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the complete review - fiction
The Third Reich
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- Spanish title: El Tercer Reich
- Translated by Natasha Wimmer
- Written in 1989, The Third Reich was first published in 2010
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B+ : atmospheric psychological study
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
- "It's a scathing novel with a lot of exuberance to it, not unlike the man who wrote it (.....) The novel's mood is one of dizzy, low-impact dread, like tipsiness morphing into a hangover. (...) The Third Reich is giddily funny, but it is also prickly and bizarre enough to count among Bolaño's first-rate efforts." - The Economist
- "Bereits in Das Dritte Reich erweist sich Roberto Bolaño als ein Meister in der Kunst, die Wirklichkeit in genau den Albtraum zu verwandeln, für den er sie immer gehalten hat. Schon hier sind viele bildkräftige Albträume als Mikromodelle der Realität eingelagert, die für den Erzähler nur als Albtraum begreifbar war. Zwar weist Das Dritte Reich noch nicht die kalte und klare Poetizität sowie den ungeheuren Reichtum an vielfach abschattierten erzählerischen Tönen auf, die die späten großen Romane auszeichnen, auch markiert Bolaño manche bedrohlichen Vorzeichen und Angstsignale noch zu grob und plakativ, insgesamt aber ist er sich bereits in diesem frühen Roman als Erzähler seiner Mittel erstaunlich sicher." - Ernst Osterkamp, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
- "The Third Reich was recently discovered at the bottom of a drawer -- which, at first glance, would seem to be the ideal place for it. The novel represents one of the author's first goes at fiction, and it clunks and sputters with all the awkwardness you would expect from an apprentice work." - Giles Harvey, The Guardian
- "(I)t is a very good novel, but one written a decade before Bolaño fully found his themes and voice. (...) Yet it is essential reading for fans of his later books: you can see and touch the voice and themes developing. And for those who do not yet know Bolaño, it is a fine novel in itself, enthrallingly written and well translated by Natasha Wimmer. Overflowing with Bolaño's exuberance, dark humour, and sarcasm, The Third Reich is a good introduction to this great and disquieting novelist." - Michael Eaude, Independent on Sunday
- "The story in The Third Reich drifts gradually into a surreal mystery. (...) Bolaño's themes are ever-present whatever he writes." - Anthony Cummins, Literary Review
- "(T)he Bolaño estate could be chided for making a carrot of the author's lesser works and dangling them in front of publishers. This novel shows hints of Bolaño's concerns about violence against women, and the evils of apathy, but overall it is a slight example of Bolaño's early style, in which devout fans and scholars can see the author unwisely trying to prop up an entire book with the sort of tone that serves more properly as stylistic icing in his later, better works." - Matthew Jakubowski, The National
- "Beglückt und benommen legt man diesen Erstling beiseite. Bolaño brauchte keinen Anlauf, um die stupende Fülle seiner literarischen Mittel zu entfalten. Noch und noch finden sich Verweise auf das, was kommen wird: ein magischer Realismus, der zwischen Ironie und Dämonie, Melancholie und Parodie irrlichtert. Die Genauigkeit der Seele zwischen Alltag und Metaphysik, Erotik und Zerstörung, Euphorie und Verzweiflung. Die Lust an Poesie und Provokation, an Liebe und Lumperei, Archaik und Attitüde. Stupend ist seine Sach- und Menschenkenntnis, zwischen dem Jargon brettspielerischer Eigentlichkeit, manisch-depressiver Disco-Kultur und dämonischer Iberienkunde." - Andreas Breitenstein, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
- "I kept responding to it like a person living in two times. Mainly I was reading the novel now, and finding it thoroughly, weirdly absorbing. Partly I was reading as if I were an unfortunate editor in around 1990, wondering how I was going to tell Bolaño that this wasn’t quite a finished book yet, that his plot led nowhere, that his characters kept trailing off into incoherence. That earlier reader would have been wrong even then, but without hindsight it’s easy to be wrong. (...) This is a novel about playing with history, or entering other people’s history -- German history, Spanish history, South American history -- without getting it or knowing how to worry about it." - Michael Wood, The New York Times Book Review
- "The Third Reich is a sort of tentative gothic. There are sinister dreams, retold in great detail, mirrors that seem to give Udo no reflection, voices that come from everywhere and nowhere, and "a silent zone (with raw staring eyes)" surreptitiously establishing itself in the middle of a room. Yet these hints come to nothing." - Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer
- "Infused with unease and menace, deliberately ambiguous about reality vs. perception, Bolaño’s novel is a psychological thriller without a convincing payoff. Its atmosphere, however, clearly prefigures the preoccupations of the author’s later masterpieces" - Publishers Weekly
- "The Third Reich is a fun and engaging read, perfectly suited for your own beach vacation, but the ending does little justice to all that precedes it. All the parts are in place for a very smart thriller. (...) But it never arrives, and the story fizzles. It feels almost as if the young Bolaño gave up on the plot before seeing it through to the end." - Andrew Ervin, San Francisco Chronicle
- "El Tercer Reich has a naturalistic feel that may disappoint devotees of Bolaño’s betterknown novels. (...) This is an adept study of the gulf between our interior and exterior worlds. Although Udo’s scheming and his paranoid obsession are laid bare to us, events in the physical world feature on his mental landscape only as things to be observed: they are specks on a radar which may or may not prove hostile. There is a convincing examination here of the threat that a loss of control brings; but the dangerous momentum and black humour that characterize much of the rest of Bolaño’s work are lacking." - Ollie Brock, Times Literary Supplement
- "Such a character hardly has any business being in a novel at all, it might be thought, though his peculiar self-estrangement is what gives The Third Reich its distinctive tone, his urge to order what propels its action. (...) This compelling novel could be characterized as a psychological thriller. It could, at least, if its geeky, game-playing narrator weren't so disconnected from himself that he can scarcely be said to have a psychology at all." - Michael Kerrigan, Times Literary Supplement
- "Eines jedoch muss man bereits dem jungen Bolaño zugestehen. Unabhängig davon, ob sich in dem jungen Udo Berger auch etwas von Bolaños damaligem Lebensüberdruss spiegelt, eine so überzeugende Schilderung der angeblich typisch schwäbischen Mischung aus Pedanterie, Miesepetrigkeit und Geringschätzung des Fremden sucht man in der deutschsprachigen Literatur vergebens. Zumindest darin offenbarte sich schon damals der Meister." - Gunther Blank, Die Welt
- "Nein, der Text ist nicht das große Debüt-Glanzstück, als das er angekündigt worden ist. Mit dem anderen Argument aber hat Bolaños Übersetzer Hansen recht. Es sind nicht nur die detektivischen Elemente, die Außenseiter-Figuren, das Spiel mit Realität und Fiktion, das Krimihafte, um eine leere Mitte Kreisende, das in späteren Texten wieder eine Rolle spielt. Wir verstehen hier, wie groß Bolaños eigene Spielleidenschaft gewesen sein muss, wie wichtig ihm seine enormen Kenntnisse der militärischen Geschichte Deutschlands gewesen sein müssen" - Leonie Meyer-Krentler, Die Zeit
- "The Third Reich is a mesmerizing tale: sleek, linear, easily digested, beautifully translated. But it cannot pretend to rival Bolano’s mature work. Nor will any serious Bolano fan prefer its trim, conventional story line to his sprawling masterpieces. Yet the book shows Bolano as we’ve hardly seen him before: young, sniffing for new ground, applying old-fashioned suspense to a very modern chaos. Four years later, all rules would change for this writer." - Marie Arana, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
The Third Reich is narrated by Udo Berger, a young German who is obsessed with a strategic board game, Third Reich, in which players recreate the Second World War.
The German national game-playing champion, he lives very much in this: "world of war games, with all its magazines, competitions, local clubs", and he describes himself as a 'specialized writer', a 'creative essayist' writing papers on strategy and aspects of the game.
Here, however, he is keeping a diary, beginning on 20 August, when he has arrived on the Spanish Costa Brava with his girlfriend Ingeborg, for a vacation -- although this is something of a working vacation for Udo, who sets up a table in his room and spreads out his board game there; he also has an essay he should be working on.
Udo returns to the past here as well, as they stay in the Del Mar, a hotel where he came with his parents when he was a child.
Frau Else, the wife of the owner, is one of the things that brings back memories -- though she doesn't remember him.
Ingeborg and Udo fall in with another German couple on vacation, Hanna and Charly, as well as a couple of locals known as the Wolf and the Lamb -- and the disfigured El Quemado ('The Burn Victim').
Udo isn't quite as enthusiastic about the late nights dancing and the drinking, but he lets himself be pulled into this often enough.
Charly, far more aggressive and impulsive, eventually goes missing, and is presumed lost in the ocean, where he was windsurfing.
Hanna almost immediately flees back to Germany and, with the end of their two-week vacation, Ingeborg does too -- but Udo sticks around, unable to tear himself away.
Waiting first for news of what happened to Charly, he also gets involved in a game of Third Reich with El Quemado, who is quick to pick up the rules (and strategy) -- and continues his frustrated efforts to get closer to Frau Else.
With the end of summer the vacation season winds down, and along with Charly's disappearance, Frau Else's husband apparently very ill, and the Second World War being replayed in Udo's room, there's a sense of decline and decay.
The board game is key, of course: the expert Udo is obsessed by it, confident of his abilities, but destiny proves stronger, as the sinister El Quemado's position becomes stronger and stronger.
The weight of fatalism overwhelms him at times:
What did it matter whether Charly was alive or not ? whether I was alive or not ?
Everything would roll on, downhill, toward each individual death.
Everyone was the center of the universe.
He gets caught up in his various games (yes: "What's happened between us is only a game, Udo, and I thinks it's about time to wrap it up", Frau Else tells him), and sinks deeper and deeper into a near-fantasy world (strangely grounded -- in reality and the past -- that it is).
In particular, the strategic board game, stretching out for many days, sucks him in.
But El Quemado also become obsessed with the game of Third Reich they are playing -- and, as someone suggests to Udo, once the game is played out and Berlin has fallen El Quemado probably "won't be satisfied with a handshake".
Bolañ builds up a sinister atmosphere very nicely.
Udo's diary plods along, as he records what happens but doesn't realize how quickly and deeply he has sunk; his struggle to escape -- himself, and the Costa Brava, and fate -- become very intense in the days after Ingeborg's departure, and Bolaño ratchets up the tension very effectively.
Udo feels -- and, for a time eventually finds himself -- terribly alone, with practically no friends; in part that's his own doing -- letting Ingeborg go -- but Bolaño is also particularly good in showing how he tries to grasp onto the few life-lines he has available -- the calls to a friend in Germany, and then also how he tries to find his footing again once he is back in Germany.
Yet for much of the novel he is looking into the abyss:
The rest is emptiness and darkness.
"Alone in a ravaged land," I remembered.
In an amnesiac Europe, with no sense of the epic or heroic.
(It doesn't surprise me that adolescents spend their time playing Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games.
Rooted so deeply, and so fast, in the past -- personal and historic -- Udo must of course learn to embrace the present -- and Bolaño convincingly portrays a man struggling to do that.
From the mysterious figure of El Quemado -- a true mystery man -- to the use of recurring motifs such as the Florian Linden thrillers that Ingeborg reads (and that haunt Udo) or small touches such as having Udo improbably read the truly obscure Wally, die Zweiflerin by Karl Gutzkow, Bolaño here already demonstrates what he can (and likes to) do in his fiction -- and it helps make for a rich and suspenseful psychological drama.
This is an early Roberto Bolaño novel, which was not published during his lifetime, but this is not one of these posthumous works dug out of the depths of a writer's archives in one more attempt to cash in: The Third Reich is a fully-formed and successful work.
There is some feel of this being a book-length exercise, a character study by a writer still feeling his way -- but he's already an adept, and The Third Reich is no small accomplishment.
- M.A.Orthofer, 20 November 2011
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The Third Reich:
Other books by Roberto Bolaño under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Chilean author Roberto Bolaño lived 1953 to 2003.
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© 2011-2012 the complete review
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