Issue 196, Spring 2011
By the time of his death in 2003, at age fifty, Roberto Bolaño was already a somewhat legendary figure. A Chilean who spent most of his life in poverty and exile, Bolaño helped found the Infrarealist poetry movement in Mexico City. Later, he settled in the town of Blanes, on Spain’s Costa Brava. In the mid-nineties—according to legend—Bolaño set poetry aside, hoping to support his wife and young child by writing fiction. Over the next ten years, he produced a string of books, including By Night in Chile and The Savage Detectives, that made him the most influential Latin American novelist of his generation. He died soon after finishing his most celebrated work, 2666.
This legend was complicated two years ago by the discovery of The Third Reich (El Tercer Reich), a full-length novel that Bolaño wrote in 1989. That the novel exists in typescript (and that Bolaño retyped the first sixty pages when he bought his first computer, in 1995) suggests that he wished to see it published during his lifetime. Why he never did is anyone’s guess. From the first sentence, The Third Reich bears his hallmarks. The irony, the atmosphere of erotic anxiety, the dream logic shading into nightmare, the feckless, unreliable narrator: all prefigure his later work. The young novelist must have been exhilarated, and possibly alarmed, to discover his talent so fully formed.
By special arrangement with the Bolaño estate, The Paris Review will publish The Third Reich in its entirety over the space of four issues (making it our first serialized novel since Harry Mathews’s The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium, forty years ago). A hardcover edition of this translation will be published at the end of the year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
For Carolina López
Sometimes we play with salesmen, sometimes holiday visitors. Two months ago we had the privilege of sentencing a German general to twenty years’ hard labor. He was passing through here on a walking tour with his wife. Only my skill saved him from the gallows.
—Friedrich Dürrenmatt, A Dangerous Game
Through the window comes the murmur of the sea mingled with the laughter of the night’s last revelers, a sound that might be the waiters clearing the tables on the terrace, an occasional car driving slowly along the Paseo Marítimo, and a low and unidentifiable hum from the other rooms in the hotel. Ingeborg is asleep, her face placid as an angel’s. On the night table stands an untouched glass of milk that by now must be warm, and next to her pillow, half hidden under the sheet, a Florian Linden detective novel of which she read only a few pages before falling asleep. The heat and exhaustion have had the opposite effect on me: I’m wide awake. I usually sleep well, seven or eight hours a night, though I hardly ever go to bed tired. In the mornings I wake up ready to go and I can keep going for eight or ten hours straight. As far as I know, it’s always been like that; it’s how I was made. No one taught me to be this way, it’s just how I am, and by that I don’t mean to suggest that I’m better or worse than anybody else, than Ingeborg herself, for example, who on Saturdays and Sundays doesn’t get up until after noon and who during the week needs two cups of coffee—and a cigarette—before she manages to really wake up and get off to work. Tonight, though, I’m too hot and tired to sleep. Also, the urge to write, to set down the events of the day, keeps me from getting into bed and turning out the light.
The trip came off without any mishaps worth mentioning. We stopped in Strasbourg, a pretty town, though I’d been there before. We ate at a kind of roadside market. At the border, despite what we’d been told to expect, we didn’t have to stand in line or wait more than ten minutes to cross over. Everything was quick and efficient. After that I drove because Ingeborg doesn’t trust the drivers here, I think because she had a bad experience on a Spanish highway years ago when she was a girl on vacation with her parents. Also, she was tired, as is only natural.
At the hotel reception desk we were helped by a very young girl who spoke decent German, and there was no problem finding our reservations. Everything was in order, and as we were on our way up I spotted Frau Else in the dining room; I recognized her right away. She was setting a table as she made some remark to a waiter who stood next to her holding a tray full of saltshakers. She was wearing a green suit, and pinned on her chest was a metal brooch with the hotel logo.
The years had scarcely touched her.
The sight of Frau Else brought back my adolescence, its dark and bright moments: my parents and my brother at breakfast on the hotel terrace, the music that at seven in the evening began to drift across the main floor from the restaurant speakers, the idle laughter of the waiters, and the plans made by the kids my age to go night swimming or out to the clubs. What was my favorite song back then? Each summer there was a new one, resembling in some way the songs from previous summers, hummed and whistled constantly and played at the end of the night by all the clubs in town. My brother, who has always been particular when it comes to music, would carefully choose what tapes to bring along on vacation; I preferred to pick up some new tune at random, inevitably the song of the summer. I had only to hear it two or three times, purely by chance, in order for its notes to follow me through sunny days and the new friendships that enlivened our vacations. Fleeting friendships, when I look back today, existing only to banish the faintest hint of boredom. Of all those faces only a few linger in memory. First, that of Frau Else, who won me over from the start, which made me the butt of jokes and teasing by my parents, who even made fun of me in front of Frau Else and her husband, a Spaniard whose name I can’t recall, with references to my supposed jealousy and the precocity of youth that made me blush to the roots of my hair and that inspired in Frau Else an affectionate sense of camaraderie. After that I thought she showed a special warmth in her treatment of me. Also, although it is a very different case, there was José (was that his name?), a boy my age who worked at the hotel and who took us, my brother and me, to places we’d never have gone without him. When we said good-bye for the last time, possibly guessing that we wouldn’t spend the next summer at the Del Mar, my brother gave him a couple of rock tapes and I gave him an old pair of jeans. Ten years have gone by and I still remember the tears that filled José’s eyes as he clutched the folded jeans in one hand and the tapes in the other, not knowing what to do or say, murmuring (in an English that my brother was always making fun of): good-bye, dear friends, good-bye, dear friends, etc., while we told him in Spanish—a language that we spoke with some fluency; not for nothing had our parents vacationed in Spain for years—not to worry, the next summer we’d be like the Three Musketeers again, and that he should stop crying. We got two postcards from José. I answered the first one in my name and my brother’s. Then we forgot about José and never heard from him again. There was also a boy from Heilbronn called Erich, the best swimmer of the season, and Charlotte, who liked to lie on the beach with me although it was my brother who was crazy about her. Then there was poor Aunt Giselle, my mother’s youngest sister, who came with us the second-to-last summer we spent at the Del Mar. More than anything else, Aunt Giselle loved bullfighting, and she couldn’t get enough of the fights. Indelible memory: my brother driving my father’s car with complete impunity and me sitting next to him, smoking, without a word from anyone, and Aunt Giselle in the backseat staring in ecstasy at the foam-splashed cliffs and the deep green of the sea beneath us with a smile of satisfaction on her pale lips and three posters, three treasures, on her lap, proof that she, my brother, and I had rubbed shoulders with the bullfighting greats at the Plaza de Toros in Barcelona. I know my parents disapproved of many of the activities that Aunt Giselle pursued with such passion, just as they weren’t pleased by the freedoms she permitted us, excessive for children, as they saw it, although by then I was nearly fourteen. At the same time, I’ve always suspected that it was we who looked after Aunt Giselle, a task my mother assigned us without anyone realizing, surreptitiously and with great trepidation. In any case, Aunt Giselle was with us for only one summer, the summer before the last we spent at the Del Mar.
That’s almost all I remember. I haven’t forgotten the laughter at the tables on the terrace, the gallons of beer that were emptied as I looked on in astonishment, the dark, sweaty waiters crouched in a corner of the bar talking in low voices. Random images. My father’s happy smile and approving nods, a shop where we rented bicycles, the beach at nine-thirty at night, still with a faint glow of sunlight. The room we had then was different from the one we’re in now; whether better or worse I can’t say, different, on a lower floor, and bigger, big enough to fit four beds, and with a large balcony facing the sea, where my parents would settle in the afternoons after lunch to play infinite card games. I’m not sure whether we had a private bathroom. Probably some summers we did and others we didn’t. Our room now does have its own bathroom and also a nice big closet, and a huge bed, and rugs, and a marble table on the balcony, and green curtains of a fabric silky to the touch, and white wooden shutters, very modern, and direct and indirect lights, and some well-concealed speakers that play soft music at the touch of a button . . . No doubt about it, the Del Mar has come up in the world. The competition, to judge from the quick glance I got from the car as we were driving along the Paseo Marítimo, hasn’t been left behind either. There are hotels that I don’t remember, and apartment buildings have sprung up on once vacant lots. But this is all speculation. Tomorrow I’ll try to talk to Frau Else and I’ll take a walk around town.
Have I come up in the world, too? Absolutely. Back then I hadn’t met Ingeborg and today we’re a couple; my friendships are more interesting and deeper (with Conrad, for example, who is like a second brother to me and who will read what’s written here); I know what I want and I have a better sense of perspective; I’m financially independent; I’m never bored now, which wasn’t true in my adolescence. According to Conrad, the true test of health is lack of boredom, which means that I must be in excellent health. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that my life has never been better.
Most of the credit goes to Ingeborg. Meeting her was the best thing that ever happened to me. Her sweetness, her charm, her soft gaze put everything else—my own daily struggles and the scores of those who envy me—into perspective, allowing me to face facts and rise above them. Where will our relationship lead? I ask this because relationships between young people today are so fragile. I’d rather not give it too much thought. Better to focus on the positive: loving her and taking care of her. Of course, if we end up getting married, so much the better. A life at Ingeborg’s side: could I ask for anything more in matters of the heart?
Time will tell. For now her love is . . . But not to wax poetic. These vacation days will also be work days. I have to ask Frau Else for a bigger table, or two small tables, to set up the game. Just thinking about the possibilities of my new opening strategy and all the various outcomes makes me want to get the game out right now and test it. But I won’t. I have the energy only to write a little more. The trip was long and yesterday I hardly slept, partly because it was Ingeborg’s and my first trip together and partly because it would be my first time back at the Del Mar in ten years.
Tomorrow we’ll have breakfast on the terrace. When? Ingeborg will probably get up late. Was there a set time for breakfast? I can’t remember; I don’t think so. In any case we could also have breakfast at a certain café in town, an old place that always used to be full of fishermen and tourists. When I was here with my parents we always ate at the Del Mar or at that café. Will it have closed? Anything can happen in ten years. I hope it’s still open.
Twice I’ve talked to Frau Else. Our encounters haven’t been all I hoped. The first took place around eleven in the morning; I had just left Ingeborg at the beach and come back to the hotel to arrange a few things. I found Frau Else at the reception desk helping a few Danes who seemed to be checking out, judging by their luggage and their ostentatiously perfect tans. Their children were hauling enormous Mexican sombreros across the reception hall. Once they’d said their good-byes and promised to return without fail the following year, I introduced myself. Udo Berger, I said, extending my hand with an admiring smile, well deserved, because at that instant, viewed from up close, Frau Else seemed even more beautiful and at least as enigmatic as I remembered her from my adolescence. And yet she didn’t recognize me. It took me five minutes to explain who I was, who my parents were, how many summers we’d spent at the hotel. I even dredged up some rather evocative incidents that I would have preferred to keep to myself. All of this while standing at the reception desk as clients came and went in bathing suits (I myself was wearing only shorts and sandals), constantly interrupting my efforts to nudge her memory. Finally she said she did remember us: the Berger family, from Munich? No, from Reutlingen, I corrected her, though now I live in Stuttgart. Of course, she said, your mother was a lovely person; she also remembered my father and even Aunt Giselle. You’ve grown so much, you’re a real man now, she said in a tone that seemed to betray a hint of shyness, and that unsettled me, though I can’t really say why. She asked how long I planned to stay and whether I found the town much changed. I answered that I hadn’t had time to walk around yet, I had arrived the night before, quite late, and I planned to be in town for two weeks, here, at the Del Mar, of course. She smiled and that was the end of our conversation. I went right up to my room, feeling slightly agitated without knowing quite why. From there I called and had a table brought up; I made it very clear that it should be at least five feet long. As I was waiting I read the first pages of this journal. Not bad, especially for a beginner. I think Conrad is right. The daily practice, compulsory or near compulsory, of setting down one’s ideas and the day’s events in a diary allows a virtual autodidact like myself to learn how to reflect, how to exercise the memory by focusing deliberately rather than randomly on images, and especially how to cultivate certain aspects of the sensibility that may seem fully formed but that in reality are only seeds that may or may not develop into character. The initial reason for the diary, however, was much more practical in nature: to exercise my prose so that in the future no clumsiness of expression or defective syntax will detract from the insights offered by my articles, which are being published in an increasing number of specialized journals and have lately been subjected to all sorts of criticism, in the form either of comments in Readers Respond columns or else of cuts and revisions by the magazines’ editors. And no matter how I protest or how many championships I win, I continue to be blatantly censored based solely on claims of faulty grammar (as if they wrote so well). In the interest of honesty, I should point out that this is happily not always the case; there are magazines that receive a piece of mine and in response send a polite little note, offering perhaps two or three respectful comments, and after a while my text appears in print, as written. Others fall all over themselves with compliments; they’re the ones Conrad calls Bergerian publications. Really, my only problems are with a fraction of the Stuttgart group and some pompous asses from Cologne; I creamed them once and they still haven’t forgiven me. In Stuttgart there are three magazines and I’ve published in all of them; my problems there are all in the family, as they say. In Cologne there’s only one journal, but it’s better designed and distributed nationally, and—last but not least—it pays its writers. It even allows itself the luxury of employing a small but professional stable of regular contributors, who receive a respectable monthly stipend for doing just what they like. Whether they do it well or badly—and I would say they do it badly—is another question. I’ve published two articles in Cologne. The first, “How to Win in the Bulge,” was translated into Italian and published in a Milanese journal, which impressed my circle of friends and put me in direct contact with the gamers of Milan. The two articles were published, as I said, although I noticed that slight revisions or small changes had been made to each, everything from whole sentences eliminated on the pretext of lack of space—though all the illustrations that I requested were included!—or corrections for style, this last a task performed by some nobody whom I never had the pleasure of meeting, even by phone, and regarding whose real existence I have grave doubts. (His name doesn’t appear anywhere in the magazine. I have no doubt that this apocryphal copy chief is used as camouflage by the contributing editors in their sins against writers.) The last straw came when I turned in article number three: they simply refused to publish it despite the fact that they had specifically assigned it to me. My patience has limits; a few short hours after receiving the rejection letter I telephoned the editor in chief to express my astonishment at the decision and my anger at the editorial board for wasting my time—although this was a lie. The time I use to solve gaming problems is never wasted, much less when the campaign I’m thinking and writing about is of particular interest. To my surprise the editor responded with a barrage of insults and threats that minutes before I couldn’t have imagined coming from his prissy little duck’s beak of a mouth. Before I hung up on him—although in the end it was he who hung up on me—I promised that if we ever met I would kick his ass. Among the many insults I had to endure, perhaps the one that stung most concerned the alleged clumsiness of my writing. If I think about it calmly it’s clear that the poor man was mistaken, because if he wasn’t, why do other German magazines, and some foreign ones, keep publishing my articles? Why do I get letters from Rex Douglas, Nicky Palmer, and Dave Rossi? Is it just because I’m the champ? At this point, which I refuse to call a crisis point, Conrad told me exactly what I needed to hear: he advised me to forget the Cologne crowd (the only one of them worth anything there is Heimito, and he has nothing to do with the magazine) and to start keeping a journal, because it’s never a bad idea to have a place to set down the events of the day and develop ideas for future articles, which is exactly what I plan to do.
I was deep in these thoughts when there was a knock at the door and a maid came in, just a girl, who muttered something in a made-up German—the only word she said that actually meant anything was no—that upon reflection I realized meant that no table was coming. I explained to her, in Spanish, that it was absolutely necessary that I have a table, and not just any table but one that was at least five feet long, or two tables half that size, and that I wanted it now.
The girl went away saying that she’d do what she could. A while later she appeared again, accompanied by a man of about forty, dressed in brown trousers as wrinkled as if he’d slept in them and a white shirt with a dirty collar. The man, without introducing himself or asking permission, came into the room and inquired what I wanted the table for. With his chin he motioned at the table that was already in the room, which was too low and too small for my needs. I chose not to answer. In the face of my silence, he explained that he couldn’t put two tables in one room. He seemed to worry that I wouldn’t understand, and every so often he gestured with his hands as if he were describing a pregnant woman.
A little tired by now of so much pantomime, I swept everything that was on the table onto the bed and ordered him to take the table away and come back with one that matched my specifications. The man made no move to leave; he seemed frightened; the girl, on the other hand, smiled at me in a sympathetic way. The next moment I grabbed the table and put it out in the hallway. The man left the room nodding in confusion, as if he didn’t understand what had just happened. Before he left he said that it wouldn’t be easy to find a table like the one I wanted. I gave him an encouraging smile: everything is possible if one makes an effort.
Some time later a call came from the reception desk. An unidentifiable voice said in German that they didn’t have tables like the one I had demanded, did I want them to return the one that had been in the room? I asked with whom I had the pleasure of speaking. This is Miss Nuria, the receptionist, said the voice. In the most persuasive tone I could muster, I explained to Miss Nuria that for my work—yes, I worked on vacation—a table was absolutely indispensable, but not the one that was there already, the standard table that I supposed all the rooms had, but one that was higher and, especially, longer, if that wasn’t too much to ask. What kind of work do you do, Mr. Berger? asked Miss Nuria. Why should that matter to you? Just tell someone to send up a table like the one I’ve requested and let that be the end of it. The receptionist faltered, then in a faint voice she said she’d see what could be done and hung up abruptly. With that, I recovered my good humor and dropped onto the bed, laughing.
Frau Else’s voice woke me. She was standing next to the bed and her eyes, curiously intense, observed me with concern. Right away I realized that I had fallen asleep, and I was embarrassed. I fumbled about for something to cover myself up—though very slowly, as if I were still dreaming—because even though I was wearing shorts I felt completely naked. How could she have come in without my hearing her? Did she have a master key to all the hotel rooms, and did she use it freely?
I thought you were sick, she said. Do you know what a fright you gave our receptionist? She was just following hotel regulations, she shouldn’t have to put up with rudeness from the guests.
“That’s inevitable at any hotel,” I said.
“Are you saying you know more than I do about my own business?”
“No, of course not.”
I murmured a few words of apology, unable to tear my eyes away from the perfect oval of Frau Else’s face, upon which I thought I glimpsed the faintest of ironic smiles, as if the situation that I had created struck her as funny.
Behind her was the table.
I knelt on the bed. Frau Else didn’t make the slightest effort to move so that I could examine the table to my satisfaction. Nevertheless I could see that it was everything I had wanted, and more. I hope it suits you, I had to go down to the basement to find it, it belonged to my husband’s mother. There was still an ironic edge to her voice: Will you be able to use it for your work? And are you really planning to work all summer? If I were as pale as you, I’d spend all day at the beach. I promised that I would do both things in moderation, that I’d work and also spend time at the beach. And won’t you go out clubbing at night? Doesn’t your girlfriend like the clubs? And speaking of her, where is she? At the beach, I said. She must be a smart girl, she doesn’t waste time, said Frau Else. I’ll introduce you this afternoon, if you’re free, I said. Actually, I’m busy and may have to spend all day in the office, so it will have to be some other time, said Frau Else. I smiled. The longer I spent with her, the more interesting I found her.
“You’re choosing work over the beach, too,” I said.
Before she left she warned me to treat the staff more politely.
I set the table by the window, in a spot where it would get as much natural light as possible. Then I went out on the balcony and spent a long time scanning the beach, trying to spot Ingeborg among the half-naked bodies lying in the sun.
We ate at the hotel. Ingeborg’s skin was flushed. She’s very blond and it’s not good for her to get so much sun all at once. I hope she won’t come down with sunstroke; that would be terrible. When we went up to the room she asked where the table had come from and I had to explain, in the perfect stillness of the room, me sitting at the table, her lying on the bed, that I had asked the management to exchange the old one for a bigger one because I planned to set up the game. Ingeborg just looked at me. She didn’t say a word, but in her eyes I glimpsed a hint of disapproval.
I can’t say when she fell asleep. Ingeborg sleeps with her eyes half open. On tiptoe, I picked up my journal and started to write.
We’re back from the Ancient Egypt, a club. We had dinner at the hotel. During her siesta (how quickly one picks up Spanish habits!), Ingeborg talked in her sleep. Random words like bed, mother, highway, ice cream . . . When she woke up we took a stroll along the Paseo Marítimo, away from town, carried along by the flow of people. Then we sat on the seawall and talked.
Dinner was light. Ingeborg changed clothes. A white dress, white high heels, a mother-of-pearl necklace, and her hair pulled up in a loose twist. I dressed in white, too, though not as elegantly.
The club was on the side of town near the campgrounds, a neighborhood of clubs, burger stands, and restaurants. Ten years ago there was nothing here but a few places to camp and a pine forest that stretched all the way to the train tracks; today apparently it’s the town’s main tourist district. The bustle of its single street, which runs along the shore, is like that of a big city at rush hour. With the difference that here rush hour begins at nine in the evening and doesn’t end until after three. The crowd that gathers on the pavement is motley and cosmopolitan: white, black, yellow, Indian, mixed, as if all the races had agreed to vacation here, although I suppose not everyone is on vacation.
Ingeborg was at her most radiant, and when we walked into the club we were greeted with covert admiring glances. Admiring of Ingeborg and envious of me. Envy is something I always pick up on right away. Anyway, we didn’t plan to spend much time there. And yet as fate would have it, before long a German couple sat down at our table.
Let me explain how it happened. I’m not crazy about dancing. I do dance, especially since I met Ingeborg, but first I have to loosen up with a couple of drinks and grow accustomed to the discomfort I feel among so many strange faces in a room that usually isn’t very well lit. Ingeborg, meanwhile, has no qualms about going out alone to dance. She might head to the dance floor for a few songs, stop back at the table, take a sip of her drink, return to the dance floor, and so on all night until she drops from exhaustion. I’ve gotten used to it. While she’s gone I think about my work and meaningless things, or I hum the tune that’s playing over the sound system, or I meditate on the unknown fates of the amorphous masses and the shadowy faces that surround me. Sometimes Ingeborg, ignorant of all this, comes up and gives me a kiss. Or she appears with new friends—like the German couple tonight—with whom she has barely exchanged a few words in the shuffle of the dance floor. Words that when taken together with our common state as vacationers are enough to establish something resembling friendship.
Karl—though he prefers to be called Charly—and Hanna are from Oberhausen. She works as a secretary at the company where he’s a mechanic; both are twenty-five. Hanna is divorced. She has a three-year-old son, and she plans to marry Charly as soon as she can. She told all this to Ingeborg in the ladies’ room and Ingeborg told it to me when we got back to the hotel. Charly likes soccer, sports in general, and windsurfing: he brought his board, which he raves about, from Oberhausen. At one point, while Ingeborg and Hanna were on the dance floor, he asked me what my favorite sport was. I said I liked to run. Alone.
Both of them had had a lot to drink. So had Ingeborg, to tell the truth. Under the circumstances, it was easy to agree that we would get together the next day. Their hotel is the Costa Brava, which is just a few steps from ours. We planned to meet around noon, on the beach, next to the place where they rent the pedal boats.
It was close to two in the morning when we left the club. On our way out, Charly bought a last round. He was happy; he told me they’d been in town for ten days and hadn’t made any friends. The Costa Brava was full of English tourists, and the few Germans he’d met at bars were either unfriendly or single men traveling in groups, which excluded Hanna.
On the way home, Charly began to sing songs I’d never heard before. Most of them were crude; some referred to what he planned to do to Hanna when they got back to their room, by which I deduced that the lyrics, at least, were made up. Now and then Hanna, who was walking arm in arm with Ingeborg a little way ahead of us, would laugh. My Ingeborg laughed, too. For an instant I imagined her in Charly’s arms and I shuddered. My stomach shrank to the size of a fist.
Along the Paseo Marítimo a cool breeze was blowing, and it helped to clear my head. The only people to be seen were tourists returning to their hotels, stumbling or singing, and the few cars to pass in either direction moved slowly, as if the whole world were suddenly exhausted or sick and everything now flowed toward bed and dark rooms.
When we got to the Costa Brava, Charly insisted on showing me his sailboard. He had it strapped with a web of cords to the luggage rack of his car in the outdoor parking lot of the hotel. What do you think? he asked. There was nothing special about it; it was a board like a million others. I confessed that I knew nothing about windsurfing. If you want I can teach you, he said. We’ll see, I answered, without making any promises.
We refused to let them walk us back to our hotel, and Hanna was in complete agreement. Still, the farewell was prolonged. Charly was much drunker than I realized and insisted that we come up to see their room. Hanna and Ingeborg laughed at the silly things he said, but I remained unmoved. When at last we had convinced him that it was best if we all went to bed, he pointed at something on the beach and went running off into the darkness. We all followed him: first Hanna (who was surely used to this kind of scene), then Ingeborg, then me, reluctantly bringing up the rear. Soon the lights of the Paseo Marítimo were behind us. On the beach the only sound was the noise of the sea. Far away to the left I made out the lights of the port where my father and I went one morning, very early, in a fruitless attempt to buy fish: in those days, at least, the selling took place in the afternoon.
We began to call his name. Our shouts were all that could be heard in the darkness. Without meaning to, Hanna stepped in the water and soaked her pants up to the knee. It was then, more or less, as we listened to Hanna curse—her pants were satin and the salt water would ruin them—that Charly answered our calls: he was between us and the Paseo Marítimo. Where are you, Charly? shouted Hanna. Here, over here, follow my voice, said Charly. We set out again toward the lights of the hotels.
“Watch out for the pedal boats,” warned Charly.
Like creatures of the deep, the pedal boats formed a black island in the uniform darkness of the beach. Sitting on the floater of one of these strange vehicles, with his shirt unbuttoned and his hair disheveled, Charly was waiting for us.
“I just wanted to show Udo the exact place we’re meeting tomorrow,” he said, when Hanna and Ingeborg scolded him for the fright he’d given them and for his childish behavior.
As the women helped Charly up, I observed the group of pedal boats. I couldn’t say exactly what it was about them that caught my attention. Maybe it was the strange way they were arranged, which was unlike anything I’d seen before in Spain, though Spain is hardly a regimented country. At the very least, the way they were set up was illogical and impractical. The normal thing, even accounting for the whims of the average pedal-boat proprietor, is to point them away from the sea, in rows of three or four. Of course, there are those who point them toward the sea, or arrange them in a single long line, or don’t line them up, or drag them against the seawall that separates the beach from the Paseo Marítimo. The way these were positioned, however, defied explanation. Some faced the sea and others the Paseo, though most lay on their sides with their noses toward the port or the campground zone in a kind of jagged row. But even odder was that some had been turned on their sides, balancing only on a floater, and there was even one that had been overturned entirely, with the floaters and the paddles pointing skyward and the seats buried in the sand, a position that not only was unusual but must have required considerable physical strength, and that—if it hadn’t been for the strange symmetry, for the clear intent that emanated from the collection of boats half covered by old tarps—might have been taken as the work of a bunch of hooligans, the kind who roam the beaches at midnight.
Of course, neither Charly nor Hanna nor even Ingeborg noticed anything out of the ordinary about the pedal boats.
When we got back to the hotel, I asked Ingeborg what she thought of Charly and Hanna.
Good people, she said. I agreed, with reservations.
The next morning we ate at the café La Sirena. Ingeborg had an English breakfast of milky tea, a fried egg, two strips of bacon, baked beans, and a grilled tomato, all for three hundred fifty pesetas, much cheaper than at the hotel. On the wall behind the bar there’s a wooden mermaid with red hair and bronzed skin. Old fishing nets still hang from the ceiling. Otherwise, everything is different. The waiter and the woman behind the bar are young. Ten years ago an old man and an old woman, dark skinned and very wrinkled, worked here; they used to talk to my parents. I couldn’t bring myself to ask after them. What good would it do? The new people speak Catalan.
We met Charly and Hanna at the agreed-upon place, near the pedal boats. They were asleep. After we spread our towels out next to them, we woke them up. Hanna opened her eyes right away but Charly grunted something unintelligible and kept sleeping. Hanna explained that he’d had a rough night. When Charly drank, according to Hanna, he didn’t know when to stop, which wasn’t good for him or his health. She said that at eight, after hardly sleeping, he had gone out windsurfing. And there was the board, lying next to Charly. Then Hanna compared suntan lotions with Ingeborg, and after a while, with the sun toasting their backs, their conversation turned to some guy from Oberhausen, a manager who it seemed had taken a serious interest in Hanna although she liked him only “as a friend.” I stopped listening and spent the next few minutes examining the pedal boats that had so disturbed me the night before.
There weren’t many of them on the beach; most, already rented, were moving about slowly and erratically on the water, which was calm and deep blue. Certainly there was nothing disturbing about the pedal boats still waiting to be rented. They were old, outdated even in comparison to the boats at neighboring rental spots, and the sun seemed to glint off their pitted and peeling surfaces. A rope, strung from a few sticks driven into the sand, separated bathers from the area set aside for the boats. The rope hung scarcely a foot from the ground and in some places the sticks were listing and about to fall over completely. On the shore I could make out the rental guy helping a group of vacationers launch their boat, at the same time making sure it didn’t hit one of the countless children splashing around. The renters, about six of them, all perched on the pedal boat and carrying plastic bags that might hold sandwiches and cans of beer, waved toward the beach or slapped each other on the back in jubilation. When the pedal boat had made its way through the fringe of children, the rental guy came out of the water and headed our way.
“Poor man,” I heard Hanna say.
I asked to whom she was referring; I was told to take a closer look without being obvious about it. The rental guy was dark, with long hair and a muscular build, but the most noticeable thing about him by far was the burns—I mean burns from a fire, not the sun—that covered most of his face, neck, and chest, and that he displayed openly, dark and corrugated, like grilled meat or the crumpled metal of a downed plane.
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.
After that I avoided looking at him.
Hanna said that she would kill herself if she ended up like that, scarred by fire. Hanna is a pretty girl, with blue eyes and brown hair, and her breasts—neither Hanna nor Ingeborg was wearing her bikini top—are large and shapely, but it didn’t take much effort for me to imagine her covered in burns, screaming and wandering blindly around her hotel room. (Why, precisely, around her hotel room?)
“Maybe it’s a birthmark,” said Ingeborg.
“Maybe. You see the strangest things,” said Hanna. “Charly met a woman in Italy who was born without hands.”
“I swear. Ask him. He slept with her.”
Hanna and Ingeborg laughed. Sometimes I don’t understand how Ingeborg can find this kind of talk funny.
“Maybe the mother took something she shouldn’t have while she was pregnant.”
I don’t know whether Ingeborg was talking about the woman without hands or the rental guy. Either way I tried to convince her that she was wrong. No one is born like that, with such ravaged skin. At the same time, it was clear that the burns weren’t recent. They probably dated back five years, or even longer to judge by the attitude of the poor guy (I wasn’t looking at him), who had clearly grown used to attracting the same interest and stares as monsters and the mutilated, glances of involuntary revulsion, of pity at a great misfortune. To lose an arm or a leg is to lose a part of oneself, but to be burned like that is to be transformed, to become someone else.
When Charly woke up at last, Hanna told him she thought the rental guy was good-looking. Great biceps! Charly laughed and we all went swimming.
After lunch that afternoon I set up the game. Ingeborg, Hanna, and Charly headed to the old part of town to go shopping. During lunch, Frau Else came over to our table to ask whether we were enjoying ourselves. She gave Ingeborg a frank and open smile, although when she spoke to me I thought I detected a certain irony, as if she were saying: You see, I care about your well-being, I haven’t forgotten you. Ingeborg thought she was a pretty woman and wondered how old she was. I said I didn’t know.
How old must Frau Else be? I remember that my parents said she had married the Spaniard—whom incidentally I still haven’t seen—when she was very young. The last summer that we were here she must have been about twenty-five, around the same age as Hanna, Charly, and me. Now she’s probably thirty-five.
After lunch the hotel lapses into a strange lethargy. Those who aren’t going to the beach or on an outing fall asleep, overcome by the heat. The staff, except for those stoically tending bar, vanish and aren’t seen on the hotel grounds until past six. A sticky silence reigns on every floor, interrupted from time to time by the low voices of children and the hum of the elevator. At times one has the impression that a group of children has gotten lost, but that’s not the case; it’s just that their parents can’t bring themselves to speak.
If it weren’t for the heat, barely mitigated by the air-conditioning, this would be the best time of day to work. There is natural light, the restlessness of morning has worn off, and there are still many hours ahead. Conrad—my dear Conrad—prefers to work at night, which explains the frequent circles under his eyes and his sometimes alarming pallor, which makes us wonder whether he’s sick when he’s simply sleep deprived. He claims to be unable to work, unable to think, unable to sleep, and yet it’s he who has bestowed upon us many of the best variants for any number of campaigns, as well as countless analytical, historical, and methodological studies, and even simple introductions and reviews of new games. Without him, Stuttgart’s gaming scene would be different—smaller and with a lower level of play. In some sense he has been our protector (mine, Alfred’s, Franz’s), recommending books that we never would have read otherwise and passionately addressing us on the most disparate subjects. What holds him back is his lack of ambition. Ever since I’ve known him—and for a long time before that, as far as I can tell—Conrad has worked at a small-time construction company, in one of the lowest-ranking jobs, beneath nearly all the office staff and construction workers, performing tasks that used to be handled by office boys and messengers-without-motorbikes, the latter being the title he likes to claim for himself. He makes enough to pay for his room, he eats at a cheap restaurant where he’s practically one of the family, and every once in a while he buys some clothes. The rest of his money goes to pay for games, subscriptions to European and American magazines, club dues, some books (only a few, because he usually borrows from the library, saving up his money for more games), and donations to the city’s fanzines, for virtually all of which he writes. It goes without saying that many of these fanzines would go under without Conrad’s generosity, and in this, too, one can see his lack of ambition: the best that some of them deserve is to vanish without a trace, putrid little ditto sheets spawned by adolescents more interested in role-playing games or even computer games than the rigors of the hexagonal board. But that doesn’t matter to Conrad and he supports them. Many of his best articles, including his piece on the Ukrainian Gambit—which Conrad calls General Marcks’s Dream—were not only published by such a magazine but in fact written expressly for it.
Curiously, it was Conrad who encouraged me to write for publications with a broader circulation and who persuaded me to go semipro. It is to him that I owe my first contacts with Front Line, Jeux de Simulation, Stockade, Casus Belli, The General, etc. According to Conrad—and we spent an afternoon working this out—if I write regularly for ten magazines, some of them monthly, most bimonthly or trimonthly, I could give up my job and still get by while devoting myself entirely to writing. When I asked why he didn’t try it, since his job was worse than mine and he could write as well as I could, or better, he answered that he was so shy that it was painful for him, if not impossible, to establish business relationships with people he didn’t know, and that the work required a certain command of English, a language that Conrad could only just barely decipher.
On that memorable day we set the goals to realize our dreams, and we got straight to work. Our friendship was cemented.
Then came the Stuttgart tournament, preceding by a few months the Interzonal (essentially the national championship), to be held in Cologne. We both entered, promising half in earnest and half in jest that if fate pitted us against each other, we would be ruthless despite our steadfast friendship. Around that time Conrad had just published his Ukrainian Gambit in the fanzine Tötenkopf.
At first the matches went well. We both made it through the first round without too much trouble. In the second round, Conrad was slated to play Mathias Müller, Stuttgart’s boy prodigy, eighteen years old, editor of the fanzine Forced Marches and one of the fastest players we knew. The match was tough, one of the hardest fought of the tournament, and in the end Conrad was defeated. But this in no way discouraged him: with the enthusiasm of a scientist who after a resounding failure is at last able to see things clearly, he explained to me the initial flaws of the Ukrainian Gambit and its hidden virtues, how to use armored and mountain corps from the start, and where one could or couldn’t apply the Schwerpunkt, etc. In short, he became my adviser.
I faced Mathias Müller in the semifinals and eliminated him. In the finals, I was pitted against Franz Grabowski, of the Model Kit Club, a good friend of Conrad’s and mine. That was how I won the right to represent Stuttgart. Then I went on to Cologne, where I competed against players of the caliber of Paul Huchel or Heimito Gerhardt, the latter of whom, at sixty-five, is the oldest of Germany’s gamers, a real role model for the sport. Conrad, who came with me, amused himself by giving nicknames to everyone gathered in Cologne, but when it came to Heimito Gerhardt he was at a loss, no longer so clever or boisterous. When he talked about him he called him the Old Man or Mr. Gerhardt; in front of Heimito he scarcely opened his mouth. Clearly he was afraid of saying something foolish.
One day I asked him why he had such respect for Heimito. He answered that Heimito was a man of steel. That’s all he said. Rusty steel, he added with a smile, but steel even so. I thought he was referring to Heimito’s military past, and said so. No, said Conrad, I’m talking about the courage it takes for him to play. Nowadays, old men usually spend their time in front of the television or going for strolls with their wives. Heimito, however, was brave enough to walk into a room full of kids, brave enough to sit at a table in front of a complicated game, and brave enough to ignore the mocking looks that many of those kids gave him. Old men with that kind of character, with that kind of purity, according to Conrad, were a uniquely German phenomenon. And their numbers were dwindling. Maybe. And maybe not. In any case, as I later saw for myself, Heimito was an excellent player. We faced each other just before the championship finals, in an especially brutal round of an unevenly balanced game in which I was assigned the weaker force. It was Fortress Europa and I was playing the Wehrmacht. To the surprise of nearly everyone at the table, I won.
After the match, Heimito invited a few people back to his house. His wife served sandwiches and beer, and the party, which lasted late into the night, was a delight, full of colorful tales. Heimito had served in the 352nd Infantry Division, 915th Regiment, 2nd Battalion, but according to him, his general was no match for me in maneuvering the troops—or, in my case, the counters—under his command. Though flattered, I felt obliged to point out that it was the way I had positioned my mobile divisions that had decided the match. We toasted General Marcks and General Eberbach and the Fifth Panzer Army. As the evening was drawing to a close, Heimito swore that I would be the next champion of Germany. I think that was when the Cologne group started to hate me. As for me, I felt happy, mostly because I knew that I had made a friend.
And I did win the championship. The semifinals and the final were fought with the tournament version of Blitzkrieg, a fairly well-balanced game in which the map as well as the opposing powers (Great Blue and Big Red) are imaginary, which, if both players are good, makes for very long games that tend toward stalemate. Not so this time. I dispatched Paul Huchel in six hours, and in the last game, timed by Conrad, it was only three and a half hours before my opponent claimed second place and gracefully conceded.
We spent one more day in Cologne; the magazine people suggested that I write an article, and Conrad spent the time wandering around taking pictures of streets and churches. I hadn’t met Ingeborg yet and already life was beautiful, or so I thought, unaware that true beauty had yet to manifest itself. But back then I saw beauty all around me. The federation of war-games players might be the smallest sports federation in Germany, but I was the champion and no one could tell me otherwise. The sun shone for me alone.
One more thing happened that last day in Cologne that would later have important consequences. Heimito Gerhardt, a fan of gaming by mail, presented Conrad and me with our own play-by-mail kits as he accompanied us to the bus station. It so happened that Heimito corresponded with Rex Douglas (one of Conrad’s idols), the great American gamer and star writer for one of the most prestigious of the specialized journals, The General. After confessing that he had never been able to beat Douglas (in six years they had played three long-distance matches), Heimito suggested that I write to Rex and get a game started with him. I have to confess that at first the idea held little interest. If I had to play by mail, I’d rather do it with people like Heimito or other members of my circle; nevertheless, before the bus reached Stuttgart, Conrad had convinced me of the importance of writing to Rex Douglas and challenging him to a game.
Ingeborg is asleep now. Before she fell asleep, she asked me not to get out of bed, to hold her in my arms all night. I asked her whether she was scared. It came out naturally, unthinkingly. I just said: Are you scared? And she answered yes. Why? Of what? She didn’t know. I’m right beside you, I said, there’s no need to be scared.
Then she fell asleep and I got up. All the lights in the room were off except for the lamp that I’d placed on the table, next to the game. This afternoon I hardly worked. In town, Ingeborg bought a necklace of yellowish stones that they call filipino, which the kids here wear on the beach and at the clubs. We had dinner with Hanna and Charly at a Chinese restaurant in the tourist district. When Charly started to get drunk, we left. Really, a pointless evening. The restaurant, of course, was jam-packed and it was hot; the waiter was sweating; the food was good but nothing out of this world; the conversation centered on Hanna’s and Charly’s favorite subjects, in other words love and sex, respectively. Hanna is a woman made for love, as she puts it, although when she talks about love one gets the strange feeling that she’s talking about security, or even specific brands of cars and appliances. Charly, meanwhile, talked about legs, asses, breasts, pubic hair, necks, navels, sphincters, etc., to the great delight of Hanna and Ingeborg, who constantly burst out laughing. Frankly, I can’t see what they find so funny. Maybe it’s nervous laughter. As for me, I can say that I ate in silence, with my mind elsewhere.
When we got back to the hotel we spotted Frau Else. She was in the dining room, at the end that becomes a dance floor at night, next to the stage, talking to two men dressed in white. Ingeborg felt slightly unwell, maybe it was the Chinese food, so we ordered a chamomile tea at the bar. That was when we saw Frau Else. She was gesticulating like a Spaniard and shaking her head. The men in white stood as still as statues. It’s the musicians, said Ingeborg, she’s scolding them. Actually, I didn’t care who they were, although I knew they weren’t the musicians, whom I’d happened to see the night before, and who were younger. When we left, Frau Else was still there: a perfect figure in a green skirt and black blouse. The men in white, impassive, had only bowed their heads.
A relatively uneventful day. In the morning, after breakfast, Ingeborg left for the beach and I went up to the room ready to start work in earnest. A little while later, it was so hot that I put on my bathing suit and went out onto the balcony, where there were a couple of comfortable chaise longues. Though it was early, the beach was already crowded. When I came back inside I found the bed freshly made, and sounds from the bathroom informed me that the maid was still here. It was the same girl from whom I’d requested the table. This time I didn’t think she looked so young. Her face shone with exhaustion, and her sleepy eyes were like those of an animal unaccustomed to the light of day. Evidently she didn’t expect to see me. For a moment she seemed about to run away. Before she did I asked what her name was. She said it was Clarita and she smiled in a way that was disturbing, to say the least. I think it was the first time I’d seen anyone smile like that.
Perhaps too brusquely, I ordered her to wait, then I found a thousand-peseta note and put it in her hand. The poor girl gazed at me, perplexed, not knowing whether she should accept the money or what in the world I was giving it to her for. It’s a tip, I said. Then came the most astonishing part: first she bit her lower lip, like a nervous schoolgirl, and then she gave a little curtsy, surely copied from some Three Musketeers movie. I didn’t know what to do, how to interpret her gesture; I thanked her and said she could go, though in German, not in Spanish, which I’d been speaking before. The girl obeyed immediately. She left as silently as she’d come.
The rest of the morning I spent writing in what Conrad calls my Campaign Notebook, outlining a draft of my variant.
At noon I joined Ingeborg on the beach. I was, I must admit, in a state of exaltation after having spent a productive morning with the game board, and I did something I don’t usually do: I gave a detailed account of my opening strategy, until Ingeborg interrupted me, saying that people were listening.
I contended that this was only to be expected since thousands of people were crowded on the beach, nearly shoulder to shoulder.
Later I realized that Ingeborg was ashamed of me, of the words coming out of my mouth (infantry corps, armored corps, air-combat factors, naval-combat factors, preemptive strikes on Norway, the possibility of launching an offense against the Soviet Union in the winter of ’39, the possibility of obliterating France in the spring of ’40), and it was as if an abyss opened up at my feet.
We ate at the hotel. After dessert, Ingeborg suggested a boat ride. At the reception desk they had given her the schedules of the little boats that make the trip between our beach and two neighboring towns. I said I couldn’t come, claiming work as my excuse. When I told her that I planned to sketch out the first two turns that afternoon, she gave me the same look that I had already witnessed on the beach.
With true horror I realized that something was beginning to come between us.
A boring afternoon otherwise. At the hotel there are hardly any more pale-skinned guests to be seen. All of them, even the ones who have been here just a few days, boast perfect tans, the fruit of many hours spent on the beach and of the lotions and creams that our technology produces in abundance. In fact, the only guest who’s kept his natural color is me. Not coincidentally, I’m also the one who spends the most time at the hotel. Me and an old lady who hardly ever ventures off the terrace. This fact seems to arouse the curiosity of the staff, who have begun to watch me with mounting interest, though from a prudent distance, and with something that at the risk of exaggeration I’ll call fear. Word of the table incident must have spread at lightning speed. The difference between the old lady and me is that she sits placidly on the terrace, watching the sky and the beach, and I’m constantly emerging like a sleepwalker from my room to head to the beach to see Ingeborg or have a beer at the hotel bar.
It’s odd: sometimes I’m convinced that the old lady was here back in the days when I used to come to the Del Mar with my parents. But ten years is a long time, at least in this instance, and her face doesn’t ring a bell. Maybe if I went up to her and asked whether she remembered me . . .
But what are the odds? In any case I don’t know whether I could bring myself to talk to her. There’s something about her that repels me. And yet, at first glance she’s an ordinary old lady: more thin than fat, very wrinkled, dressed all in white, wearing sunglasses and a little straw hat. This afternoon, after Ingeborg left, I watched her from the balcony. She always claims the same spot on the terrace, in a corner near the sidewalk. There, half hidden under an enormous white umbrella, she whiles away the time watching the few cars that pass by along the Paseo Marítimo, like a jointed doll, content. And, strangely, essential to my own happiness: when I can no longer stand the stuffy air of the room I come out and there she is, a kind of font of energy that boosts my spirits so I’m able to sit back down at the table and go on working.
And what if she, in turn, sees me every time I come out onto the balcony? What must she think of me? Who must she think I am? She never tilts her head up, but with those sunglasses it’s hard to say what she’s watching. She might have glimpsed my shadow on the tile floor of the terrace. There aren’t many people at the hotel and surely she would consider it unseemly for a young man to keep appearing and disappearing. The last time I came out she was writing a postcard. Might she have mentioned me in it? I don’t know. But if she did, how did she describe me? And from what perspective? As a pale young man with a smooth brow? Or a nervous young man, clearly in love? Or maybe an ordinary young man with a skin condition?
I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m getting off the subject, losing myself in pointless speculation that only upsets me. I don’t understand how my dear friend Conrad could ever say that I write like Karl Bröger.