Udo is a military history enthusiast and, more specifically, Germany’s reigning champion at “Third Reich”—a board game similar to “Risk,” only far longer and more complex. Indeed, he is an expert at devising strategic permutations and counterfactuals resulting in an Axis victory in World War II. Udo and the others who populate this creepy “war-gaming” subculture—vividly imagined by Bolaño, complete with accurate references to dozens of battle sites, formations, strategic variants, and so on—are thoroughly oblivious to the moral dimension of the history they play with. Early on, for example, Udo describes a match between his mentor Conrad and “Mathias Müller, Stuttgart’s boy wonder, eighteen years old, editor of the fanzine Forced Marches ...” Udo also shares his admiration for writers such as Karl Bröger (a proponent of arbeiterdichter and a favorite of Hitler’s), Heinrich Lersch (an arch-reactionary Catholic and proud Nazi), and Gerrit Engelke (a radical anti-modernist and proto-Nazi).
This casual Nazi fandom makes Udo the novel’s absent moral center. All polish and sneering civility on the surface, his capacity for physical and sexual violence seems restrained by a certain impotence—and by fear. Moving his miniature panzer divisions across the game board’s hexagonal frontiers, he assumes the world-historical bravado of a Rommel or a Reichenau, “breaking the necks of the Poles.” But Udo’s detachment masks an underlying resentment for the masculine over-virility of the likes of Charly and the Wolf and the Lamb. When the two Spaniards attempt to rape a maid in his room, Udo at first watches in nauseating passivity as the three compose “a living tableau in which the only jarring element was the voice of Clarita [the maid], who every so often said no, each time with different emphasis, as if she wasn’t sure of the most appropriate tone in which to refuse.” (He eventually intervenes.) Documented with extreme subtlety—Udo is a supremely unreliable narrator—these inner-outer tensions evoke the European malaise: a post-colonial, end-of-history boredom abated by the occasional re-appearance of a long-suppressed collective unreason.
Through much of the novel, Bolaño is careful not to explicitly discuss these themes. The Third Reich is not exactly a novel of ideas. (But nationalism is a central concern, as illustrated by an otherwise unaccountable scene in which Udo and Frau Else, with whom he has begun an illicit affair, walk up the hills surrounding the resort to watch “Catalonia Day” fireworks. Udo purchases Catalanist “patriotic books” from a group of children but then throws them away in apparent disgust.) Rather, it is Udo’s psychic breakdown, the slow-motion loss of his grip on reality—precipitated by the drowning of Charly in a windsurfing accident and the subsequent departure of Ingeborg—that leads the young German to confront his political demons. Having decided that he will remain in Spain until Charly’s body is recovered, Udo begins the ultimate “Third Reich” match, staking his own sanity on the outcome.
Udo’s opponent in this game is El Quemado—an intriguing and masterfully drawn character. Who is El Quemado? How did he end up so freakishly disfigured? How is it that this seemingly simple, almost mute man develops an interest in the “Third Reich” in the first place and, indeed, soon learns to match Udo, the champion? And is Frau Else’s dying husband, furious at Udo for trying to sleep with his wife, secretly advising El Quemado on how the Allies might best the Axis powers? The answers to these questions mostly elude Udo and the reader. But as the match progresses and the Germans fail to capture London or hold the Russian front, Udo is terrified to learn from the locals that El Quemado despises Germans—and “Nazi pigs” even more. He begins to suspect that his opponent may be Jewish or Russian. Eventually, in a fevered fit of delirium, Udo conflates El Quemado with Atahualpa, the Inca emperor, who, while imprisoned by the conquistadors, supposedly mastered chess by watching his captors play during the course of one afternoon.
Mythical Inca warrior or just the hulking survivor of a random act of brutality, El Qeumado is the agent of Udo’s final moral and political awakening. He is the inexorable remnant, the undigested and indigestible remainder, of the horrors of European history. Standing by the game board, “El Quemado’s torso looms over Europe like a nightmare.” The realization overwhelms Udo, who, unable to hold on to Berlin let alone mount a decisive counterattack, raises the white flag and retreats to his native Germany, having lost his appetite for World War II strategy, for Forced Marches and Fortress Europa, and for the Wagnerian sensibility that once sustained him. At a war-gaming convention in Paris, where he was to be received as a celebrity, Udo remains disengaged at the sidelines. But there are plenty of other players eager to take the champion’s place.
Sohrab Ahmari, an Iranian-American journalist and a nonresident associate research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, is co-editor of Arab Spring Dreams, a forthcoming anthology of writings by young Mideast dissidents (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).