What is Visceral Realism? Roberto Bolaño’s The Third Reich

I got Roberto Bolaño’s most recent book for my birthday, in hard cover no less, so I thought I’d try to write a sociological book review to get some more mileage out of it.  As the book reviews have already noted, The Third Reich was written in 1989 and discovered in a drawer after Bolaño died in 2003. Bolaño was 50 when he died and 34 when he wrote the book. This was long before the two books that made him famous for English speaking audiences, Savage Detectives (1998, translated 2007) and 2666 (2004, translated  2008) were written, not to mention before the slew of  recently  translated  novels, short stories and essays. So it provides archaeological insight into the development of Bolaño as a writer, as well as being great book in and of itself. The sociological theme in all of this comes from the course I’ve been teaching on media and pop culture: what is mediated experience? Along these lines I’d like to get at the experience of “visceral realism”, which strikes me as the core of my own fascination with Bolaño. What is visceral realism? I’ll come back to this.

First, I think Third Reich is both great–for many of the reasons Bolaño’s other works are great–but probably also a failure, because he hadn’t yet discovered the narrative solution that makes the Savage Detectives and 2666 so compelling and innovative.  I’d say it’s great for two reasons. One, Bolaño is a master at recreating the voice, in all its idiosyncrasies. As a result, he is also the master of the limited, fallible narrator: so limited that in The Third Reich and  Savage Detectives, written in the first person,  it could be said that nobody in these novels ever seems to know what’s going on. But even in 2666, written in the third person, the limited perspective of the narration sets up an ongoing comic irony which gives all three of these quite dark books their light-hearted tone. Bolaño’s talent is to be able to play his characters straight and treat them as serious minded,  while leaving them to undercut themselves all on their own through the absurdity of their activities. The books are both intimate and funny in this way. Yet despite the comic effect, in Bolaño’s hands the overall sense this type of narration creates is one of foreboding  because the real action in the books is always taking place elsewhere, off the page, in some sinister and menacing background plot, churning away beyond the limited knowledge and  control of the characters.

In The Third Reich, the narrator is a 24-year-old German, Udo Berger, who is on vacation with his girlfriend in a seaside resort town in Spain. Udo and Ingeborg make friends with another German couple and some Spanish locals, but Udo is  completely preoccupied with his hobby, playing war strategy board games. And this is the second reason for the book’s greatness. It revolves around  a war strategy game called The Third Reich,  which, as its name might suggest,  operates as a plot device at numerous levels simultaneously: as a personal obsession of Udo’s, as a contest between players that drives the plot forward, as  a hearkening to the unresolved  legacy of Nazi violence and evil,  as a strange site of contemporary historical forgetfulness and German Vergangenheitsbewältigung (mastery of the past), and as a  reference point for the chauvinism of the group of Germans on vacation in Spain.  I think that it would have almost been sufficient just to  have imagined this war strategy game to have made the book successful.  The game makes the story all on its own, but Bolaño uses it to take the story further. The idea that the Second World War could be replayed endlessly as a game of strategy, that as a historical artifact it could be dissected and studied down to its minutest details and reenvisaged as a series of gambits and strategic maneuvers (but with the only stakes being the embattled egos of the players or theoretical debates at gaming conferences), and that Udo, as a young German living in the aftermath of that catastrophe, invests his ego in having devised a perfect strategy in which Germany can win the war, (yet is horrified when people think he may be a Nazi),  is fantastically monstrous. In fact the theme of the book might have been taken directly from Hitler’s famous Telegram 71 as the Allies closed in on Berlin: “If the war is lost, let the nation perish.”

In any case Bolaño handles the dissolution and resurrection of Udo Berger well. The account takes the form of entries in Udo’s journal. From the beginning we see that there is some unresolved knot in his life that is tied at an obscure level to the game and the seaside resort. Beneath the bucolic surface of young Germans on vacation, a menacing undertow begins to surface in which the meaning of gestures and things comes unfixed and distorted, especially in the second half of the book where Udo’s journal descends into a collage of game strategy, dream, seduction and paranoia. In the first few pages Udo describes why he is writing the journal. It is an “autodidactic” exercise to improve his writing, but also more tellingly, a means to  learn “how to reflect.” Then he goes off for a page or two of minutiae about the triumphs, intrigues and insults of his publishing career thus far, namely as writer of articles on military board game strategy in obscure gaming newletters and fanzines. His absorbtion in these concerns is not unlike those of the scholars in the first section of Bolaño’s  2666, (or of scholars in any sociology department you care to name).  But first, why does he think he needs to learn how to reflect? What is his defect in this regard? The whole question is funny, but apropos.  The answer is hinted at when he talks about his good friend Conrad back in Germany who has encouraged him to develop his writing (maybe, one senses, as a polite way of saying that Udo’s writing is lousy, or that his personality is obsessive and churlish?), but we don’t know. Second, “deliberate reflection” rather than focusing “randomly on images” is precisely what he proves incapable of throughout the narrative. He never identifies the source of his troubles.

Roberto Bolaño

This little detail paints such a clear portrait of Udo as an individual completely wrapped up in his geeky obsessions and self-importance as a strategic board game champion (although whether he truly is a champion is thrown into doubt by Bolaño’s fallible narrator ploy and the reader’s inability to discern Udo’s defensiveness and boasting from reality), that it comes as no surprise that the novel unfolds around his particular blindnesses and inexplicable attachments. He lengthens his stay at the resort town to get the final report on an acquaintance who may have drowned, although its clear that he does not actually care about Charly, nor even like him; he continually  seeks out the company of a couple of seedy locals whose conversation he finds dull and whose motives he mistrusts; he mounts a  desultory campaign to seduce the hotel manager in order (maybe) to live out an adolescent  fantasy from earlier family vacations to the same hotel;  and of course he plays the game Third Reich  with the mysterious, taciturn burn victim—“El Quemado” (the burned one)–whom he suspects might have been imprisoned and tortured by an unnamed South American regime (another legacy of the Third Reich) and whom he suspects wishes to kill him. Why does he do these things? The whole story revolves around an empty inscrutable ‘reason’, invisible to Udo and to the reader, which like the arrangement of the paddle boats on the beach is  “a black island in the uniform darkness” or like the game board in the middle of his hotel room,  “a silent zone (with raw staring eyes).”

Throughout, two parallel tracks of narrative unravel at the same time: one conscious track contained in what Udo is literally recording in his journal, and one unconscious track that is the sinister goings on outside or beneath the story. Every once in a while the conscious story trips up and reveals the other side. It’s maybe not the best example, but right in his first journal entry he extols the virtues of his beautiful girlfriend Ingeborg and says “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration that my life has never been better.” Not only is there the strange use of the double negative in the statement (in the English translation at least), which, like a slip of the tongue, also marks where the unconscious track intrudes, but already in the second journal entry he glimpses a significant “hint of disapproval” in Ingeborg’s eyes when she finds him setting up his board game in their hotel room. This slight glance introduces the pin prick that begins to let the bluster out of his illusions. She is ashamed of him, he realizes. Later he begins to think that she’s having sexual encounters, or is mixed up in some dark intrigue. It sets up the strange indifference he shows towards her and their holiday pastimes in his journal writing. He is in fact more fixated on the detective novel she is reading. The reappearance of this detective novel at different points of the story underlines the Noirish direction that the vacation is going in from the beginning: the investigation of the dark and seedy activities going on behind the scenes in which Udo, Angel Heart style, is directly, but obscurely involved.

This parallel track device is familiar to readers of Bolaño’s other work and his original solution to how to handle plot emerges out of it, although it is not completely successful here. Plot in novels typically wraps things back up into a nice coherent order. Everybody knows that this is not realistic, in the sense of being true to experience. In experience nothing wraps up, nothing is coherent. Things continue on in their delirium and unreasonableness, sometimes coming into focus nicely cut up with a beginning, middle and end, but only until another focus emerges and the other is lost. That is why the linear, coherent plot has been disbarred from the modern art novel. Here, in Udo’s above board life, a rift has opened up and it is only through the below board intimation of menace and violence in the seaside resort that the rift is filled in–the loose ends unified and the characters tied together. Thus I think that it is fair to say that The Third Reich board game serves Udo as a place where life could be brought into reason, or “clarity”, as he explains to Ingeborg–as a structure with a set of rules, where the historical details are known,  where strategic decisions and calculated gambles can be made, where fronts and lines of defense can be forged, where one always knows where one stands with the other depending on how the battle is going—but as the story progresses it descends to another level and begins to serve more as a purloined letter: not so much as a thing among other things but as an obscure object of desire, an uncanny element of fate that magnifies Udo’s hallucinations and horror beyond proportion. But to the degree that it functions this way in the story, it serves less and less effectively as a plot device.

As a result the novel doesn’t really work. The action all revolves around Udo’s blind spots: the unconscious track of his unknown unknowns. He is too passive. He is like Merseault in Camus’  L’Etranger, unable to make a decision, trapped by consequences,  struck by sun stroke (or its equivalent), but basically a token on a game board. This worked for Camus, but I don’t think it does for Bolaño.  Bolaño hadn’t yet struck upon the poetics that made The Savage Detectives and 2666 so successful, namely the way in which the mysterious goings on meander through the lives and perspectives of a multitude of different and singular characters until they cohere around a collective blind spot; a thoroughly dialogic or glossolalic form. Instead, in The Third Reich the same meandering and obscure line of development occurs only through the action that revolves around Udo, while Udo more or less  recuses himself from the role of active protagonist.

The Infrarealists

What is interesting in all of this from a sociological point of view, is how the use of language on the page  creates a complex mediated experience in the reader: literally a  textual experience, yet viscerally real. Visceral realism is the name Bolaño gave to one of the rival fictional poetry movements in Mexico City in The Savage Detectives. This was a thinly veiled allusion to the group of poets who called themselves Infrarealists (whom Bolaño co-founded in Mexico City in the 1970s), but it also characterizes the most interesting aspects of Bolaño’s prose, starting, as it turns out, with The Third Reich. “One of the visceral realists’ basic poetry-writing tenets is a momentary disconnection from a certain kind of reality” says the character Juan García Madero, in The Savage Detectives. Or from the Infrarealist Manifesto:

“Chirico [the surrealist painter] says: thought must move away from all that which is called logic and good sense, must move away from all human problems, in such a way that things appear under a new aspect, as if illuminated by a constellation appearing for the first time. The infrarealists say: We are going to fill our heads with all human problems, such that things begin to move inside themselves, an extraordinary vision of man”.

The exploration of the unconsciousness was central to the revolutionary program of Surrealism:  the point in the mind where the real and the imagined cease to be contradictory; the release of revolutionary energies through the destruction of bourgeois categories of order. Infrarealism seems to be content to explore human problems, but with a similar outcome.  (See the contemporary  Society for the Proliferation of Visceral Realism). Within everything that appears solid there is something moving. While the surrealist impulse is inspiring when it is removed from its museumification in art history, it is difficult to take it entirely seriously today when the imagination seems so entangled with the demands of the culture industry. Yet in Bolaño’s visceral realism the “momentary disconnection from a certain  kind of reality” does seem to work. After building up a tension between the known and the unknown, he throws in a strong poetic image that has surrealist overtones without being overtly unreal somehow. There are no melting clocks in Bolaño, (or not too many at  least), but I do get the strong feeling reading him of being  inside “human problems” as if they were melting clocks, as if the problems were moving inside themselves: the legacy of the Third Reich (Third Reich), the disappearance of poetry (Savage Detectives), the murder of young women in Mexican Maquiladoras (2666).  El Quemado’s description of his favourite poets seems equally to describe the apocalyptic impressions left by Bolaño’s prose: “Despair, heights, the sea, things that aren’t closed, things that are part way open, like something bursting in the chest…”

Slavoj Zizek

I am inclined, Slavoj Zizek style, to try to explain this experience as the product of  the traumatic intrusion of “the Real” into the alarmingly fragile world of  intersubjective reality (“the Symbolic”), although this might just be because Zizek’s been on my mind (re: my pop culture and media course). “Our common everyday reality, the reality of the social universe in which we assume our usual roles of kind-hearted, decent people, turns out to be an illusion that rests on a certain “repression,” on overlooking the real of our desire. This social reality is then nothing but a fragile, symbolic cobweb that can at any moment be torn aside by an intrusion of the real. At any moment, the most common everyday conversation, the most ordinary event can take a dangerous turn, damage can be caused that cannot be undone” (Zizek, Looking Awry, p. 17 ). The enigmatic “real” of Udo’s desire that defies symbolization (or at least his ability to put it into words in his journal) circles around the unacknowledged parallel track that gives the game and Udo’s other obsessions their intensity.

Although a bit eggheaded, this is definitely one way of getting a handle on what Bolaño’s visceral realism is.  Rather than the usual experience of reading, which works to construct an elaborate fantasy in which  readers lose themselves in the pleasures of identification with strong characters, there are a series of breaks in the narrative – marked by “phallic signifiers”—details that “stick out,” that do not fit in.  El Quemado’s disfigured face and body—“dark and corrugated, like grilled meat”—is the initial entry point into this other side. It serves as the object of Udo’s horrified fascination, the detail that does not fit into his seaside holiday and game strategy plotting.  “For an instant, I must admit, I was hypnotized, until I realized that he was looking at us too and that there was an indifference in his gaze, a kind of coldness that suddenly struck me as repulsive.” Udo tells the story, it is about his quest, but all the while it is as if his life is under the cold (anamorphic) gaze of El Quemado, from which vantage point everything becomes uncertain, everything becomes tinged with horror and anxiety. These phallic details mark the places where language steps out of language as it were, where the reader, like the narrator,  is provoked to descend into an unending interpretive deliberation on meanings, hidden meanings, ambiguities and contradictions—where in fact it might be argued that the reader is obliged to exist (or ex-sist, to make this even more complicated).

And yet behind all this is the apperception that under the play and confusion of the meaning of the story is some visceral or primal level of imagery where “things begin to move inside themselves:” raw, violent, uncanny, monumental. Not the Lacanian Real (of Zizek’s pop culture analysis), with its therapeutic and moral implications (addressing trauma, traversing the fantasy), but the production of an unconscious (as Deleuze would have it) with the implications given to it in the Infrarealist Manifesto: “Our ethic is Revolution, our aesthetic is Life: one-single-thing.”  In the narrative gaps, Bolaño inserts a sharp and singular image, as irreducible as the “grilled meat” of El Quemado’s face, which would be just awkward to psychoanalytically interpret.  I like the image in Savage Detectives where the waitresses are crowding around Juan Garcia in the bar “two with their thighs pressed against the edge of the table (an edge that would surely leave a mark on those thighs)…” In The Third Reich the game itself is such an image. The play and tedium of game players moving pieces on a board in the heart of the horror is an image in which the historical Third Reich begins to move inside itself.

I think this ability to evoke the primal image constitutes Bolaño’s visceral realism, and also explains the impulse to movement for the infrarealists: “The poem is a journey, and the poet is a hero who reveals heroes.” There is a suspension of the fictional experience where one feels the visceral impact. “The true imagination is the one that dynamites, elucidates, injects emerald microbes into other imaginations. In poetry and in what is, the way in to matter still has to be the way in to adventure.” So the direction of the experience is different than that identified by Zizek and Lacan, not inward to the subjective dimension but outward to the materiality of the human problem: Not the neurotic on the  couch but Kerouac on the road.

In sociology there is something called critical realism, whose current popularity is directly related to the need felt by some to respond to “postmodernist” attacks on foundations. It is an awkward Kantian enterprise designed to demonstrate that if  sociology exists and ‘works,’ there must also be some level of reality (i.e. social structure, the dialectic) that truly exists as the foundation of social life, even if it can’t be observed directly. By these means, critical realists argue that sociological truth is possible. Visceral realism is essentially the opposite. For every hidden truth waiting to be revealed behind the surfaces, there are also “emerald microbes” at work busily deconfiguring it. The new centers of the unknown–the new “silent zones (with raw staring eyes)”–are not to be limited by these clumsy tropes.

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4 thoughts on “What is Visceral Realism? Roberto Bolaño’s The Third Reich

  1. Hi Bill: i loved this piece. The Third Reich is probably the only thing I have not read of Bolano. I think your conclusion is spot on with regard to the visceral work of those ’emerald microbes’ at work on narrative moments versus the language game semantics of explain away word motifs.

  2. Excellent synopsis. Is there is a group of writer’s out there self-named the Roberto Bolano’s who are furtively pumping out volume after volume of new material for yet more collections of literary fragments and unfinished manuscripts. The Bolano machine is an insomniac.

  3. Pingback: Experimental Poetry | coldhearted scientist وداد

  4. Pingback: Roberto Bolano, income tax, and wild-crafted avocados - Ursula Pflug

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