The novel concerns a young German gamer, named Udo Berger, who travels to Spain with his new girlfriend, Ingeborg, to a seaside resort hotel, where he stayed as a youth with his family and fell in love with the wife of the German proprietor. His goal for the summer is to write an article about the game, The Third Reich, a table-top strategy game, obviously modeled on the Avalon Hill games popular in the fifties and sixties. While there, Udo descends into his obsessions--games, the past, crimes, police, detectives, fascists, women--and the novel has the feel, mood and pacing of a Patricia Highsmith novel. The sunny beaches and resort hotel take on a sinister feel like that of Mann's Death in Venice or one of Highsmith's European watering holes. Even a mystery author that Ingeborg is reading is Highsmith-like, emphasizing the obvious connection to mystery, obsession and madness. And there is sickness (Mann's great metaphor) and violence: the owner of the hotel is dying, and several derelicts haunt the hotel and the beach amidst rumors of rape and mayhem, while a fellow German disappears.
The mood of The Third Reich slowly darkens, as we read the notebook entries of Udo through the summer and into the fall. He is, of course, an unreliable narrator but Bolaño's strong voice, one of the strongest and most unique in the latter part of the 20th century, is consistent throughout the novel and leads us inexorably into Udo's descent into fear and failure until we arrive at the logical conclusion--the defeat of the fascist.
Throughout the novel, Bolaño refers to numerous German historical figures, battles, and games. His descriptions are always spot on. He also refers to many writers, which he always does, which shows his auto-didactic tendencies. Autodidacts always have to show off. But for our purposes he reveals his tastes and his influences. We must remember that Bolaño, like Keats, was writing posthumously. In some ways he was writing for himself or for posterity. Consequently, his novels are unique and satisfying in a quirky way. And for my taste, this novel, although not as grand as 2666 or The Savage Detectives, is my favorite of his short novels, equal in beauty and tone to his collection of short stories--Last Evening on Earth.
For more on Bolaño, see my review of 2666 here: http://redrookreview.blogspot.com/2009/09/roberto-bolanos-2666.html, and his collection of poetry, The Romantic Dogs here: http://redrookreview.blogspot.com/2009/04/bolanos-romantic-dogs.html