Roberto Bolaño treated his fiction as one giant tapestry, a contiguous world in which invented figures mingled with real historical figures over multiple works. After the author’s fictional alter ego, Arturo Belano, the character with the greatest number of appearances may be Ernst Jünger, the real German World War I veteran and writer whose fusty Prussian conservatism, belief in a Nietzschean will to power, and occasional forays into anti-Semitism made him a hero to some post-Weimar Germans, including, at times, members of the Nazi hierarchy. Jünger appears, as a character or by reference, in Bolaño’s 2666, By Night in Chile, and The Third Reich. In Nazi Literature in the Americas, Bolaño’s Borgesian catalog of fictional right-wing writers, an elderly Jünger is described (in a poem, naturally) as having sex with Leni Riefenstahl.
Jünger represents a Bolaño archetype: the intellectual co-opted, by force or by request, into a right-wing establishment. Jünger never officially became a Nazi, but he was granted the rank of captain in the Wehrmacht, visited defeated France and a prisoner camp on the Russian front, and made continual intellectual accommodations when faced with the radical depravity of Nazi policies and actions. In Bolaño’s By Night in Chile, Jünger, along with a Chilean diplomat, visits a starving Guatemalan painter in wartime Paris. Perhaps in a nod to Jünger’s wartime myopia, Bolaño has Jünger hold forth about art in unintelligible French, while the diplomat interprets the Guatemalan’s painting as being not about the fall of Paris or “the defeat of European culture bravely determined to burn itself down” but rather about “his personal defeat, the defeat of an obscure, poor Guatemalan.”
The refusal to acknowledge the historical calamity surrounding these men is characteristic of Bolaño. In often febrile prose, his artists, poets, diplomats, writers, murderers, and wanderers gravitate toward the aesthetics of power. In this, Bolaño seems to find a particularly disturbing form of evil, one that attempts to transmute political violence and totalitarianism into something viscerally beautiful.
Bolaño found evil fascinating, an enduring, frightening phenomenon, and his interest coincided with the repeated use in his fiction of Nazis and Nazi symbolism, from 1996’s Nazi Literature in the Americas to The Third Reich, a manuscript written in 1989, found among the author’s papers, and published last month in an English translation by Natasha Wimmer. For a vagabond Latin American writer, a non-Jew who came of age when the continent’s utopian leftist movements were usurped by bloody right-wing authoritarianism, the question is: Why? Or as Bolaño himself asks in Nazi Literature in the Americas, “Why are so many Nazis still alive? What makes them almost immortal?” The answer provides some insight into both Bolaño’s singular talent and the limitations of his political-literary project.
Nazi fiction generally comes in three types: chronicles of persecution, chronicles of witness, and counterfactual tales founded on radical shifts in the historical narrative, like Richard Harris’ Fatherland or Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Tower. For contemporary Latin American writers, whose forebears lived in countries forced to choose a side with which to align, World War II has provided material for inquiries into the nature of collaboration. Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Tyrant Memory and Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s The Informers are two examples of recent novels by talented writers that provided disappointingly conventional takes on wartime collaboration, books little different from a dozen European cousins except for the use of local color.
Bolaño, on the other hand, accomplished something far different. The Chilean novelist used Nazism not as the grist for historical fiction but rather as a kind of shadow text that runs throughout his work, showing how the narcissism of power has much in common with the narcissism of authorship. Bolaño was always concerned with two forms of extremity: political violence and the transcendent literary sublime. While seeing the two as inextricably linked, Janus-like, he glorified the latter. His heroes are writers, real and invented, who achieve mythic status (Octavio Paz, Cesárea Tinajero, Benno von Archimboldi) and also, perhaps even more so, the foolhardy young writers who venture into Latin America’s wastelands in search of them. Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima—the peripatetic poets whose search for Tinajero, the founder of the visceral realist movement, is described in The Savage Detectives—are the quintessential Bolaño heroes: romantic, angry, wild-eyed believers in poetry as religion.
But wherever Bolaño offers visceral realists, beautiful young things striving to create the art of the future, one can also find their obverse: fascist poets, right-wing soccer thugs-turned-magazine editors, amoral priests who allow themselves to be drafted into the service of Chile’s junta. Living in the shade, these writers represent the malignance of ambition as well as the morally treacherous choice that some of Bolaño’s generation made, throwing their lot in with Augusto Pinochet. And yet Bolaño’s fiction also indulges in visions of evil, of gruesome murders, of the victories of authoritarianism. Referring to Chile’s heady years under Salvador Allende, Bolaño once wrote, “we fought for and put all our generosity into an ideal that had been dead for more than fifty years, and some of us knew it.”
With The Third Reich’s bold-faced title, one might think that it represents the summa of Bolaño’s Nazi fixation. Perhaps here his visceral realists and his fascist literary critics might merge into some kind of frightening hybrid, a singularity of political and literary fanaticism. Instead, The Third Reich belongs with shorter Bolaño novels like The Skating Rink: There’s violence and literary ambition, sure, but it’s a book more concerned with what happens when a mind submits to its own fantasies.
Told through the vacation diary of Udo Berger, a 20-something electric-company worker from Stuttgart, The Third Reich takes place mostly in a vacation town in the Costa Brava of Spain. Udo is an adherent of an ambitious strategy game that takes varying names; at times, “The Third Reich” is simply the name of the version of the game, or “strategic variant,” that he prefers to play. The game is “a sport on the rise,” and Udo is the German champion. We’re treated to brief descriptions of other strategic variants, diplomatic modules, hexagonal boards, some sort of in-game currency called BFP, as well as clubs, competitions, and industry magazines. (Bolaño was always fond of describing the cultural ephemera coalescing around a literary movement or, in this case, a stringently serious board game.)
Udo arrives on vacation with his girlfriend, Ingeborg. They quickly become acquainted with another German couple, Charly and Hanna, as well as two locals, The Wolf and The Lamb. But Udo is consumed by thoughts of his game, which he’s brought along. He’s supposed to be writing a magazine article about “an unheard-of variant,” he explains. “No one’s ever come up with anything like it.” But he becomes distracted by boozy nights with his new friends, whom he doesn’t entirely like. Later, when Charly apparently drowns (his body doesn’t turn up), the novel shifts as Ingeborg and Hanna return to Germany; Udo stays behind.
Udo doesn’t care much for Charly, but he’s become fixated on the beautiful owner of his hotel and on El Quemado, a heavily muscled, horrifically burned man who rents pedal boats to tourists and, at night, stacks the pedal boats on the beach and sleeps under them. Taciturn and mysterious, El Quemado proves himself a quick study and, as time goes on, appears to gain the upper hand against Udo in The Third Reich. In one of Bolaño’s typically enthralling depictions of hallucinatory paranoia, Udo begins to believe that once he loses to El Quemado, the grotesque strongman will kill him. Tantalizing fragments of gossip indicate that El Quemado might have suffered his burns as a soldier or revolutionary in South America. Does he blame Udo?
One must add some caveats about this being an unfinished, posthumously published work, but there’s a frustrating sense here that Bolaño doesn’t take his conceit as far as he could. Bolaño excels at showing how Udo begins to take the titular game as a substitute for real life, how his possible defeat may result in his death. But there’s little sense of why this game matters, why the fact that Udo, a young German playing as the Wehrmacht in order to change the historical course of the war, might in itself represent something malevolent. (Late in the book, when confronted with a rumor that he’s a Nazi, Udo, credibly, denies it.)
One might say that Udo’s breakdown is a consequence of his arrogance in refashioning history into nothing more than a game—a game he takes quite seriously—but that would be to offer a moralistic interpretation to a novel by a writer who resists them. Rather, Bolaño doesn’t consider the political stakes of what is, at heart, a political story. There are slight exceptions, such as a description of El Quemado staring at the game board: “Muscular and charred, his torso looms over Europe like a nightmare,” Bolaño writes. In another scene, Udo remarks that he’s “in an amnesiac Europe, with no sense of the epic or heroic.” Yet the battle remains deeply personal, verging on solipsism: It’s Udo Berger versus his own degenerating mind.
Writing in 1930, Walter Benjamin accused Jünger of treating war with a “depraved mysticism.” Roberto Bolaño is a more admirable figure than Jünger, as well as a more important writer, but he leaves himself open to a similar critique. (According to one interview, Bolaño considered giving By Night in Chile, his 2000 novel, the title Storms of Shit, redolent of Jünger’s Storm of Steel.) From 2666’s scenes set in Nazi Germany to Udo’s ignorance of his own background, there’s a thinness to Bolaño’s engagement with history, a way his characters skate on top of it a little too easily. Their politics are taken for granted, their battles fought mostly off-screen. In Distant Star, Juan Stein, a leftist Jewish poet who worships a World War II-era Jewish Soviet general to whom he’s distantly related, disappears. The narrator doesn’t hear news for years. One day, Stein suddenly is everywhere. “He appeared and disappeared like a ghost wherever there was fighting, wherever desperate, generous, mad, courageous, despicable Latin Americans were destroying, rebuilding and re-destroying reality, in a final bid that was doomed to failure,” Bolaño writes.
Perhaps this is the voice of a writer who never got to fight the battles he believed in. The most common (and most revealing) account of Bolaño’s political activism is a disputed anecdote about his arrest in Chile after Pinochet’s 1973 coup. After Bolaño spent eight days in jail, and possibly faced torture, a policeman allegedly recognized him as a former schoolmate and arranged for his release. Bolaño left Chile and didn’t return for many years. Like Aleksandar Hemon, whose fiction frequently returns to the author’s Kafkaesque separation from his native Yugoslavia during its civil war (war broke out when Hemon, who spoke almost no English, was in the United States on vacation), Bolaño’s work comprises a literature of absence, the fictions of a perpetual exile nagged by the sense that life’s great struggles are happening elsewhere.
It follows then that Bolaño would turn to Nazis. In the postwar era, they, too, were exiles, ever rumored to be popping up in the world’s hot spots and advising a host of right-wing regimes across Latin America. They were, by inspiration or direct complicity, the great villains of his age, the exemplars of fascism and the diabolical mirror of his fellow radicals.
In Distant Star, which distilled Bolaño’s twinned fascinations—poetry and political violence—into a stiff cocktail, a young poet and aviator named Carlos Wieder takes to the skies to write oblique poetry glorifying Chile. Later, he’s found to have murdered numerous intellectuals, including two writers from the narrator’s university workshop. But Wieder, who took his German last name after Pinochet assumed power, is a cipher, his actions never explained. What’s more is that he seems proud of, or at least unafraid to admit, his crimes; in the book’s most shocking scene, he unveils an exhibition of photographs of his bloody victims. Soon after, he disappears.
At that novel’s end, Wieder is encountered at a distance, but we never engage with him directly. His evil remains ultimately unknowable, and the lingering impression of him is the image of him skywriting in his Messerschmitt—which, of course, was a Luftwaffe plane. How it got to Chile is never discussed, but it, like Wieder himself, seems to imply the dangerous proximity and promiscuity of the Nazi legacy.
Wieder, Bolaño wrote, was “the incarnation of near-absolute evil” and “personified in some way the terrible fate of our continent.” That qualifier—“near-absolute”—is essential, as it indicates some possibility of redemption (even Distant Star’s narrator thought that Wieder should ultimately be spared). It is also, perhaps, an admission that Bolaño’s depictions of evil were incomplete, that while they were ravishing and disturbing and even fearless, they failed to take a more programmatic look at the political realities that spawned them. In their stead, the fantastical symbol of the Nazi—enduring, occult, a strange import from some darker place—would have to do.