Roberto Bolaño and Natasha Wimmer are two people who require no introduction for readers of this blog. So instead, let’s introduce the book at hand: The Third Reich, the latest Bolaño book to be published in English.
The Third Reich was unpublished at the time of Bolaño’s death, but there are indications that he meant it to be published one day: he had begun typing it up, as he did with earlier unpublished novels that were eventually published in his lifetime. The book follows the transformation of one Udo Berger, a German tourist in Spain’s Costa Brava as he plays a board game called The Third Reich. My review of the book is available here.
Wimmer corresponded with me on the actual board game that inspired The Third Reich, reading fast for pleasure vs reading slow for translation, the role of creativity in the process of translation, and readings and misreadings of Roberto Bolaño. She is currently translating Bolaño’s Los sinsabores del verdadero policía, which takes as its protagonist Amalfitano from 2666.
Scott Esposito: To start, you once described this book to me as Bolaño in “farce mode,” and you’ve also told me it’s Bolaño’s funniest book. Given that this book deals with a lot of the familiar Bolaño tropes—horror, fascism, exile, that vague sense of existential menace we all seem to live with these days—in other words, some fairly unfunny stuff, I’m curious to know what you’re keying in on as the humorous aspect of the book. What indicates to you that this is humor, and what kind?
Natasha Wimmer: It’s true—the first time I read The Third Reich I was so struck by the audaciousness of the humor that I had to keep putting the book down to snort in disbelief. I should say that I think Bolaño is generally a funny writer, and maybe especially so in his most apocalyptic moments. A fair number of tragic scenes in 2666—Hans Reiter’s lover dying of consumption in The Part About Arcimboldi, for example—are so florid that I, at least, can’t take them entirely seriously—and I don’t think Bolaño expects us to. In The Third Reich, the cheerfully banal hotel setting struck me immediately as a stage for farce. The early scene in which Udo clashes with the hotel staff when he demands a proper-sized table for his gaming is a brilliant comic set piece. Then there’s the outrageous self-seriousness of Udo, the protagonist (compare him to The Savage Detectives’ García Madero, who is full of himself but also vulnerable). The game itself almost demands to be mocked. And the whole world of gaming ‘zines that Udo is so eager to break into struck me as a parody of the literary world, with its conferences and eminences and publishing contretemps. Most of all, though, I feel that in this book Bolaño exploits to humorous ends the very sense of foreboding that is arguably the trademark of his fiction. Over and over again he sets the reader up to expect some terrible occurrence—and particularly some terrible clash with El Quemado, the hideously scarred pedal boat man—and then fails to deliver. The climactic dream-scene in which Udo is pursued by a phalanx of pedal boats, for example, is truly and deliciously silly. The pacing of the book overall—which I think is one of its most distinctive stylistic features—breeds a sense of anticlimax, as Udo’s stay at the hotel is endlessly drawn out.
SE: It’s interesting that you read the novel’s lack of a strong climax as a positive thing, since I’ve seen a number of reviewers ding The Third Reich for not having that one culminating scene of horror that many of Bolaño’s other novels accustom you to expect. (For my own part, I liked the anti-climax, regarding it more as a failure of Udo’s transformation than of Bolaño’s imagination.) To tie this in to your reading of the book as a farce, do you think there’s a certain perception out there of what Bolaño represents and that a book like Third Reich will be judged in terms of what’s accepted “Bolaño” instead of simply on its own terms?
NW: Yes, I do think that there is a certain expectation of what a Bolaño novel will be, and I worried from the beginning that critics wouldn’t appreciate The Third Reich. Mostly I thought they would have problems with it on a sentence level, because Bolaño’s prose is thinner and more transparent than usual, with fewer of the oblique-lyrical moments that so dominate a novel like By Night in Chile, for example. My sense of the book, though, is that it’s one giant oblique-lyrical moment, and that the pacing is what gives it its stylistic edge and distinctiveness. It’s a book that leaves you feeling off-balance without realizing quite why, because the effect develops so gradually. I like your interpretation of the anti-climax as a reflection of the failure of Udo’s transformation, although I do think that he’s changed—diminished, or somehow shrunken—by his loss of faith in gaming, absurd or creepy as that faith was.
SE: Was this reading of the book as a farce something you came across on your initial read, or did it come out as you took the book apart for the translation? And could you talk a little generally about how a book changes in your perception from that first read to the subsequent readings as you translate it?
NW: It was definitely something I came across on my initial read, and it didn’t change. As for the way my perception of a book shifts in the course of translation: as I work, I almost always become fonder and fonder of the book in question. I pick up on all kinds of details and correspondences that I wouldn’t notice as a casual reader (Bolaño in particular is a massive tapestry of correspondences), and I develop a kind of personal allegiance to the book even if I didn’t love it at first. It may help that I’ve never translated a book I out-and-out hated.
Also: George Steiner says somewhere that translating is like loosening the weave of a fabric until you can see the light through it. He considers this to be a negative effect, but it’s something I must admit I enjoy. As a civilian reader, I tend to read too quickly, skimming over small tangled bits without even noticing, but as a translator I have to shine a light on every phrase and decipher what I think the author means, even if there’s no way to know for sure, and even if it happens to be a phrase that was obscure to the author himself. This is especially true when the author is dead, of course. The result is a text that is perhaps too brightly lit, but the experience of total illumination can be an exhilarating one for the translator.
SE: Given that there’s a range of opinion as to how to untangle those bits (or how much to), and also given that different translators will “read” texts in different ways (and thus produce slightly different versions in English), to what extent do you view translation as a creative or interpretive act?
NW: Only to a minor extent. I think critics tend to overemphasize the importance of individual phrases and bits and don’t take into account the extent to which plot and subject matter (things a translator has no power to alter) affect our experience of a novel, and even our sense of the novel’s style. Small things do add up, but I would argue that as long as the translation is consistent and confident (and competent), the degree to which it’s tilted in any particular direction by the translator is so slight as to be insignificant.
SE: Since you’ve written a lot of book reviews, I’d like to ask where you think “reading books for review” fits on this continuum between reading very quickly for pure pleasure and reading very slowly for translation. For my own part, I tend to like to read a book I’m reviewing very quickly on a first pass to get a very “hot” impression of the book as a whole, but I always go back through more slowly to pick up nuance and fill out my impression.
NW: Gabriel Zaid, a Mexican essayist and poet I’ve translated, has some great things to say about the importance of reading quickly. He goes so far as to claim that unless you move along at a decent speed, you aren’t really getting a sense of the book at all—I think he compares it to getting a slug’s-eye view of a mural. I do think that’s true for me. I can’t say it applies especially to books that I read in order to review, but it does explain why I find it so depressingly difficult to read now that I have small children, and why I so often can’t manage to finish a book. I simply can’t move fast enough to get up the proper momentum.
SE: Fascism and the Nazis in particular were important touchstones to Bolaño throughout all of his major novels, so it’s obviously notable that he titled this book The Third Reich, of all things. But then, being Bolaño, he turns that in to something of a red herring, as he never actually discusses the thing that we all immediately think of when we hear the words “third reich.” Instead, Bolaño’s third reich is a Risk-like board game played by a nerdy subculture (that’s the name of the game, The Third Reich), sort of like Dungeons and Dragons. How do you see this game functioning in the book?
NW: I guess I see it as a stand-in for literature, as something at once ridiculously trivial and deadly important. I think there’s a consciousness of that tension in most of Bolaño’s novels, but here the triviality is played up to an unusual degree. It’s this triumph of the trivial—the conclusion that yes, gaming is meaningless, and literature too, by extension—that gives the novel an unfunny edge. Incidentally, the game referred to in the book is a real game, called Rise and Decline of the Third Reich. I bought an old copy of it on Ebay for research purposes.
SE: I’m surprised to hear that the game exists, but not that surprised, since I read that Bolaño was a huge enthusiast of these games. (I love the idea of the author of By Night in Chile and Distant Star playing this game.) It would be interesting to actually see the game as a real, physical object, since in The Third Reich Bolaño only grants the game a kind of piecemeal presence, where you feel like you only ever have access to bits and pieces of this whole that you never come into contact with. With all that said, I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of a translator purchasing a board game as a translation aid. Was it strange to see the game after having it presented in The Third Reich?
NW: It was exciting to see the game—you rarely have that kind of tangible connection to a novel you’re translating. It was mostly useful to me as a source of vocabulary: the instructions are very long and detailed, and the terminology corresponds pretty closely to Bolaño’s descriptions in the book. To fully immerse myself, I really should have played a match, but it’s not an easy game to pick up quickly.
SE: Given the plot arc of The Third Reich—where Udo inculcates a newcomer into The Third Reich, with not-so-positive results—it’s a little funny to think of you then being brought into the game as an aspect of the novel’s translation. Do you see an analogue between the influence that a game like The Third Reich works over on its participants and the influence that a book (like The Third Reich) can exercise on its readers?
NW: Yes, to a certain degree. Though I think a great novel exerts a more powerful influence than a great game. Gamers, of course, might take issue with that. I’m not a gamer myself, but for the record I will say that I spent one very happy winter when I was thirteen playing Dungeons & Dragons. In theory, books and strategy games both encourage the reader or player to immerse herself in worlds of the imagination, but I would argue that game worlds are so rule-bound and elaborately conceived that they don’t actually leave much room for the imagination. I would say they’re really more about puzzle-solving. But I do think that game-players and obsessive readers (particularly those who fixate on a single author or book) are often consumed by minutiae in ways that are recognizably similar.
SE: That’s a good point about game-players and obsessive readers focusing on minutiae, and Bolaño of course encourages this by distributing characters and images among his novels and stories. Even so, I feel like with an author like Bolaño focusing on the minutiae too much is to somewhat miss out on the good stuff, which, for me, are the stand-out scenes and images, and the ways in which they interrelate throughout a work. I would say his minutiae is more toward creating an atmosphere and a strong sense of an idiosyncratic “Bolaño world” than toward offering fodder for literary interpretation. How do you prefer to read and interpret his work?
NW: Bolaño himself said that he intended everything he wrote to make up part of a “total novel” or roman-fleuve, so I think the reader is absolutely intended to feel as if she’s entering a Bolaño world. The consistency of his vision is one of the most striking things about his work. It’s so strong that after reading one of his novels (or essays—makes no difference), it can be hard to pry yourself out of Bolaño mode. But the reader who focuses on minutiae will soon discover that Bolaño is absolutely inconsistent on a detail level. Characters are constantly cropping up in different novels, but they’re never exactly the same characters. Even specific passages (long passages!) appear in multiple forms in different places. It’s like being in a dream, in which the markers of identity are fluid (one minute you’re yourself and the next minute you’re someone else) but the essences they represent remain constant.