Bolaño’s expanding legacy

Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives is a comic masterpiece—a 21st Century Don Quixote. It pits young, rebellious would-be poets against a world of drugs and sex, literature and philosophy, pimps and whores, menial jobs and aimless wanderlust. Imagine two disenfranchised youths who actually believe poetry should matter, then imagine them searching for a surrealist poet in the Sonoran desert and you have the sad arc of the story. Told in a series of first-person narratives, many of them masterful short stories in themselves, the novel gradually records the protagonists’ inevitable loss of illusion. What starts with youthful exuberance ends in a desert landscape of existential despair and imminent violence, with the outcome already foretold in the middle section.

With this prize-winning book and his novellas By Night in Chile and Distant Star, Chilean-born Bolaño burst upon the literary scene at the start of this century. He was working furiously to finish what he hoped would be his magnum opus, 2666, when he died of liver failure at the age of 50 in 2003. Since his death, in addition to 2666, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, his heirs have released a number of short story collections and several unpublished novellas and novels. The Third Reich is one of the latter.

The Third Reich possesses many of Bolaño’s addictive charms: his compelling narrative drive, his vivid and sometimes terrifying imagery, his biting sense of humor. It also contains themes that would later become obsessions: crime stories, people living in alternate realities that verge on the fantastic yet are mundanely detailed, unpredictable violence (real or imagined), and sublimated fascism (in people, games, literature).

The Third Reich is about a German tourist in Spain who is a champion wargamer (before the internet and World of Warcraft) of a board game that reenacts World War Two. Told in the first person—Bolaño’s favorite point of view—it is a suspenseful story that keeps you reading. While it lacks the thematic layering of his mature work, it is a mash-up crime story and mystery that still reads well twenty years after it was written. Odd and ominous things are happening in the Costa Brava resort town, and we’re not sure if they stem from the narrator’s imagination or are real. Meanwhile, the game must be played, and a disfigured novice gamer whom the narrator meets on the beach ends up threatening the champion. Bolaño plucks the dissonant chords of anxiety to keep the suspense going throughout. The ending is the most disappointing aspect—the story’s many threads don’t quite tie together.  At this stage in his career, Bolaño has not quite mastered his art but you can see the mastery coming. If you haven’t read Bolaño, start with his story collection, Last Evenings on Earth, or The Savage Detectives, and you will likely be drawn to his lesser stuff like The Third Reich.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Bolaño’s expanding legacy

  1. Having admired many of his works, I felt let down by The Savage Detectives. Last Evenings… and Distant Star were the most impressive ones as was, to a lesser extent, Nazi Literature of the Americas. Haven’t got around to 2666 yet.

    • Maybe it’s because I lived in Mexico at the time when The Savage Detectives takes place, but I loved that book. As I said somewhere on my blog, I think writing about Poniatowska’s influence, for me it maps the hopes and failures of a whole generation, encapsulated in the stories and voices around the Ultrarealists. 2666 has moments of greatness and is expansive but left me feeling vaguely dissatisfied and wondering what it would have been like if Bolaño had lived to finish it. Thanks for commenting!

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