My Favorite Generals: Roberto Bolano’s The Third Reich and New York’s Latin Awakening
Roberto Bolaño lived a life of poverty, exile, frustration, obscurity, sickness, and immense dedication. Convinced he would die unpublished, Bolaño wrote with explosive productivity, publishing eight novels and three collections of short stories in the final decade of his life, with a diagnosis of terminal liver disease hanging over him. He died at age 50 in 2003 at the brink of international fame, failing to see his long literary novels combat teenage werewolves on the New York Times best-seller list.
Bolaño’s untimely death fanned the flames of his celebrity in the United States, where, despite ongoing jeremiads about the decline of serious reading, he has come to rival other international writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez (or Grass or Kundera or Camus) at the height of their fame. In the world of corporate publishing, the only thing viewed with more circumspection than long literary fiction is long literary fiction in translation. When The Savage Detectives and 2666, literary novels written in Spanish (and expertly translated into English by Natasha Wimmer) with 1500 pages between them, joined the ranks of Glenn Beck’s The Christmas Sweater and The Land of Mango Sunsets on the best-seller list, their inexplicable sales caught the attention of US publishing, which, in a myopic daze, has become so risk-averse that many of what we consider to be great works of American literature would never have been published had their authors been born after Vietnam.
Within five years of his death, the meager financial boons Bolaño had hoped to secure for his children had been far surpassed by the global success of his books’ sales and looming contracts with the heavyweights of international publishing. In 2008, Bolaño’s widow, Carolina Lopez, cashed in, replacing Bolaño’s longtime Spanish agent, Carmen Barcells, with Andrew Wylie, an industry titan infamous for poaching famous authors and whose impressive client list includes the estates of foreign A-listers Jorge Luis Borges, W. H. Auden and Vladimir Nabokov. In October 2008, word spread first through the Spanish papers, then via the blogosphere into the New York press that the Wylie agency was showing a previously unknown novel called The Third Reich (El Tercer Reich), discovered among Bolaño’s papers after his death, to publishers at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
2666, an unpublishable novel, a novel that breaks every code of conduct in the corporate publishers’ playbook, hit 25 on the New York Times best-seller list in November 2008. Bolaño’s name was appearing in mass market publications on both sides of the Atlantic. The unknown novel’s discovery seemed too good, too Bolañesco to be true.
Little was known about The Third Reich, besides Wylie’s description of the book as “a type-written, completed novel that is meticulously corrected by hand,” and its title, which promised to expound on the themes of Nazi Germany and World War II; there was some speculation that the newly discovered novel was an apocryphal sixth section to 2666. Yet its discovery was about to change the face of international publishing. In one of the most unlikely outcomes of Bolaño’s difficult life, this socialist son of Pinochet’s Chile––a campground night watchman and busker, who went unpublished until he was forty––has altered the literary landscape of the Americas.
Faced with the improbable success of 2666 and a potential treasure trove of previously unknown but finished novels, Random House put in motion an internal transformation that would allow the simultaneous co-publication of its Spanish-language titles on both sides of the Atlantic. It chose The Third Reich as its test case. For the first time in history, the most awaited Spanish-language novel of the year appeared in the Americas not in Mexico City or Buenos Aires, the traditional cultural capitals of Latin America, but in New York City.
In 2009, Random House Mondadori—a joint venture between the American giant and the Spanish language division of the Berlusconi family’s publishing empire—made a deal with Vintage Español, Knopf’s US-based Spanish imprint. This would allow Vintage to simultaneously co-publish Random House Mondadori’s Spanish-language titles in Barcelona and New York. Until this partnership, no major American publisher had ever bothered to issue front-list Spanish-language titles domestically even though, according to recent census figures, the United States has a Spanish-speaking population larger than that of Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Uruguay, Paraguay, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Panama, Honduras or Guatemala. Ten years ago, a Spanish reader in Chicago who wanted to buy the latest Bolaño novel in its original language would have had to order the book from overseas or wait for it to be reprinted after the negotiated sale of North American distribution rights.
The first time I read Bolaño was in an issue of the New Yorker while I was living in Buenos Aires. Like Paris, Buenos Aires is a city of books, where one sees twenty-somethings casually reading Sartre’s Being and Nothingness on the subway, but even there, in the literary capital of South America, Bolaño was difficult to come by. My excellent neighborhood bookstore, Crack-Up, carried nothing by him because to do so they would have had to send away for copies published in Spain that took weeks to arrive and were priced in euros.
Books printed in Argentina and Mexico City are fairly affordable but, with Spain’s entry into the euro zone, books published in Barcelona and Madrid have become, for the vast majority of the world’s Spanish speakers, prohibitively expensive. Economic troubles in Portugal, Ireland and Greece may drag the euro lower, but for the time being, Spanish-language books published in New York and priced in dollars are cheaper to buy and cheaper to ship, than those from across the Atlantic. A February 2009 press release by Random House promised the Mondadori-Vintage coventure would make Vintage Español “the Spanish-language publisher of choice […] in the United States,” and while that is certain, because it is the only substantial Spanish-language publisher in the United States, the repercussions are far larger: New York City will join, and perhaps replace, Mexico City and Buenos Aires as the publishing capital for Latin America.
The numbers are simple. According to US Census figures released in April, in the period between 2006 and 2008, 34 million Spanish speakers were citizens or residents of this country, more than twice the population of New England. Despite this, US corporate publishing has ignored this massive and growing market, pretending that Latin America, both culturally and economically, stops at the Rio Grande. Ready or not, the United States is rapidly becoming a part of Latin America, and for US corporate publishing to pretend otherwise amounts to an act of capitalistic fatuity. Spanish-language channel Univision outperformed both CBS and FOX in this summer’s Tuesday night ratings wars and US universities are full of Latin American professors, graduate and undergraduate students, all of whom represent a vast potential market of readers. Viewed as a supranational group, as African Americans typically are, Latin Americans—whether blonds from Montevideo or blacks from Santo Domingo—already outnumber every ancestral group in the United States besides those with German forebears. No wonder corporate publishers want to sell books to them. The only question is: what took them so long?
It is fitting that Random House should choose an author of such international pedigree as Bolaño for this first foray. A Chilean by birth, who came of age in Mexico and spent his adult life as an exile in Catalonia, Bolaño, as Joyce before him, could claim no true homeland apart from language and memory. Bolaño remarked in his final interview that his children were his “only motherland. And perhaps, in the background, certain moments, certain streets, certain faces or scenes or books…”
The Third Reich opens a window into the period of Bolaño’s life after his arrival in Blanes, a small working class town on the Costa Brava where Bolaño moved in the early 80s. It was there, in desperate poverty, that he made his first tentative attempts at writing novels. The Third Reich is not, as Bolaño wrote in 2666, one of “the great, imperfect, torrential works […] that blaze paths into the unknown,” like The Savage Detectives and 2666, nor is it one of “the perfect exercises of the great masters,” like the haunting and slender Distant Star. But it is a decent book with some masterful passages that is worth reading not merely in its own right but for the humanizing effect it has on Bolaño’s persona and his total body of work, as it shows him struggling with the themes of fascism, sex, travel, academic vanity, history, artistic obsession, crime, death and insanity that fill his later novels.
The Third Reich tells the story of Udo Berger, German champion of a meticulously detailed World War II board game, the eponymous Third Reich, who goes on vacation to the Costa Brava and barely survives six weeks of Spanish discos, slumming with locals, breaking up with his beautiful girlfriend, a dangerous liaison with the hotel’s matron that would have made Sacher-Masoch proud, trysts with a young housekeeper, and seriously obsessive all night gaming with the mysterious El Quemado, a homeless and hideously burned South American exile who rents boats on the beach. Narrative has never been very important to great fiction: Ahab chased his whale, Huck floated down his river, Suttree stayed put on his. As in his great books, Bolaño’s narrative in The Third Reich is a delivery system for meditations that come not as arguments but as moods, rendered in a strange, floating, free-styled detachment and at times in torrents as fine as the great passages of Cortázar, Nabokov or Fitzgerald.
Bolaño was an avid player of board games, frequenting a gaming shop near his apartment in Blanes and The Third Reich demonstrates the depth of his knowledge. In the novel, the board game the Third Reich functions as an adroit yet scathing mockery of the usual stand-ins for writing (musical instruments, painting, sex, sports) in novels that address the act of writing itself. It is based on an obscure game, written by Don Greenwood and John Prados and published in 1974 by Avalon Hill, called Rise and Decline of the Third Reich, which, like the simpler and better known Axis and Allies, allows players to recreate the transpiring of World War II with variable outcomes.
As much a satire as anything else, one of the novel’s most biting features is its depiction of the world of gamers. Berger writes obscure theoretical papers on the game for obscure journals with piddling readerships. That these papers and journals truly exist (Mark McLaughlin’s “Rome Wasn’t Burnt in a Day – Italian Play in Rise and Decline of the Third Reich” appeared in the gaming journal The General vol. 17 no. 3 in September 1980) lends the book a metafictional punch and heightens its mockery of academia and literature while celebrating the dorkiness of the game and its milieu.
The dork factor of both Rise and Decline of the Third Reich and Axis and Allies runs high but there are sinister elements to the games that lend them some substance and chief among their perversions is the fascination with Nazi victory. Since there is no fun in playing a game with a foregone conclusion, one could argue that the prime impetus for playing either Rise and Decline of the Third Reich or Axis and Allies is the attempt to alter destiny, albeit in a temporary and possible world. That the heroic impulse to change the course of history happens to wear a Nazi uniform is one of the key themes of The Third Reich, and anticipates the figure of the fascist artist central to much of Bolaño’s oeuvre and who, in his contradictory and supra-moral portrayal, shares a table with Kurtz and Ahab in literary Valhalla.
Udo Berger is not a Nazi, nor a Nazi sympathizer, nor a Holocaust denier, nor a German apologist. He simply loves the Third Reich, the game, and delves obsessively into it, finding in hours-long matches the same imaginative escapism, the same obsessively busy meditation, that novelists discover at their keyboards. Berger is oblivious to his own moral conflict, seemingly unaware of the nefarious implications of building a life in the obsessive pursuit of Nazi victory in World War II, whether in the possible world of a board game or not.
This distancing between the creative impulse and the moral impulse foregrounds the creative, showing it as if in a vacuum, rather than as an outgrowth of a heroic or even anti-heroic character. The book is about gaming, and about obsession, both with the methodology of gaming and with the trivia and incidents and personages and events of the war. The Third Reich is not about Berger, a blasé and forgettable character; it merely uses him and his sad tale to deliver a paean to creative obsession and the creative act, much as the fascist artists of Nazi Literature in the Americas and Distant Star, and to some extent 2666, are vehicles for the celebration of art as a sacred and supra-moral event indifferent, as gods are, to human suffering.
El Quemado, who lives inside a fortress of rental boats near Berger’s hotel, serves as a moral counterweight to the flighty and oblivious German war games champion. Though Bolaño never expounds the personal history of this stranger, when we learn he is a refugee from South American political violence, as was the author, the appearance of real trauma, of real history, hints at the dangers and furies awaiting us in Bolaño’s later works. In The Third Reich, it feels like Bolaño is holding back the personal emotion and creative daring that rips through the prose of his later books.
The terrifying and crystalline Distant Star and the sardonic and Borgesian Nazi Literature in the Americas were the first major works Bolaño wrote under the threat of an imminent death. Both published in 1996, they were Bolaño’s first critical successes and guaranteed an audience for The Savage Detectives, which appeared two years later and won Bolaño literary fame in both Spain and the Americas. The Third Reich, probably written in 1989, predates his 1992 diagnosis with liver disease and that may explain why the book feels not amateurish but lacking in the vital, personal, ferocious energy of the later and greater works.
There are some superb passages that anticipate the level of writing in “The Part About Archimbolidi,” the fifth section of 2666, which rivals anything I’ve ever read. The Third Reich is written in the first person, in the awkward form of the diary-novel, which hinders the voice and the narrative freedom Bolaño employs elsewhere with wandering, spontaneous, improvisational verve. At times, he seems to set down Udo Berger, his ventriloquist’s doll, and sink fully into the hypnotic trance, the jazz-like riffing of real writers really writing.
In one chapter, “My Favorite Generals”, Udo Berger discusses his favorite Nazi commanders and compares them to 20th century German writers. “I would tell him that Manstein is comparable to Günter Grass and that Rommel is comparable to… Celan. In equal manner, Paulus is comparable to Trakl and his predecesor, Reichenau, to Heinrich Mann. Guderian is Jünger’s pair and Kluge Böll’s,” he writes.
Bolaño conflates fascism and art without batting an eye, insisting, perhaps through his morally dubious and contradictory puppet Udo Berger, but I suspect in some manner insisting in his own right, that the aesthetics of war and the aesthetics of writing are one and the same and that a supra-moral analysis of art, while morally wrong, is the proper stance from which to approach art theory. As with his beautiful and strange portrayal of Aztec sacrifice in 2666, the particulars of human suffering are reduced to trivialities in the eons of political and personal violence that make up history; but that, like human suffering in toto, obsession (whether with art or warfare, in Poland or on a table in a hotel on the Costa Brava) is timeless and defies the context of its own occurring. There is an obscure threat in The Third Reich that El Quemado will correct the balance, punishing both Berger and Germany for their real and play-acted conduct in the war but that subsides in a somewhat awkward manner, passing away in the turning of pages, almost as if Bolaño had forgotten it.
Vintage Español advertises The Third Reich as a mystery/thriller and components from that genre appear. The disappearance of a wind-surfing German tourist who befriends Berger and his girlfriend is treated as a mysterious, almost metaphysical, open-ended event. The hotel’s proprietor, whose wife Berger is pursuing, warns him that his burned South American gaming partner views their weeks-long match as a personal avenging act, and that, if he wins, he intends to carry over the violent spoils of victory from the imaginary world to real life.
Much of The Third Reich plays out these themes, heightening the tension with fine craft but a lack of originality on Bolaño’s part so that the unfolding of the plot, the careful ratcheting up of Berger’s paranoia while his life falls apart, feels artful and mimetic, like an homage to Henry James or Friedrich Dürrenmatt. The book has a very lackluster ending: Berger loses, Berlin falls, the burned stranger retires to his fortress of pleasure boats, and Berger goes back to the remains of his life in Germany. That in this early fiction Bolaño only flirts with violence and history, that The Third Reich feels like a rehearsal or a form for a novel, as if it were to his fully realized works what the Third Reich board game is to the infinite depravities and infinitely nuanced sufferings of World War II strikes me as both a lost opportunity and a critical decision on Bolaño’s part that his own personal history, his own emotional and political landscape, had no place in fiction because, in the end, the context of one’s suffering is irrelevant, even trivial, and undeserving of attention, compared to the colossal, infinite, beguiling totality of suffering that is the true subject of 2666.
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