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Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño in1998


On he goes, Roberto Bolaño, on and on and on. Dead these eight years now, the Chilean novelist continues to publish new work at a pace that makes Stieg Larsson look like the worst kind of posthumous slacker. The Third Reich is – let's see – the 17th book of Bolaño's to be published in English since 2003, with more to come.

I'll confess up front to having started in on Bolaño's opus, 2666, when it came out in 2008, and having wandered away about halfway through, with no hard feelings and every intention of getting back to it … at some point. As Patti Smith was saying about a beautiful little book of César Aira's, reading Bolaño can be like dreaming the most complex and intensely cinematic dream only to find that when you wake up, it's utterly gone. It leaves you gladdened and refreshed and just a little bit befuddled.

The Third Reich is that kind of book. It's the entirely beguiling story of Udo Berger, who's young and German and has a job with the power company in Stuttgart. He has a new girlfriend, the beautiful Ingeborg, and together they've come on holiday to Spain, the Costa Brava, a hotel on the beach where Udo came as a boy with his family. The weather is wonderful, the beach is wide: What could be better? Udo is delighted to find that the same German woman, Frau Else (also beautiful), is still running the place with her husband.

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Although Udo is, it has to be said, a little preoccupied. He has work to do. Back home, he's a prodigy of war-gaming, the German national champ. Omaha Beachhead, Anzio, World in Flames: He plays all the long-running, deep-strategy Second World War board games, though his favourite is The Third Reich. It's not just that he's good, either, Udo is a maverick, a true original poised to overthrow all the old norms and remake the gaming world in his own image. So he says, anyway. To start off, he has an article to write for a big American magazine.

It's hard to focus, though. With all the swimming, the tanning, the drinking, the dancing, it's a busy time for Udo and Ingeborg. There's a lot of love to be made. Bolaño is not one of the great poets of fornication, unless it's Udo who is so clinically matter-of-fact. Then, just when he's ready to settle in and work, the lovers befriended another German couple, Hanna and Charly. See what I did there, changing the tense from present to past? Bolaño does that – did that – throughout the novel. It's either very irksome or very modern. I was trying to decide, and still am.

Hanna is great. Charly, no. He drinks hard, laughs loud, swears, leers, is permanently on the verge of punching something or someone. I myself knew he was trouble from a mile off. Udo isn't far behind me, though the problem for him is that this is a novel where menaces and menacers lurk at every turn.

The Catalan sky, so red – that can't be good. The sea looks innocent enough – definitely some malignancy there, biding its time, don't you think? And then there are all the locals: Frau Else's mysterious sick husband; the strange burn victim who lives within a fortress of stacked paddleboats on the beach; the two guys nicknamed the Wolf and the Lamb, who seem friendly enough except why are they always hanging around, watching? Bolaño is a master of sowing doubt and impending disaster: Ten pages in, you'll be gnawing on your bookmark without knowing quite why.

I was pretty sure Charly was going to kill somebody. I knew he was due to disappear, from the flap, but was almost certain there would be a murder or a rape before that. I'm probably not supposed to say whether there is or isn't, so I'll go on to this: Even without any of the explicit violence that may or may not occur, The Third Reich is as unsettling a book as I've read for a long time, and as unwanderawayable. It's not the characters so much, more the mood: Bolaño wraps you up in a bond that doesn't break.

The Third Reich is a cabinet of curiosities, quandaries, puzzling riddles, not all of which you should expect to see resolved, or make even imperfect sense. For instance, all the vanishing that goes on. It's a major plot point, a pivotal one, even, when Charly disappears on his surfboard, but it also something that recurs over and over. Udo looks in a mirror and can't see himself. A character shows up looking "like a figure rubbed out with an eraser."Everything's upended when Charly goes missing. For Udo, already, things haven't been going well with Ingeborg. His article is a bit of a mess too. On the other hand, he does have a series of powerful and ambiguous encounters with Frau Else, some of which involve frenzied furtive kissing. And he starts in on an epic game of The Third Reich with El Quemado, the man with the burns. Who is he, anyway, and what's he up to, being so good at a game he's never played before?

I'm not sure what to call The Third Reich. Existential thriller? Historical novel noir? Diary of descent into Mediterranean madness? How-not-to-holiday guidebook? It could be a skillful roman à clef portraying Bolaño's adopted home in beach-resort Catalunya. It's not quite a whodunit, though – maybe more of a whatjusthappened. Whatever it is, it's compelling in a way that brings to mind W.G. Sebald and, yes, the aforementioned César Aira, who, if you haven't read him, is a craftsman of short, intense exquisitely absorbing literary artifacts that feel utterly authentic even as they mess with your expectations.

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Is it constructively useful for a reader to tell characters how to live their lives? I've tried it before, with Emma Bovary and José Arcadio Buendía, and it never really seems to do any good, but still. Udo? Hey. I get the lure of the war gaming, the chess of it, the fun and the power of toying with history, rerouting it. I don't think, as some do around the beach, that you're a Nazi. What I would suggest, if I could, just to make things easier on yourself and the reader – it might help if you could work on developing a sense of humour, maybe, even just a small one.

That's all. As you were. Back to your game. Be careful. While I can't be sure whether the burned man wants to kill you or just attack your forces via Dieppe and Calais, watch out, danger's near.

Stephen Smith is Toronto writer and critic.

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