‘Does little for Bolaño’s literary reputation’ – The Third Reich by Roberto Bolaño

Udo Berger is a knob. Michiko Kakutani would not stoop so low as to use that as an opening sentence, nor would it grace the lead paragraph of a James Wood analysis, even Dale Peck might shy away from the slang. But let me spell it out to you. Udo. Berger. Is. A. Knob. I think Henry James wrote something like, ‘Tell a dream, lose a reader,’ and this text, so riddled with the oneiric, lost me on a number of occasions, not through any intricacy of plot but for the plain fact that the dreams are boring. Ah, fuck it, the book is boring. It goes nowhere. Well, that’s a lie, it soon disappears up its own fundament, and this reader did not fancy hunting down his anal speculum to go in search of a plot – however tenuous – or look for the immaculate satire on Chilean politics that I’m sure some critic somewhere will read into the narrative.

Now, I am a Roberto Bolaño fan. Well, I am a fan of what I have read. But, to be honest, I find it difficult to keep up with the publications. Is it overkill? Is it greed? Or is it a conservative publishing industry that is too scared to give new authors a chance and so coddles itself in brands and superstar authors? And, however much a literary talent he is (or was), Bolaño IS a superstar author – a dead superstar author – even better. On the – admittedly beautifully designed cover – of The Third Reich, he is dubbed ‘Latin America’s Literary Outlaw.’ So, he’s a rebel, a revolutionary ex-heroin addict (maybe), who died young (50), and who left behind a body of unpublished work in what must have been a shipping container.

So far, publishers have issued his novels The Skating Rink, Nazi Literature in the Americas, Distant Star, The Savage Detectives, Amulet, Monsieur Pain, By Night in Chile, Antwerp, 2666, and The Third Reich [and don’t forget The Romantic Dogs – Ed.]. Only By Night in Chile found an English translation publication before Bolaño’s death. The Third Reich, written in 1989, chronologically one of his earliest novels, never found a Spanish publisher. Maybe Bolaño recognised that it may not have been good enough to warrant going into print. Maybe he thought it an apprentice piece, its dreamlike and nightmarish claustrophobia later resonating in The Savage Detectives and 2666. Its ludic narratology reminds this critic of works by the Oulipo group. Yet, its knowingly satiric comparison of Nazi war manoeuvres and the behaviour of Germans on holiday, bares analogy with racist British TV and cinema of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the ongoing jokes of Al Murray (Pub Landlord), and articles in the Telegraph. Furthermore, its Alice in Wonderland fused with Sven Hassel meshed with The Tempest correspondences seem a little too arch and – if I may up the ante even more – amateurish. A writer feeling his way, wrestling with his influences, discarding the tissues of his own literary masturbation, does not really want everyone gawping at his, well, his issue. Well, I wouldn’t. I don’t.

The plot? A man (The Knob) and his girlfriend go to the Costa Brava on holiday. The resort is the scene of The Knob’s teenage lust for an older woman – Frau Else – who still runs the hotel in which he stayed as a younger Knob. While there, they meet Charly and Hanna – slightly more worldly Germans. But Charly is a woman beater, a potential rapist, and maybe a Nazi. He is also a reckless drunk and windsurfer – not a good combination. The Knob doesn’t go to the beach, he is too busy waffling on about wargaming and trying to write an article about his championship win playing Third Reich. I’ll let Wiki explain: ‘Each turn represents a season: spring, summer, fall, and winter. Central to the game is the novel development of an economic system for creation of new units, reconstitution of lost units, ability to declare war, and ability to conduct a strategic offensive, using the Basic Resource Point (BRP), informally called “burp”, as the generic representation of industry and economic power.’ And, unfortunately, sometimes the prose degenerates to this level of banality.

I will admit, Bolaño occasionally hits full poetic stride – but never really gets into the rhythmic march we find in 2666. While at the resort – a sub-Ballardian beach town divided from the sea by a major road – The Knob meets the Lamb and the Wolf (yes, that’s about the level of it) who are summertime tour guides. The Knob also encounters the not-so-mysterious El Quemado (the Burned One), a Caliban-like figure who becomes addicted to and adept at Third Reich – I’d guess that Bolaño knew Aimé Césaire’s play Une tempête. So, Hanna gets beaten and maybe raped, Charly goes missing, The Knob’s girlfriend Ingeborg returns to Stuttgart, The Knob canoodles with Frau Else while her (yet another mysterious stranger) husband is dying from cancer, and er… apart from the interminable dreams – that’s about all I got from the novel.

I have yet to read The Skating Rink, Amulet, Monsieur Pain, not to mention the short story collections – The Return, The Insufferable Gaucho, the poems – The Romantic Dogs, the essays and interviews – Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview & Other Conversations and Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches, 1998-2003. There are plans to publish a further two novels – The Troubles of the Real Police Officer and Diorama, plus something called A Lumpen Novella. Please, I beg executors, editors, and publishers, read them closely before making a decision. The Third Reich does little for Bolaño’s literary reputation.

Any cop? A curiosity. An apprentice piece. But it may – think about it, think about it – put a hex on Roberto Bolaño’s legacy.

Steve Finbow



  1. Nice review, Steve. I had pretty much the same thoughts, although read the thing across a whole year (The Paris Review excerpted it in four instalments), which spread the pain a little. It’s not bad, exactly, it’s just a bit puny and wholly inadequate compared to 2666 or The Savage Detectives.

    For what it’s worth, I recently read Monsieur Pain and Amulet, and I’d highly recommend avoiding both of them. I really enjoyed The Skating Rink though. And the short stories are mostly decent – a few of them are brilliant. Romantic Dogs convinced me that Bolano was either a shit poet or Laura Healy is a terrible translator. As might be implied by this post already, though, I’m exactly the kind of sucker who’ll be buying the next million or so grave-findings.

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