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Arts & Culture

Book review: 'The Third Reich' by Roberto Bolaño

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A few years after George Steiner penned an essay about Hitler's architect Albert Speer for the New Yorker and New Wave sellouts Spandau Ballet cracked the top 40 by singing songs about truth and precious metals, an obscure Chilean poet who once swore he'd never write novels began work on a beach comedy called The Third Reich that he promptly placed in a drawer. Roberto Bolaño, by his own unreliable account, considered Antwerp, a pummeling deck of fabulist flash cards, his first novel. With the publication of The Third Reich readers must now wonder at the judgment of a man who could produce such uncompromising commercial-proof experimentation and then go on to pen (and purloin from his public) a self-assured beach read that resembles nothing less than a diabolical episode of Magnum, P.I.

In The Third Reich, an indigent aesthete who freelances for game strategy journals returns to the holiday resort of his youth and loses sleep as he struggles to win the eponymous game. There is something universally Morpheus about buried texts; form Lovecraft's The Case of Charles Dexter Ward to Henry Miller's Crazy Cock, they abound in dream imagery. The Third Reich, which clouds its prose with episodic details of a diarist trying to best a man named El Quemado while trying to seduce a hotel owner's wife, is perhaps Bolaño's first stab at the kind of nightmare travel writing he would later produce in The Skating Rink, a book that shares with this posthumous release a vacation setting, frustrated romance, and the faith that strategy may cloak madness. There is a bit of The Third Man in The Third Reich as well, as our sullen hero walks away from his obsession like a humbled but still ambling Joesph Cotten, relinquishing his participation at a game convention for the thankless games of social convention.

So, The Third Reich is not Bolaño's first, and it's certainly not his best, but this seaside mediation on a game strategist's saturnalia is forever now the novel by which we measure the books he did not want to suppress.

The Third Reich
by Roberto Bolaño
translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
$25.00, 277 pages

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