Issue 198, Fall 2011
IN OUR PREVIOUS INSTALLMENTS...
It’s been ten years since Udo Berger, a semipro player of war games, last visited the Del Mar Hotel on Spain’s Costa Brava. Now, on holiday with his adored girlfriend, Ingeborg, young Udo finds the hotel surrounded by sinister characters who have no place in his boyhood memories. There are Charly and Hanna, a couple from Oberhausen given to violent drunken sprees and passionate reconciliations. There are two amateur local tour guides, known only as the Wolf and the Lamb, who “live off of other people’s holidays.” And then there is El Quemado—the Burn Victim—a disfigured young man with skin “like grilled meat or the crumpled metal of a downed plane.”
Udo planned to spend his vacation developing a new strategy for the war game known as The Third Reich, but there are distractions. First Charly beats up Hanna and says he saw a German woman having sex on the beach—and intimates that this woman bore a resemblance to Ingeborg. Then Charly disappears in a windsurfing accident, and Hanna leaves for Germany in Charly’s car. Ingeborg, too, returns home, to Stuttgart, the romantic idyll shattered.
Despite Ingeborg’s entreaties, Udo resolves to stay in Spain until Charly’s body is discovered. Alone, Udo embarks on an illicit romance with Frau Else, the enigmatic proprietress of the hotel, whose ailing husband emerges only at night.
To pass his evenings, Udo begins a game of The Third Reich with El Quemado. At first, champion and novice seem hopelessly mismatched, as El Quemado—playing the side of the Allies—forgets to occupy Bessarabia and ties up the British infantry in France. But the beach-dweller turns out to be a quick study, and he may have more resources at his disposal than Udo suspects.
By special arrangement with the Bolaño estate, The Paris Review is publishing The Third Reich in its entirety over the space of four issues. A hardcover edition of this translation will be published at the end of the year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
I dreamed that I was woken by a phone call. It was Mr. Pere, who wanted me to come—he offered to take me—to the Guardia Civil headquarters; they had a body there and they were hoping that I could identify it. So I showered and went out without breakfast. The hotel corridors were achingly bleak; it must have been just after dawn; Mr. Pere’s car was waiting at the front entrance. During the ride to the Guardia Civil headquarters, located on the edge of town, at a crossroads plastered with signs that pointed toward various borders, Mr. Pere unburdened himself by talking about the mutations that the natives underwent when the summer—or rather, the summer season—was over. General depression! Deep down we can’t live without tourists! We get used to them! A pale young Guardia Civil officer led us to a garage where there were several tables set up in rows and, hanging on the walls, a collection of car parts. On a white-veined black slab, next to the metal door where the van that would remove the body was already waiting, there lay a lifeless form in what seemed to me to be a state close to putrefaction. Behind me, Mr. Pere raised a hand to his nose. It wasn’t Charly. He was probably about the same age and he might have been German, but it wasn’t Charly. I said I didn’t know him and we left. As we were going, the Guardia Civil stood to attention. We headed back to town laughing and making plans for next season. The Del Mar still looked like a slumbering thing, but this time I spotted Frau Else through the glass, at the reception desk. I asked Mr. Pere how long it had been since he’d seen Frau Else’s husband.
“It’s been a long time since I had the pleasure,” said Mr. Pere.
“It seems he’s sick.”
“So it seems,” said Mr. Pere, his face darkened by an expression that could have meant anything.
After that, the dream advanced (or so I remember it) in leaps. I had a breakfast of fried eggs and tomato juice on the terrace. I went upstairs: some English children were coming downstairs, and we almost collided. From the balcony I watched El Quemado, out in front of his pedal boats, musing on his poverty and the end of summer. I wrote letters with intentional and studied slowness. Finally I got in bed and fell asleep. Another phone call, this time real, dragged me from sleep. I checked my watch: it was two in the afternoon. It was Conrad and his voice repeated my name as if he’d thought I would never answer.
Despite what I would have expected, maybe because of Conrad’s shyness and because I was still half asleep, the conversation proceeded coldly, in a way that horrifies me now. The questions, the answers, the inflections of voice, the poorly hidden desire to get off the phone and save a few cents, the familiar expressions of irony, all seemed cloaked in a supreme lack of interest. No confidences were shared, except one stupid one at the end; instead, fixed images of the town, the hotel, my room superimposed themselves tenaciously on the scene sketched by my friend as if they were trying to warn me of the new order in which I was immersed and within which the coordinates transmitted to me over the phone line had little value. What are you doing? Why don’t you come back? What’s stopping you? At your office they don’t know what to think, Mr. X asks about you every day and it’s no use when everyone assures him that you’ll soon be back among us, he’s filled with foreboding and predicts disaster. What kind of disaster? What do I care. All of this followed by information about the club, work, games, magazines, recounted ceaselessly and relentlessly.
“Have you seen Ingeborg?” I asked.
“No, of course not.”
We were silent for a brief instant, after which there came a new avalanche of questions and appeals: at my office they were more than a little upset; the group wondered whether I still planned to go to Paris to meet Rex Douglas in December. Would I be fired? Would I get into trouble with the police? Everyone wanted to know what mysterious and inexplicable thing was keeping me in Spain. A woman? Loyalty to a dead man? To what dead man? And incidentally, how was my article going? The one that was going to lay the foundations for a new strategy. It was as if Conrad were mocking me. For a second I imagined him taping the conversation, his lips curved in a wicked smile. The champion in exile! Out of circulation!
“Listen, Conrad, I’m going to give you Ingeborg’s address. I want you to go see her and then call me.”
“Yes, all right, whatever you say.”
“Perfect. Do it today. And then call me.”
“Fine, fine, but I have no idea what’s going on and I’d like to be as useful as I can. Do you follow me, Udo? Can you hear me?”
“Yes. Tell me you’ll do as I say.”
“Yes, of course.”
“Good. Did you get a letter from me? I think I explained everything in it. You probably haven’t gotten it yet.”
“All I’ve gotten are two postcards, Udo. One of hotels on the beach and another of a mountain.”
“A mountain by the sea?”
“I don’t know! All you can see is the mountain and a kind of monastery in ruins.”
“Anyway, you’ll get it. The postal system is terrible here.”
Suddenly I realized that I hadn’t written any letter to Conrad. I didn’t really care.
“Are you having good weather there, at least? It’s raining here.”
Instead of answering his question, as if taking dictation, I said:
“I’m playing . . . ”
Maybe I thought it was important for Conrad to know. In the future it could be useful to me. From the other end of the line I heard a kind of magnified sigh.
“A Third Reich?”
“Yes . . . ”
“Really? Tell me how it’s going. You’re incredible, Udo, only you would think to play at a time like this.”
“Of course, I know what you mean, with Ingeborg far away and everything hanging by a thread,” I said, yawning.
“That’s not what I meant. I was talking about the risks. About that strange drive of yours. You’re one of a kind, kid, the king of fandom!”
“It’s not such a big deal, don’t shout, you’re hurting my ears.”
“So who are you playing? A German? Do I know him?”
Poor Conrad. He took it for granted that in a small town on the Costa Brava it was possible to run into another war-games player who also happened to be German. It was clear he never went on vacation, and God only knows what his idea of a summer on the Mediterranean, or wherever, was.
“Well, my opponent is a little strange,” I said, and I went straight on to give him a general description of El Quemado.
After a silence, Conrad said:
“I don’t like the sound of that. It doesn’t make sense. How do you communicate?”
“And how did he read the rules?”
“He didn’t. I explained them to him. In a single afternoon. You’d be amazed how sharp he is. You don’t need to tell him anything twice.”
“How is he as a player?”
“His defense of England is acceptable. He couldn’t prevent the fall of France, but who can? He’s not bad. You’re better, of course, and so is Franz, but he’s a decent sparring partner.”
“The way you describe him . . . it makes my hair stand on end. I’ve never played with someone like that, the kind of person who might scare me if he showed up all of a sudden . . . In a multiplayer match, all right, but alone . . . And you say he lives on the beach?”
“What if he’s the Devil?”
“Are you serious?”
“Yes. The Devil, Satan, Belial, Mephistopheles, Beelzebub, Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness . . . ”
“The Prince of Darkness . . . No, he’s more like a donkey . . . strong and brooding, the typical ruminant. Melancholic. Oh, and he’s not Spanish.”
“How do you know that?”
“Some Spanish guys told me. At first, of course, I thought he was Spanish, but he isn’t.”
“Where is he from?”
“I don’t know.”
From Stuttgart Conrad protested weakly.
“You should find out; it’s crucial; for your own safety . . . ”
I thought he was exaggerating, but I promised that I would ask. Soon afterward we hung up, and once I had showered I went out for a walk before returning to the hotel to eat. I felt good, as if the passage of time had no effect on me and my body was wholly surrendered to the pleasure of being precisely where I was, and nowhere else.
I play the Offensive Option on the Eastern front. My armored corps break through the flank of the central Russian sector, advancing deep into Russian territory and sealing off a vast swath one hex west of Smolensk. Behind me, between Brest Litovsk and Riga, ten Russian armies are trapped. My losses are minimal. On the Mediterranean front I spend BRP for another Offensive Option and I invade Spain. El Quemado is taken completely by surprise. His eyebrows shoot up, he sits up straighter, his scars vibrate. It’s as if he hears my armored divisions advancing along the Paseo Marítimo, and his confusion doesn’t help him to mount a good defense (he chooses—unconsciously, of course—a variant of David Hablanian’s Border Defense, undoubtedly the worst possible response to an attack from the Pyrenees). And so with only two armored corps and four infantry corps plus air support I conquer Madrid and Spain surrenders. During the Strategic Redeployment I place three infantry corps in Sevilla, Cádiz, and Granada and an armored corps in Córdoba. In Madrid I station two German air fleets and one Italian fleet. Now El Quemado can see what I’m up to . . . and he smiles. He congratulates me! He says: “That never would have occurred to me.” He’s such a good loser it’s hard to even comprehend Conrad’s suspicions and fears. Bent over the map during his turn, El Quemado talks and tries to repair the irreparable. In the USSR he moves troops from the south—where there’s been almost no fighting—to the north and center, but his capacity for movement is minimal. In the Mediterranean he keeps his hold on Egypt and he reinforces Gibraltar, though not very convincingly, as if he didn’t believe in his own efforts. Muscular and charred, his torso looms over Europe like a nightmare. And he talks—without looking at me—about his work, the scarcity of tourists, the fickle weather, the retirees who flock en masse to certain hotels. Prying while feigning a lack of interest—I’m actually writing as I ask him questions—I learn that he knows Frau Else, who’s called “the German lady” around the neighborhood. Forced to give his opinion, he concedes that she’s pretty. Then I inquire about her husband. El Quemado answers: he’s sick.
“How do you know?” I say, leaving my notes aside.
“Everyone knows it. He’s been sick for a long time, years. He’s sick but he’s not dying.”
“He feeds it!” I say with a smile.
“Never,” says El Quemado, returning to the tangle of the game, his whole logistical network in ruins.
In the end our farewell follows the usual ritual: we drink the last cans of beer that I’ve bought for the occasion and that I keep in the sink full of water, we discuss the match (El Quemado outdoes himself with compliments, but he still won’t acknowledge defeat), we take the elevator down together, we say good night at the door to the hotel . . .
Just then, as El Quemado disappears along the Paseo Marítimo, a voice beside me makes me jump in alarm.
It’s Frau Else, sitting in the shadows, in a corner of the empty terrace scarcely reached by the lights from the hotel and the street.
I admit that as I walked toward her I was angry (at myself, mostly) because of the fright I’d just gotten. When I sat down across from her I saw that she was crying. Her face, usually full of color and life, glowed with a ghostly pallor that was heightened by the effect of glimpsing her half-hidden under the giant shade of an umbrella that swayed rhythmically in the night breeze. Without hesitating I took her hands and asked what was wrong. As if by magic a smile appeared on Frau Else’s face. You, always so considerate, she said, forgetting in the heat of the moment to use the informal du. I protested. The speed with which Frau Else’s mood changed was surprising: in less than a minute she went from ghostly mourner to concerned older sister. She wanted to know what I was doing, “but tell me the truth, no stories,” in my room with El Quemado. She wanted me to promise that I would return soon to Germany, or at least that I would call my bosses at work and Ingeborg. She wanted me to go to bed earlier and spend the mornings lying in the sun—“the little we have left”—on the beach. You’re pasty, it must be months since you took a look in the mirror, she whispered. And she wanted me to swim and eat well, which was an exhortation that went against her best interests, since I ate at her hotel. At this point she started to cry again, but more softly, as if all the advice she had given was a bath that cleansed her of her own suffering, and little by little she grew calmer and more relaxed.
This was the perfect situation, everything I could have asked for, and I hardly noticed the time passing. I think we might have sat across from each other like that all night, our eyes scarcely meeting and her hand clasped in mine, but everything comes to an end, and this time the end arrived in the form of the night watchman, who after searching for me all over the hotel appeared on the terrace with the message that I had a long-distance phone call.
Frau Else got up wearily and followed me down the empty corridor to the reception desk; she ordered the watchman to take out the last bags of garbage from the kitchen and we were left alone. The immediate sensation was of being on an island, just the two of us, except for the phone lying there off the hook, like a cancerous appendage I would happily have ripped out and handed to the clerk like another piece of garbage.
It was Conrad. When I heard his voice my disappointment was great, but then I remembered that I’d asked him to call me. Frau Else sat on the other side of the counter and tried to read a magazine that I suppose the clerk had left behind. She couldn’t. Nor was there much to read because it was almost all photographs. With a mechanical gesture she dropped it on the edge of the desk, where it rested precariously, and pinned her gaze on me. Her blue eyes were the shade of a child’s colored pencil, a cheap and beloved Faber.
I felt like hanging up and making love to her right there. I imagined myself—or maybe I’m imagining it now, which makes it worse—dragging her to her private office, lifting her up on the desk, ripping off her clothes and kissing her, climbing on top of her and kissing her, turning off all the lights again and kissing her . . .
“Ingeborg is fine. She’s working. She doesn’t plan to call you but she says that when you get back she wants to talk to you. She asked me to say hello to you,” said Conrad.
“Fine. Thanks. That’s what I wanted to know.”
With her legs crossed, Frau Else was gazing at the tips of her shoes now and seemed immersed in labored and complicated thoughts.
“Listen, your letter never came. It was Ingeborg, this afternoon, who explained everything to me. As far as I can see you’re under no obligation to stay there.”
“Well, when you get my letter, you’ll understand. I can’t explain anything to you now.”
“How’s the match going?”
“I’m screwing him three ways from Thursday,” I said, though maybe the expression was “he’s shafted,” or “I’m tearing him a new one,” or “he’s getting a good hosing,” I honestly can’t remember now.
Maybe I said: I’m roasting him alive.
Frau Else gave me a soft look that I’d never seen a woman give and smiled at me.
I felt a kind of shiver.
“You haven’t bet anything?”
I heard voices, maybe in German, I couldn’t say for sure, unintelligible conversations and computer sounds, far, very far away.
“I’m glad. All afternoon I was worried that you’d bet something. Do you remember our last conversation?”
“Yes, you suggested he was the Devil. I’m not senile yet.”
“Don’t get all worked up. I only have your best interests at heart, you know.”
“I’m glad you haven’t bet anything.”
“What did you think was on the table? My soul?”
I laughed. Frau Else had one tanned and perfect arm raised in the air, ending in a hand with long, slender fingers that closed around the night clerk’s magazine. Only then did I realize that it was pornography. She opened a drawer and put it away.
“The Faust of war games,” laughed Conrad like an echo of my own laugh bouncing back from Stuttgart. I felt a cold rage that rose up my spine from my heels to my neck and shot into every corner of the room.
“It’s not funny,” I said, but Conrad didn’t hear me. I hadn’t been able to muster more than the faintest of voices.
Frau Else got up and came over, so close that I thought she could hear Conrad’s cackling. She put a hand on my head and immediately she could feel the rage boiling inside me. Poor Udo, she whispered; then, with a velvety gesture, as if in slow motion, she pointed to the clock indicating that she had to leave. But she didn’t go. Maybe it was the desperation she saw in my face that stopped her.
“Conrad, I don’t feel like kidding around, I’m not in the mood, it’s late. You should be in bed, not up worrying about me.”
“You’re my friend.”
“Listen, at some point the sea will puke up whatever’s left of Charly. Then I’ll pack my bags and come back. To kill time while I’m waiting, just to kill time and get examples for my article, I’m playing a Third Reich; you’d do the same, wouldn’t you? Anyway, the only thing I’m jeopardizing is my job and you know that’s crap. I could find something better in less than a month. Yes or no? Or I could devote myself exclusively to writing essays. I might even come out ahead. It might be fate. In fact, being fired might be the best thing that could happen to me.”
“But they don’t want to fire you. And I know you care about the office, or at least the people you work with; when I was there they showed me a postcard that you’d sent them.”
“You’re wrong, I don’t give a shit about them.”
Conrad choked back a groan, or at least that’s what I thought I heard.
“It’s not true,” he parried, very sure of himself.
“What do you want? Honestly, Conrad, sometimes you’re a fucking pain in the ass.”
“I want you to come back to your senses.”
Frau Else brushed my cheek with her lips and said: it’s late, I have to go. I felt her warm breath on my ears and neck; a spider’s embrace, light and disturbing. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the watchman at the end of the hallway, docile, waiting.
“I have to hang up,” I said.
“Should I call you tomorrow?”
“No, don’t waste your money.”
“My husband is waiting for me,” said Frau Else.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Yes, it does.”
“He can’t fall sleep until I’m there,” said Frau Else.
“How is the match going? Did you say it’s autumn of ’40? Have you invaded the USSR?”
“Yes! Blitzing on all fronts! He’s no match for me! For Christ’s sake, am I the champ or aren’t I?”
“Of course, of course . . . And I hope with all my heart that you win . . . How are the English doing?”
“Let go of my hand,” said Frau Else.
“I have to go, Conrad. The English are in trouble, as always.”
“And your article? Going well, I suppose. Remember that it would be ideal if it’s published before Rex Douglas gets here.”
“If nothing else, it’ll be written. Rex is going to love it.”
Frau Else tried to pull her hand away.
“Don’t be childish, Udo; what if my husband comes in?”
I covered the receiver so that Conrad couldn’t hear and I said:
“Your husband is in bed. I suspect that’s his favorite place. And if he isn’t in bed he’s probably at the beach. That’s another one of his favorite places, especially after dark. Not to mention the guest rooms. In fact, your husband manages to be everywhere at once; I wouldn’t be surprised if he were spying on us right now, hiding behind the watchman. The watchman’s shoulders aren’t broad, but your husband, I believe, is thin.”
Frau Else’s gaze turned instantly toward the end of the corridor. The watchman was waiting, leaning against the wall. In Frau Else’s eyes I caught a glimmer of hope.
“You’re crazy,” she said when she had determined that no one was watching, before I pulled her to me and kissed her.
I don’t know how long we kissed, first urgently and then lazily. I know that we could have gone on forever, but I remembered that Conrad was on the phone and that time was ticking away and eating a hole in his pocket. When I lifted the receiver to my ear I heard the chattering of thousands of crossed lines and then emptiness. Conrad had hung up.
“He’s gone,” I said, and I tried to drag Frau Else with me toward the elevator.
“No, Udo, good night,” she said, rejecting me with a forced smile.
I insisted that she come with me, though frankly without much conviction. With a motion of her hand that at the time I didn’t understand, a dry, authoritarian gesture, Frau Else had the watchman step between us. Then, in a new tone of voice, she said good night to me again and disappeared . . . toward the kitchen!
“What a woman,” said the night watchman.
The watchman went behind the desk and searched for his magazine in the drawers. I watched him in silence until he had it in his hands and had gone to sit on the leather armchair in the reception area. I sighed, with my elbows on the desk, and asked whether there were many tourists left at the Del Mar. Lots, he answered without looking at me. Above the shelf of keys there was a big, long mirror in a heavy golden frame that looked like something out of an antiques shop. Reflected in it were the lights of the corridor and, lower down, the back of the watchman’s head. I felt a kind of queasiness upon realizing, however, that my own reflection wasn’t visible. Slowly and somewhat fearfully, I slid to the left along the desk. The watchman looked at me, and after a moment of hesitation he asked why I had said “those things” to Frau Else.
“None of your business,” I said.
“You’re right,” he said with a smile, “but I don’t like to see her suffer, she’s so good to us.”
“What makes you think she’s suffering?” I said, still sliding toward the left. My palms were sweating.
“I don’t know . . . The way you treat her . . . ”
“I care for her deeply and have the greatest respect for her,” I assured him, as gradually my image began to appear in the mirror, and although what I saw was rather unpleasant (wrinkled clothes, flushed cheeks, tousled hair), it was still me, alive and tangible. A stupid fear, I realize.
The watchman shrugged and turned as if he were about to go back to his magazine. I felt relief and a deep weariness.
“This thing . . . is it a trick mirror?”
“What do you mean?”
“The mirror; a minute ago I was directly in front of it and I couldn’t see myself. It’s only now, off to the side, that I’m reflected. And you’re sitting beneath it but I can see you in it.”
The watchman turned his head without getting up and looked at himself in the mirror. He made a face: he could see himself and he didn’t like his looks and that struck him as funny.
“It’s a little bit tilted, but it’s not a trick mirror; look, there’s a wall here, see?” Smiling, he lifted the mirror and touched the wall as if he were stroking a body.
For a while I reflected on the matter in silence. Then, after vacillating, I said:
“Let’s see. Stand here.” I pointed to the exact place where I hadn’t been reflected before.
The watchman got up and stood where I told him to.
“I can’t see myself,” he acknowledged, “but that’s because I’m not in front of the mirror.”
“Yes, you are, damn it,” I said, getting behind him and turning him to face the mirror.
Over his shoulder I had a vision that made my pulse quicken: I heard our voices but I couldn’t see our bodies. The objects in the corridor, an armchair, a big jar, the spotlights that shone from the juncture of the ceiling and the walls, looked brighter in the mirror than they did in the real corridor behind me. The watchman let out a compulsive giggle.
“Let go of me, let go, I’ll prove it to you.”
Without intending to, I had him immobilized in a kind of wrestling hold. He looked feeble and afraid. I let him go. In a leap the watchman was behind the counter and he pointed at the wall where the mirror hung.
“It’s slanted. Slanted. It’s not straight, come over here and see for yourself.”
When I stepped through the gap in the counter my equanimity and caution spun like the blades of a crazed windmill; I think I was ready to wring the poor watchman’s neck; then, as if I were suddenly waking up to a new reality, Frau Else’s scent enveloped me. Everything was different back there—outside the laws of nature, I’d venture to say—and it smelled like her even though the rectangle behind the reception desk wasn’t physically separated from the broad and—by day—heavily trafficked hall. The mark of Frau Else’s serene passage lingered, and that was enough to soothe me.
After a cursory examination I could see that the watchman was right. The wall on which the mirror hung didn’t run parallel to the counter.
I sighed and let myself fall into the leather armchair.
“So pale,” said the watchman, surely referring to my pallor, and he began to fan me calmly with the pornographic magazine.
“Thanks,” I said.
After a few interminable minutes, I rose and went up to the room.
I was cold, so I put on a sweater, and then I opened the windows. From the balcony I could see the lights of the port. A soothing spectacle. The port and I tremble in unison. There are no stars. The beach looks like a black hole. I’m tired and I don’t know how to fall asleep.
Winter 1940. The “First Russian Winter” gambit should be played when the German army has penetrated deep into the Soviet Union so that the German position, together with the adverse weather, favors a decisive counterattack with the capacity to destabilize the front and foster pincer movements and pockets; in short: a counterattack that makes it necessary for the German army to retreat. For this to happen, however, it’s essential that the Soviet army muster enough reserves (not necessarily armored reserves) to launch such a counterattack. In other words, where the Soviet army is concerned, to use the “First Russian Winter” gambit with any likelihood of success, one must have maintained at least twelve factors along the border during the Autumn Unit Construction phase. Where the German army is concerned, playing the rule “First Russian Winter” with a high degree of confidence implies something crucial about the war in the East, something that annihilates any Russian defenses: the destruction, in each and every previous turn, of the maximum number of factors of Soviet force. Thus the rule “First Russian Winter” is rendered innocuous, at worst only slowing the German army’s advance into Russia. Meanwhile, the Soviet army must instantly reorder its priorities: instead of seeking to fight, it is forced to retreat, leaving large swaths of land to the enemy army in a desperate attempt to remake its borders.
In any case, El Quemado doesn’t know how to play the rule (because I didn’t explain it to him, of course) and the best that can be said about his movements is that they’re confused: in the north he counterattacks (he scarcely grazes my units) and in the south he retreats. At the end of the turn I’m able to establish the front along the most advantageous line possible, through hexes E42, F41, H42, Vitebsk, Smolensk, K43, Bryansk, Orel, Kursk, M45, N45, O45, P44, Q44, Rostov, and the approaches to Crimea.
On the Mediterranean front the English disaster is absolute. With the fall of Gibraltar (without too many losses on my part) the English army in Egypt is caught in a trap. There’s no need even to attack it: the lack of supplies, or rather the length of supply lines, which must be routed English Port–South Africa–Gulf of Suez, guarantees its inefficacy. In fact the Mediterranean, except for the Egyptian army and an infantry corps stationed in Malta, is all mine. Now the Italian fleet has free passage into the Atlantic, where it will join the German war fleet. With it and with the few infantry corps stationed in France I can now begin to think about invading Great Britain.
Plans simmer at the General Staff Command: invade Turkey, penetrate the Caucasus from the south (if it has yet to be conquered), and attack the Russians from the rear in order to secure Maykop and Grozny. Short-range plans: in the Strategic Redeployment phase, transfer the maximum number of air factors deployed in Russia to support the invasion of Great Britain. And long-range plans: for example, calculate the line that the German army will hold in Russia by the spring of ’42.
It’s annihilation, a victory of arms for me. Thus far, I’d hardly spoken. The next turn could be devastating, I said.
“Could be,” answers El Quemado.
His smile indicates that he believes otherwise. The way he circles the table, moving in and out of the light, is gorillalike. Calm, confident: who does he expect to save him from defeat? The Americans? By the time they enter the war, Europe will probably be entirely controlled by Germany. Perhaps the remnants of the Red Army will still be fighting on the Eastern front, in the Urals; there’ll be no significant resistance, in any case.
Does El Quemado plan to play to the bitter end? I’m afraid so. He’s what we call a mule. I once faced a specimen of the genus. The game was NATO: The Next War in Europe, and my opponent was playing the part of the Warsaw Pact troops. He was winning at first but I brought him to a halt just before he reached the Ruhr Valley. From that point on, my air force and the Federal Army clobbered him and it was clear that he had no chance of winning. Even when his friends begged him to give up, he kept going. The match was completely emotionless. In the end, when I had won, I asked why he wouldn’t give up when even to him (a complete dolt) his defeat was obvious. Coldly, he confessed that he expected that I, worn down by his persistence, would finish him off with a Nuclear Attack, and there would thus be a fifty percent chance that the initiator of the atomic holocaust would lose the game.
He hoped in vain. I’m not the champ for nothing. I know how to wait and be patient.
Is that what El Quemado is waiting for before he surrenders? There are no atomic weapons in Third Reich. What is he waiting for, then? What is his secret weapon?
With Frau Else in the dining room:
“What were you doing yesterday?”
“What do you mean nothing? I looked everywhere for you and I didn’t see you all day. Where were you?”
“In my room.”
“I went looking for you there, too.”
“I don’t remember. At five and then later, at eight or nine.”
“That’s odd. I think I was back by then.”
“Don’t lie to me.”
“All right, it was a bit later. I went out for a drive; I ate in the next town, at a place out in the woods. I needed to be alone, to think. You have very good restaurants around here.”
“I got in the car and drove back. Slowly.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s a question. It means did you do anything other than drive around and eat.”
“No. I came back to the hotel and went up to my room.”
“The watchman says he didn’t see you come in. I’m worried about you. I feel responsible, I think. I’m afraid that something bad will happen to you.”
“I know how to take care of myself. Anyway, what could happen to me?”
“Something bad . . . Sometimes I have presentiments . . . A nightmare . . . ”
“You mean I could end up like Charly? First I’d have to be into windsurfing. Which, between us, is a sport for morons. Poor Charly. Deep down I’m grateful to him. If he hadn’t died in such an idiotic way I’d be gone by now.”
“If I were you I’d go back to Stuttgart and make up with that . . . child, your girlfriend. Right now! Immediately!”
“But you want me to stay; I can tell.”
“You scare me. You act like an irresponsible boy. I’m not sure whether you can see it or you’re blind to it. But don’t listen to me, I’m nervous. It’s the end of the summer. I’m usually a very levelheaded person.”
“I know. And very beautiful.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Yesterday I would rather have stayed here with you, but I couldn’t find you either. The hotel was full of retirees and I was suffocating. I needed to think.”
“And then you were with El Quemado.”
“He came up to your room. I saw the game. It was all set up.”
“He came up with me. I always wait for him at the front entrance. To be safe.”
“And that was all? He went up with you and didn’t come out again until past midnight?”
“More or less. A bit later, maybe.”
“What did you do all that time? Don’t tell me you were playing.”
“Actually, we were.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
“If you were really in my room you must have seen the game board. It was right there.”
“I saw it. A strange map. I don’t like it. It smells bad.”
“The map or the room?”
“The map. And the pieces. Actually, everything in your room smells bad. Doesn’t anyone dare to go in and clean? No. Maybe it’s your friend’s fault. Maybe it’s his burns that stink.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. The bad smell comes from outside. Your sewers aren’t made for the summer season. Ingeborg said so herself: after seven at night the streets reek. The odor comes from the clogged drains!”
“From the Municipal Sewage Treatment Plant. Yes, it’s possible. In any case I don’t like it when you go up to your room with El Quemado. Do you know what people would say about my hotel if some tourist saw you scurrying along the hallways with that hunk of charred flesh? I don’t care what the staff whispers. I have to be more careful there. I can’t jeopardize the reputation of the hotel just because you’re bored.”
“I’m not bored. Quite the contrary, in fact. If you’d rather, I can bring the board downstairs and set it up in the restaurant. Of course then everyone would see El Quemado and that would be bad for business. And I’d have a hard time concentrating. I don’t like to play in front of too many people.”
“Are you afraid they’d think you were crazy?”
“Well, they spend all afternoon playing cards. My game is more complicated, of course. You’ve got to be a risk taker, you need to have somebody with a cool and calculating mind. It’s a hard game to master. Every few months new rules and variants are added. People write about it. You wouldn’t understand. I mean, you wouldn’t understand the dedication.”
“Does El Quemado fit the mold?”
“I think he does. He’s coolheaded and not afraid to take risks. Though he’s no strategist.”
“I suspected as much. On the inside he must be a lot like you, I suppose.”
“I don’t think so. I’m a happier person.”
“I don’t see anything happy about shutting yourself up in a room for hours when you could be out at a club or reading on the terrace or watching TV. The idea of you and El Quemado roaming around my hotel sets me on edge. I can’t imagine you sitting still in your room. You’re always moving!”
“We move the counters. And we make mathematical calculations . . . ”
“Meanwhile, the family reputation of my hotel rots like your friend’s body.”
“The drowned man, Charly’s.”
“Oh, Charly. What does your husband think of all this?”
“My husband is sick and if he found out he’d kick you out of the hotel.”
“I think he already knows. In fact, I’m sure he does; he’s no fool, your husband.”
“It would kill him.”
“What’s wrong with him exactly? He’s quite a bit older than you, isn’t he? And he’s tall and thin. And he doesn’t have much hair, does he?”
“I don’t like it when you talk that way.”
“The thing is, I think I’ve seen him.”
“Your parents were very fond of him, I remember.”
“No, I’m talking about this season. A little while ago. When he was supposedly in bed, down with a fever, among other things.”
“In his pajamas?”
“Wearing a bathrobe, I’d say.”
“Impossible. What color was the bathrobe?”
“Black. Or dark red.”
“Sometimes he gets up and takes a walk around the hotel. Through the kitchen and the service areas. He’s always concerned about quality and making sure that everything is clean.”
“I didn’t see him in the hotel.”
“Then you didn’t see my husband.”
“Does he know that you and I . . . ?”
“Of course. We tell each other everything . . . What’s happened between us is only a game, Udo, and I think it’s about time to wrap it up. It could end up becoming as obsessive as this thing you’re playing with El Quemado. By the way, what’s it called?”
“No, the game.”
“What a horrible name.”
“Perhaps . . . ”
“So who’s winning? You?”
“What country are you? Germany, of course.”
“Yes, Germany, of course, silly.”
I don’t know El Quemado’s name. And I don’t care. Just as I don’t care what country he’s from. Wherever it is, it doesn’t matter. He knows Frau Else’s husband and that does matter; it gives El Quemado a previously unsuspected range of movement; not only does he fraternize with the Wolf and the Lamb, he also has a taste for the more complex (one supposes) conversation of Frau Else’s husband. And yet why do they talk on the beach, in the middle of the night, like two conspirators, rather than meeting at the hotel? The setting seems better suited to plotting than to leisurely conversation. And what do they talk about? The subject of their encounters—I haven’t the slightest doubt—is me. Thus, Frau Else’s husband has news of me from two sources: El Quemado tells him about the match and his wife tells him about our flirtation. I’m the one at a disadvantage; I don’t know anything about him, except that he’s sick. But I can guess a few things. He wants me to leave; he wants me to lose the match; he doesn’t want me to sleep with his wife. The Eastern offensive continues. The armored wedge (four corps) meets and pierces the Russian front in Smolensk, then goes on to take Moscow, which falls in an Exploitation move. In the south I conquer Sevastopol after a bloody battle, and from Rostov-Kharkov I advance toward the Elista-Don line. The Red Army counterattacks all along the Kalinin-Moscow-Tula line, but I manage to fend it off. The defeat of Moscow entails a gain of ten BRP for the Germans—this according to the Beyma Variant; under the old rules I would have raked in fifteen and left El Quemado not on the edge of collapse but utterly routed. In any case, the Russian losses are heavy: in addition to the BRP cost of the Offensive Option to try to retake Moscow, there are the troops defeated in the effort, their quick replacement hampered by a lack of BRP. In sum, on the central front alone, El Quemado has lost more than fifty BRP. The situation around Leningrad is unchanged; the line holds firm in Tallinn and in hexes G42, G43, and G44. (Questions that I don’t ask El Quemado, though I’d like to: Does Frau Else’s husband visit him every night? What does he know about war games? Has Frau Else’s husband used the hotel master key to come into my bedroom and poke around? Note to self: scatter talcum powder—I don’t have any—around the door; anything to detect intrusions. Is Frau Else’s husband, by chance, a fellow gamer? And what the hell is wrong with him? Does he have aids?) On the Western front, Operation Sea Lion is carried out successfully. The second phase—invasion and conquest of the island—will take place in the summer. For now, the hardest work is done: a beachhead has been established in England, protected by a powerful air fleet stationed in Normandy. As expected, the English fleet managed to intercept me in the Channel; after a long battle in which I gambled the whole German fleet, part of the Italian fleet, and more than half of my airborne units, I managed to disembark in Hex L21. Perhaps too cautiously, I kept my parachute corps in reserve, which means that the beachhead isn’t quite as liquid as I’d like (impossible to route my Strategic Redeployment in that direction), but even so it’s a favorable position. At the end of the turn, the hexes occupied by the British army are the following: the Fifth and the Twelfth infantry corps in London; the Thirteenth Armored Corps in Southampton-Portsmouth; the Second Infantry Corps in Birmingham; five air factors in Manchester-Sheffield. And replacement units in Rosyth, J25, L23, and Plymouth. The poor English troops can see my units (the Fourth and the Tenth infantry corps) from their hex-dunes and their hex-trenches, and they’re frozen in place. The long-anticipated day has come. Paralysis extends through the playing pieces to El Quemado’s fingers; the Seventh Army disembarking in England! I try not to laugh, but I can’t help myself.
El Quemado doesn’t take it amiss. Very well planned! he acknowledges, though in his tone I note a hint of mockery. Honestly, I must say that as an opponent he never loses his cool; completely absorbed in the game, he plays as if overcome by the sadness of real war. And finally, something odd to ponder: before El Quemado left I went out on the balcony to get some fresh air, and whom did I see on the Paseo Marítimo talking to the Wolf and the Lamb, though admittedly escorted by the hotel watchman? Frau Else.
Today, at ten in the morning, I was woken by a phone call giving me the news. They had found Charly’s body and they wanted me to come to the police station to identify it. Shortly afterward, as I was having breakfast, the manager of the Costa Brava appeared, exuberant and brimming with excitement.
“At last! We have to go as soon as possible; the body leaves today for Germany. I just talked to the German consulate. They’re efficient people, I must say.”
At twelve we were at a building on the edge of town—nothing like the one in the dream I’d had a few days ago—where a young man from the Red Cross was waiting for us with the representative from Navy Headquarters, whom I already knew. Inside, in a dirty, smelly waiting room, the German official was reading the Spanish papers.
“Udo Berger, friend of the deceased,” the manager of the Costa Brava introduced me.
The official got up, shook my hand, and asked me if we could proceed to the identification.
“We have to wait for the police,” explained Mr. Pere.
“But aren’t we at the police station?” asked the official.
Mr. Pere nodded and shrugged his shoulders. The official sat down again. Soon afterward, the rest of us—talking all at once and in whispers—followed his lead.
Half an hour later, the policemen arrived. There were three of them and they didn’t seem to have any idea why we were waiting. Again, it was the manager of the Costa Brava who took it upon himself to explain, after which they had us follow them up and down corridors and stairs until we came to a rectangular white room—underground, or so I thought—where Charly’s body lay.
“Is this him?”
“Yes, it’s him,” I said, Mr. Pere said, everyone said.
With Frau Else on the roof:
“Is this your hideaway? The view is nice. You can pretend you’re queen of the town.”
“I don’t play pretend.”
“Actually it’s nicer now than in August. Less stark. If the place were mine I think I’d bring up some potted plants; a touch of green. It would be cozier that way.”
“I don’t want to be cozy. I like it the way it is. Anyway, it’s not my hideaway.”
“Oh, I know, it’s the only place where you can be alone.”
“Not even that.”
“Well, I followed you because I need to talk to you.”
“But I don’t want to talk to you, Udo. Not now. Later, if you like, I’ll come down to your room.”
“And will we make love?”
“You and I have never done it, you realize. We kiss and kiss and we still can’t make up our minds to go to bed together. We’re behaving like children!”
“Don’t worry. It’ll happen when the conditions are right.”
“What conditions do you mean?”
“Attraction, friendship, the desire to escape the unescapable. Everything has to be spontaneous.”
“I’d do it this minute. Time flies, don’t you know?”
“I want to be alone now, Udo. Also, I’m a little afraid of becoming emotionally dependent on a person like you. Sometimes I think you have no sense at all and other times I think the opposite. I see you as a tragic soul. Deep down you must be quite unbalanced.”
“You think I’m still a child . . . ”
“You idiot, I don’t even remember you as a boy. Were you ever one?”
“You really don’t remember?”
“Of course not. I have a vague recollection of your parents and that’s all. The way you remember tourists is different from the way you remember normal people. It’s like snippets of film, no, not film, photographs, snapshots, thousands of snapshots and all of them blank.”
“I don’t know whether the silly things you say make me feel better or terrify me . . . Last night, as I was playing with El Quemado, I saw you. You were with the Wolf and the Lamb. Would you say that they’re normal people, the kind you’ll remember in the normal way, not as blanks?”
“They were asking about you. I told them to leave.”
“I’m glad to hear it. Why did it take you take so long?”
“We were talking about other things.”
“What things? About me? About what I was doing?”
“We talked about things that are none of your business. Nothing to do with you.”
“I don’t know whether to believe you or not, but thanks anyway. I wouldn’t have liked it if they’d come up to bother me.”
“What are you? Just a war-games player?”
“Of course not. I’m a young person who’s trying to have a good time . . . a healthy good time. And I’m a German.”
“And what does it mean to be a German?”
“I don’t know exactly. Something difficult, that’s for sure. Something that we’ve gradually forgotten.”
“All of us. Though in your case, maybe a little less so.”
“I should take that as a compliment, I suppose.”
I spent the afternoon at the Andalusia Lodge. Now that the tourists are gone the bar is gradually returning to its true sinister self. The floor is dirty, sticky, covered with cigarette butts and napkins, and there are plates, cups, bottles, and the remains of sandwiches stacked on the bar, everything jumbled together in a strangely desolate and peaceful scene. The Spanish kids are still glued to the VCR, and sitting at a table near them the owner reads the sports page; of course everyone knows that Charly’s body has been found and although for the first few minutes they keep a certain respectful distance, soon the owner comes over to offer me his condolences: “Life is short,” he says without further ado as he serves me my coffee and sits down next to me. Surprised, I muttered something vague. “Now you’ll go home and everything will start over again.” I nodded; everyone else began to pretend they were watching the movie but they were really listening to what I had to say. Leaning up against the other side of the bar, with her forehead in her hand, an older woman was staring at me. “Your girlfriend must be waiting for you. Life goes on and you have to live it as best you can.” I asked who the woman was. The owner smiled. “It’s my mother. The poor thing is lost. She doesn’t like it when the summer ends.” I pointed out that she was quite young. “Yes, she had me when she was fifteen. I’m the oldest of ten. The poor thing is worn out.” I said she didn’t look her age. “She works in the kitchen. All day she makes sandwiches, beans with sausage, paella, fried eggs and potatoes, pizza.” I’ll have to come and try the paella, I said. The owner blinked. His eyes were wet. Next summer, I added. “It isn’t what it used to be,” he said gloomily. “Not half as good as it was before.” “Before what?” “Before the years went by.” Oh, I said, that’s normal, maybe you’ve had it too often and you can’t appreciate it anymore. “Maybe.” The woman, still in the same position, pouted in a way that might have been for my sake but might just as easily have been a commentary on life and time. Behind her sad and wrinkled smile I thought I glimpsed a kind of fierce excitement. The owner seemed to meditate for an instant and then, with obvious effort, he got up and offered me a drink, “on the house,” which I turned down since I hadn’t finished my coffee yet. As he passed the bar he turned and, with his eyes on me, kissed his mother on the forehead. He came back with a cognac in his hand, looking noticeably more animated. I asked what had happened to the Wolf and the Lamb. They were looking for jobs. Doing what, he didn’t know, anything, construction or whatever. The subject wasn’t to his liking. I hope they find something they enjoy, I said. He doubted they would. He had hired the Wolf a few seasons ago and he couldn’t remember a worse waiter. He only lasted a month. “Anyway, it’s better to be out looking for work, even if no one has any intention of giving it to you, than to bore yourself like a pig.” It was better, I agreed. At least it showed a more positive attitude. “Now that you’re leaving, the one who’ll be bored as a dog is El Quemado.” (Why dog and not pig? The owner knew how to call things by their names.) We’re good friends, I said, but I doubt it’ll matter that much to him. “I didn’t mean that,” said the owner, his eyes sparking, “I meant the game.” I looked at him without saying anything, the bastard had his hands under the table and was making motions like someone masturbating. Whatever he was talking about, it amused him. “Your game; El Quemado is excited about it. I’ve never seen him so interested in anything.” I cleared my throat and said yes. The truth is that I was surprised that El Quemado had gone around talking about our match. The movie-watching kids were giving us sidelong glances, hardly bothering to hide it anymore. I had the feeling that they were waiting, menacingly, for something to happen. “El Quemado is a smart kid, though he keeps to himself; because of the burns, of course.” The owner’s voice had dropped to a barely audible murmur. At the other end of the bar, his mother or whatever she was gave me a fierce smile. It’s only natural, I said. “Your game is a kind of chess, a sport, isn’t it?” Something like that. “And it has to do with war, with World War II, doesn’t it?” Yes, that’s right. “And El Quemado is losing or at least that’s what you think, isn’t it? Because it’s all very confusing.” Yes, in fact. “Well, the match will never be finished, which is all for the best.” I asked why he thought it was best for the match to go unfinished. “For the sake of humanity!” The owner gave a start and then immediately he smiled reassuringly. “If I were you I wouldn’t get him upset.” I chose to sit expectantly, in silence. “I don’t think he likes Germans.” Charly liked El Quemado, I remembered, and he claimed it was mutual. Or maybe it was Hanna who said that. Suddenly I was depressed and I felt like going back to the Del Mar, packing my bags, and leaving immediately. “The burns, you know, were inflicted on purpose, it was no accident.” Had it been Germans? Was that why he didn’t like Germans? The owner, hunched over so that his chin almost grazed the red plastic surface of the table, said “the German side,” and I realized that he was talking about the game, Third Reich. El Quemado must be crazy, I exclaimed. In response I felt myself pierced by the resentful gazes of the movie watchers. It was just a game, that’s all, and the man was talking as if Gestapo counters (ha ha) were about to stomp on the face of the Allied player. “I don’t like to see him suffer.” He’s not suffering, I said, he’s having fun. And he’s using his brain! “That’s the worst of it, the kid thinks too much.” The woman behind the bar shook her head and then dug in her ear. I thought about Ingeborg. Had we really had drinks here and talked about our love in this dirty, smelly place? It’s no surprise that she got tired of me. My poor, faraway Ingeborg. Every corner of the bar was steeped in misfortune, the inescapable. The owner screwed up the left side of his face: he drew his cheek up until it hid his eye. I didn’t remark at his dexterity. The owner didn’t seem offended; beneath it all, he was in a good mood. “The Nazis,” he said. “The real Nazi soldiers on the loose around the world.” Uh-huh, I said. I lit a cigarette. Little by little, this was all beginning to seem otherworldly. Then was it Nazis who were responsible for his burns, was that the story? And where had this happened, and when and why? The owner gave me a superior look before replying that El Quemado, in some hazy distant past, had been a soldier, “the kind of soldier who has to fight tooth and nail.” Infantry, I deduced. Immediately, with a smile on my lips, I asked whether El Quemado was Jewish or Russian, but such subtleties were beyond the owner. He said: “No one crosses him, the very thought of it petrifies them”—he must be talking about the louts at the Andalusia Lodge—“you, for example, have you ever felt his arms?” No, not me. “I have,” said the owner in a sepulchral voice. And then he added: “He spent last summer working here, in the kitchen, it was his own idea, so I wouldn’t lose customers, you know, tourists don’t want to see a face like that, especially when they’re drinking.” I said that it wasn’t that simple; everyone’s taste is different, as is common knowledge. The owner shook his head. His eyes shone with a malicious light. I’ll never set foot in this dive again, I thought. “I would have liked him to stay on here, I have a lot of respect for him, that’s why I’m happy that the game will end in a draw, I’d hate to see him get in trouble.” What kind of trouble was he talking about, I asked. The owner, as if admiring the scenery, stared for a long time at his mother, the bar, the shelves full of dusty bottles, the soccer club posters. “The real problem is when a person can’t keep a&