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Nine Questions for Natasha Wimmer on The Third Reich by Roberto Bolaño


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The Third Reich was unpublished at the time of Bolaño’s death, but there are indications that he meant it to be published one day: he had begun typing it up, as he did with earlier unpublished novels that were eventually published in his lifetime.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.

Bolano and Poets


The thing that makes Bolano’s novels so good and his criticism generally mediocre is the way he went about writing about poets, bravery, etc. In the context of the fiction, Bolano’s mystification of poets and romanticism in general comes across as sober and interesting. In the nonfiction it tends to sound pretentious, inconsistent, etc:

Whether or not he was planning to collect them for a book (as Echevarría claims), they form the backbone of a very good one. He makes us shake our heads when he goes from calling César Aira “one of the three or four best Spanish-language writers alive today” to “mostly just boring,” but there’s a central line to the book’s overall critique and investigation, and it has to do with what it means to be a poet and what it means to be brave. Cervantes may have said the soldier’s work is more honorable than the poet’s, but Bolaño’s hero is Archilochus, the Greek mercenary who fled the battlefield to save himself. “Not for nothing are [poets] descended from Orpheus,” he says, because sometimes doing the wrong thing, as Blanchot showed us with “Orpheus’s Gaze,” can bring about the most unexpected inspiration. “If I had to hold up the most heavily fortified bank in America,” Bolaño says, “I’d take a gang of poets. The attempt would probably end in disaster, but it would be beautiful.”

Francisco Goldman is exactly right, though, in saying that it’s wrong to consider Between Parentheses an “autobiography.” I think most writers would find it pretty bizarre if someone got together a bunch of middling work with little in common other than the fact that it was done for pay and called it an auto bio.

. . . adding, here’s a good response via Twitter:

@bluelephant Javier Moreno
@ScottEsposito: He wrote his best non-fiction within his fiction, I think.

Between Parentheses Review

The National has just run my review of Between Parentheses, the collection of 99% of Bolano’s nonfiction writings. (Also see my Between Parentheses reading list, which has become quite popular of late.)

As the review shows, this was a book I was deeply mixed about. I completely understand the impulse to collect all Bolano’s nonfiction, but this would have been a much better volume if the editors had trimmed back the fat.

That said, I also felt that this book had some more interesting problems, problems that went beyond there mere inclusion of uninspired work that was clearly written for pay. For more on that, read the review. Here a quote:

They also point towards the quality shared by most of the worthwhile items in this volume: they are carried by Bolaño’s inimitable voice. It is that voice that allows Bolaño to get away with a line like “the best thing about Latin America is its suicides, voluntary or not”. Such a sentiment, which might otherwise be offensive or nonsensical, takes on a new logic in the context created by Bolaño’s non-fiction voice, articulating a version of the truth that one finds more and more commonly in the works of Bolaño’s friends and peers, among them Enrique Vila-Matas and Javier Cercas. It is a voice distinguished from the novels by its willingness to play games with the line between fiction and non-fiction, yet similar in that Bolaño launders his own thoughts through a heavy wash of irony.

Where that voice begins to suffer is in the masses of Bolaño’s newspaper commentary, a form he seemed to have varying degrees of interest in. Such writing makes up the bulk of Between Parentheses, and Echevarría has done yeoman service in corralling the chaos of Bolaño’s journalistic writings, along with sundry other work, into headings like “Scenes” and “The Brave Librarian”. The vagueness of these headings gives some indication of how loosely this work cleaves together, as well as its fundamental unsuitability for publication in book form.

The book’s fat middle – a 126-page expanse simply called Between Parentheses – collects the columns Bolaño wrote in three stints between 1999 and his death in 2003. As Echevarría admits, his newspaper column was something Bolaño had mixed feelings about, and it shows.

Calle Roberto Bolano


Roberto Bolano is getting a street named after him in the Spanish town of Girona.

Por primera vez un amigo se convierte en parte de una ciudad. Roberto Bolaño, a quien conocí en el México de los años setenta y volví a ver en Barcelona y Blanes en los noventa, nombrará una calle en Girona, la ciudad en donde pasó años formativos y de la siempre escribió con cariño.

El 18 de junio, Ignacio Echevarría, su mejor intérprete crítico, Bruno Montané, poeta que compartió con él el exilio en México y luego en Barcelona (es felipe Müller en Los detectives salvajes) y Jorge Herralde, su editor de hierro, estarán entre los padrinos del acto.

How long till we get the Blanes Roberto Bolano House and Interpretative Museum? Or even better, the Costa Brava One-of-a-Kind Roberto Bolano Campsite Trek.

Entre Parentheses — Between Parentheses


Published yesterday was Roberto Bolano’s collected nonfiction (about 99% of it), Between Parentheses. I’ll have a review of it eventually in The National, but for now I’ll point you to a list of recommended reading I extracted from Bolano’s voluminous recommendations.

Among those is the remarkable short story “Enoch Soames” by Max Beerbohm, which you can either read for free (it’s in the public domain), or as part of Beerbohm’s Seven Lives, republished by NYRB Classics (Soames is one of the seven lives.)

On Bolano’s recommendation I read the story last week, and found it quite compelling. It’s a very pleasant mindfuck about literary status, immortality, and the relationship of fiction to reality. At the center of it is Soames, an obscure British writer at the close of the 19th century who is either a genius or a crank. No one can tell. An impressionable young Beerbohm (the narrator) attempts to read him and befriend him, but can’t make heads of tales of Soames, either as man or author. An impromptu deal with the devil allows Soames to travel 100 years into the future to discover whether or not he has passed the time, wherein he learns that history records him as a figment of Beerbohm’s imagination. (Soames is chagrined. So is Beerbohm; “I’m an essayist!” he declares in disgust.)

But don’t let this tiny summary stand in for you reading it yourself; the story is full of all kinds of nice effects and details that I’ve left out of here, and I haven’t even discussed the end-ending that comes after Soames and Beerbohm discuss the London of the future.

The Between Parentheses Reading List


New Directions will publish Roberto Bolano’s collected nonfiction, Between Parentheses, in May. I’ve got a review of the book coming up, and as I read the book for the review, one of the most striking and enjoyable aspects of it was the sheer number of other writers Bolano exhorts you to read. You could get an entire education in Spanish-language literature just by reading the writers he recommends.

So in that spirit, here are 19 books or authors Bolano recommends in Between Parentheses, complete with rave-style quote drawn from the essays in Between Parentheses.

Ferdydurke by Witold Gombrowicz
“The key work in the Gombrowiczian oeuvre . . . one of the key novels of this century.”

Cuentos de Bloomsbury by Ana María Navales
“She’s bold enough to write in the first person, even when that first person is the voice of Virginia Woolf, and the result is first-rate and often unsettling.”

Antipoems: How to Look Better & Feel Great by Nicanor Parra
“As far as I’m concerned, Parra has long been the best living poet in the Spanish language.”

The Literary Conference by César Aira
“To begin with, it must be said that Aira has written one of the five best stories I can remember. It’s called ‘Cecil Taylor’ and it’s collected in an anthology of Argentine literature edited by Juan Forn. Aira is also the author of four memorable novels: How I Became A Nun, telling the story of his childhood; Ema, la cautiva [Emma the Captive], describing the luxury of the Indians of the pampa; El congreso de la literatura [The Literary Conference], recounting an attempt to clone Carlos Fuentes; and El llanto [The Weeping], retailing a kind of epiphany or insomnia.”

Hannibal by Thomas Harris
“He’s a craftsman, but every once in a while it’s nice to read someone who can tackle something long without boring us to death before we get to page fifty.”

The Good Cripple by Rodrigo Rey Rosa
“Miguel Ángel Asturias, Augusto Monterroso, and now Rodrigo Rey Rosa, three giant writers from a small, unhappy country.”

The Missing Piece by Antoine Bello
“In the tradition of Georges Perec . . . Antoine Bello’s novel is narrated from different points of view and through the lens of various genres, among them the epistolary novel, the detective novel, the satire, the adventure novel, the ethnographic novel, the populist novel, the symbolist novel, and the naturalist novel, not to exclude chapters in which the storytelling is based on mathematics, logic, or religion.”

Enoch Soames by Max Beerbohm (and it’s free for the Kindle!), (and collected in this NYRB Classic)
“Personally, if I had to choose the fifteen best stories I’ve read in my life, ‘Enoch Soames’ would be among them, and not in last place.”

Jonathan Swift
“And then there are those classics whose main virtue, whose elegance and validity, is symbolized by the time bomb: a bomb that not only hurtles perilously through its age but is capable of flinging itself into the future. It’s to this latter category that Jonathan Swift belongs.”

Homage to the American Indians by Ernesto Cardenal
“Superior in many ways to Neruda’s Canto General and a new, if flawed, response to Whitman.

El asco by Horacio Castellanos Moya
“So far I’ve read four of his books. The first was El asco, maybe the best of all, or at least the darkest.”

Bartleby & Co by Enrique Vila-Matas
“The answer, the only answer that occurs to me just now, is that it’s something else, something that might be a blend of all the preceding options, and we might have before us a 21st- century novel, by which I mean a hybrid novel, a gathering together of the best of fiction and journalism and history and memoir.”

Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas
“The third part centers on the unknown Republican soldier who saved Sánchez Mazas’s life, and here there appears a new character, someone by the name of Bolaño, who is a writer and Chilean and lives in Blanes, but who isn’t me, in the same way that the narrator Cercas isn’t Cercas, although both characters are possible and even probable. . . . With this novel, published to critical acclaim and appearing in French and Italian translations a few days before it even landed in Spanish bookstores, Javier Cercas joins the small group at the leading edge of Spanish fiction.”

Braque: Illustrated Notebooks
“Some of his aperçus, like Duchamp’s or Satie’s, are infinitely superior to those of many writers of his day, even some writers whose main occupation was to think and reflect: ‘Every age limits its own aspirations. This is what gives rise, not without complicity, to the illusion of progress.'”

Ubik by Philip K. Dick
“Dick is the one who, in Ubik, comes closest to capturing the human consciousness or fragments of consciousness in the context of their setting; the correspondence between what he tells and the structure of what’s told is more brilliant than similar experiments conducted by Pynchon or DeLillo.”

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
“It could be said that the landscape of Blood Meridian is a landscape out of de Sade, a thirsty and indifferent landscape ruled by strange laws involving pain and anesthesia, laws by which time often manifests itself.”

Alan Pauls
“You’re one of the best living Latin American writers and there are very few of us who know it and can appreciate it.”

The Cubs by Mario Vargas Llosa

“From these four novels (if their authors had written nothing else, which isn’t the case, one could create a literature. Of the four, The Cubs is probably the most caustic, the most fiendishly paced, and the one in which the voices–the multiplicity of forms of speech–are most alive.”

The Museum of Eterna’s Novel by Macedonio Fernandez
“Everything says we should read him, but Macedonio doesn’t sell, so forget him.

And one notable dis . . .

“Norberto Fuentes, the author of Condenados de Condado [The Condemned of Condado], in a number of ways a memorable book, has sold his soul to the devil.”

What They’re Reading in Spain


The Guardian has been doing a pretty cool feature where they ask editors in various countries what the hot books are where they are. The most recent entry is Spain, and I thought I’d mention it here since there are some pretty strong resonances with coverage in recent issues of The Quarterly Conversation. In particular, Antonio J. Rodríguez’s recent essay “A few keys to understanding Spanish contemporary fiction, and five authors to—at least—enjoy it.”

For instance, Javier Cercas’ Anatomy of a Moment, which was just published in English and which we just reviewed quite favorably in TQC 23, is still doing quite well in Spain.

Looking a little further back, Anatomía de un instante (Mondadori) by Javier Cercas is one of those essay/fiction books that is so linked to a real – and brutal – event that it not only managed to hypnotise Spanish readers at the time of its well-publicised launch many months ago, but still manages to do so now. The recent commemorations of the 30th anniversary of the attempted coup d’état by a group of military officers, on 23 February 1981 (the real pretext for this work of literary pseudo-fiction), has helped to maintain interest in Cercas’s book.

Also, funny to see that Bolano’s Nazi Literature in the Americas–another book we covered a while back–was apparently “rescued” (from oblivion?), whatever that means:

Roberto Bolaño, one of the most popular authors in Spain, although he was Chilean, is another strong presence just now, thanks to Anagrama having rescued his book La literatura nazi en América.

Of course, the big book on everybody’s radar in Spain is the new Javier Marias, Los enamoramientos. Or, well, almost everybody’s. Our Madrid editor tells me that Marias has won himself few friends among the younger generation of authors in Spain, whom, it seems, Marias tends to go out of his way to insult.

Bolano Essay at NYRB


This is from Between Parentheses, publishing in May from New Directions:

The books that I remember best are the ones I stole in Mexico City, between the ages of sixteen and nineteen, and the ones I bought in Chile when I was twenty, during the first few months of the coup. In Mexico there was an incredible bookstore. It was called the Glass Bookstore and it was on the Alameda. Its walls, even the ceiling, were glass. Glass and iron beams. From the outside, it seemed an impossible place to steal from. And yet prudence was overcome by the temptation to try and after a while I made the attempt.

More Notable Books You Won’t Find in the Times

Contributing editor Scott Bryan Wilson took me up on yesterday’s open invitation to pick some notable titles from this year’s coverage at The Quarterly Conversation. A few of these were actually published in late 2008, but they were books that I liked a great deal, so I’m leaving them on the list.

Ghosts – Cesar Aira (review)

This Nest, Swift Passerine – Dan Beachy-Quick (review)

The Skating Rink – Roberto Bolano (review)

Tracer – Richard Greenfield (review forthcoming)

Waste – Eugene Marten (review)
The Mighty Angel – Jerzy Pilch (review)

Inherent Vice – Thomas Pynchon (review, essay)

My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (review)

Imperial – William T. Vollmann (review)

Bonsai – Alejandro Zambra (review)

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