In literature, there are few things quite as simultaneously tragic and beautiful as a perfect novel, published posthumously. It's a final gift from someone who can't give any more, a triumph somewhat lessened by the knowledge that the creator is gone forever. When Chilean novelist Roberto Bolano's 2666 was released in 2004 (the English translation would come four years later), the literary world was stunned. Bolano had died the year before at age 50, and though his admirers suspected he was capable of anything, few anticipated how flawless, how majestic, his final masterpiece would be.
Except it wasn't really his final masterpiece. Not long after his death, his heirs discovered an unpublished manuscript, The Third Reich, written more than 20 years ago, and now translated into English by Natasha Wimmer. While it might not feature the narrative fireworks of his award-winning The Savage Detectives (1998) or the epic sprawl of 2666, it's no less brilliant. Compassionate, disturbing and deeply felt, it's as much of a gift as anything the late author has given us.
The novel chronicles a month in the life of Udo Berger, a young German on vacation in northeast Spain with his girlfriend, Ingeborg. Udo is a prodigy, a widely respected master of "war games" — a type of strategy-based board game popular among hobbyists in the 1970s and 1980s. He plans to use his time off to research an article he's writing about The Third Reich, a challenging World War II simulation (which is almost certainly based on the real 1974 game Rise and Decline of the Third Reich). His plans are derailed, though, once he and Ingeborg meet Charly, a charming, impulsive fellow German tourist, and El Quemado ("The Burned One"), a mysterious beach dweller who shows an unexpected interest in the game. After Charly disappears while windsurfing, it doesn't take long for Udo to realize that no amount of skill or strategy can keep his life from falling apart.
Novelists tend to be remembered for their most remarkable characters, and in Udo Berger, Bolano has created someone complex, sometimes frustrating and absolutely unforgettable. Udo has memorized the game board; he can manipulate the tokens — the game pieces that stand in for actual human soldiers — better than almost anyone else in the world. He needs control, and war games are his only way of getting it. He realizes he's losing his grip on reality — at one point he contemplates raping a teenage hotel maid — and it terrifies him. "I'm a nervous wreck," he confesses. "But my face remains unchanged. And my pulse is steady. I scarcely move a muscle, though inside I'm falling apart."
One of the elements that made 2666 so affecting, and so hard to read, was Bolano's unflinching depiction of violence. That book seemed to be an attempt to call all of us into account for the crimes that are perpetrated in our names, as well as in the names of others.
The Third Reich can be read as almost a long preface to that novel — it's an exploration of the origins of the brutality that the author must have believed we all have lurking somewhere deep inside of us. "Let war be war and not a game," wrote Leo Tolstoy, more than a century ago. The world may change, but some things never do — in some games, as in all wars, nobody ever really wins.