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Subject: Roberto Bolaño's THE THIRD REICH rss

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Tom Russell
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Yesterday, I read Roberto Bolaño's short novel, THE THIRD REICH; it's about a championship German wargamer who writes wargaming strategy articles for a living. I've not read the author's work before, but the book came highly recommended by my friend Glenn Kenny, and, gosh, a novel about a championship wargamer, how could I not be curious?

Being unfamiliar with the author and having read another review beforehand, which mentioned something about the psychological consequences of simulating war, etc., I was worried going in that it would be, let us say, inaccurate and/or painful to read, like the many tone-deaf cultural depictions of, say, video games on network television.

But I was pleasantly surprised, as far as that was concerned-- there's a fair amount of detail about hex-and-counter games, combat ratios, efficient usage of units, stacking, etc. Magazines such as The General and games like World in Flames are name-dropped, and convincingly so. I don't know if Bolaño just did the research or was a grognard in addition to A Very Important Literature Guy.

So, a couple questions:

The title of the novel comes from the protagonist's favorite game-- he's markedly upset when he discovers that the convention he's been preparing for is centered around World in Flames instead-- a strategic-level WWII game of considerable complexity, with some kind of political component, siezure of initiative, something called BRP that is expended, and hexes identified by a letter-number combination (e.g., "Q21" or "L16") instead of a four-digit number. I'm wondering if this is Rise and Decline of the Third Reich-- I'm unfamiliar with the game, except by reputation only, and was hoping someone who played it could compare it with the description provided.

Secondly, this is the first time I've seen hex-and-counter wargaming (as opposed to general board gaming, and miniatures wargaming) presented in other media. Are there any other cultural depictions of this hobby that you've seen, and if so, how accurate did you find them?
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Rich Shipley
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Re: Roberto Bolano's THE THIRD REICH
Yes, that's Rise and Decline of the Third Reich. One of my favorites to play in the early 80s. I have the book on my Amazon list.

I can't think of a hex and counter game so prominently featured in other literature, though I've met wargamers who are also authors.
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Re: Roberto Bolano's THE THIRD REICH
A side note, I recommend using either ny or nh as an alternative for ñ if you can't copy it from elsewhere.
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Alfred Wallace
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Re: Roberto Bolano's THE THIRD REICH
Some 20 years ago or so I read a novel that alternated between a wargame of Operation Sealion and a "novelistic" representation of what was going on--I think it was a hex-and-counter wargame, and I know it wasn't great literature.
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Tom Russell
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HeinzGuderian wrote:
A side note, I recommend using either ny or nh as an alternative for ñ if you can't copy it from elsewhere.


Thank you, and my apologies.
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By all means, no worries. It's just that it's quite disorienting for a native speaker.
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John Buse
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Quote:
I don't know if Bolaño just did the research or was a grognard in addition to A Very Important Literature Guy.


Bolaño was apparently an avid 3R player in the 80s.

Quote:
Secondly, this is the first time I've seen hex-and-counter wargaming (as opposed to general board gaming, and miniatures wargaming) presented in other media. Are there any other cultural depictions of this hobby that you've seen, and if so, how accurate did you find them?


The protagonist in Pérez-Reverte's Club Dumas plays tactical Napoleonic board wargames. The Waterloo game he's playing at the time isn't named, but it sounds like the author had some familiarity with Wellington's Victory: Battle of Waterloo Game – June 18th, 1815 or La Bataille de Mont Saint Jean, and the depiction seems accurate enough, although a bit vague. In the film adaptation, however, I don't think there's any mention that Johnny Depp's character shares this interest.
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Arturo Pérez-Reverte also wrote a piece on wargamers in his regular column, Patente de corso, in 1996. It's one of the first broad media mentions of the hobby in Spain. The tone suggests he was never a wargamer, but was friends with some.

In Spanish, sorry:

Spoiler (click to reveal)
Hay un brillo inquietante en sus ojos cuando acuden cada sábado a la cita. Llegan uno tras otro, casi furtivamente, con sus cajas y reglamentos bajo el brazo, como los miembros de una cofradía clandestina, dispuestos a poner patas arriba la Historia. Algunos son tipos tímidos, solitarios. En apariencia, incapaces de matar una mosca.

Pero fíate y no corras. Bajo su aspecto gris ocultan un corazón de tigre, y cada fin de semana deciden sobre la vida y la muerte de miles de seres humanos. Saben de heroísmo, y de coraje; y de encajar impávidos los azares del destino y de la guerra, tal vez más que muchos de esos militares de verdad que a veces se cruzan por la calle, con su uniforme y sus medallas que a ellos les hacen sonreír disimulada, esquinadamente, con mueca de viejos veteranos.

Los jugadores de los llamados wargames o juegos de guerra de salón nada tienen que ver con el militarismo, o las ideologías. Del mismo modo que unos juegan al tenis, otros al póker, y otros a la herencia de Tía Ágata, los aficionados al asunto, que es una especie de ajedrez pero a lo bestia, reproducen sobre tableros, con las fichas apropiadas, situaciones estratégicas o tácticas de la Historia; y basándose en complicados reglamentos, intentan darle las suyas y las de un bombero a Rommel, por ejemplo, en El Alamein; o compartir gloria con Napoleón en Austerlitz; o dar la vuelta a la tortilla haciéndole la puñeta a Aníbal en Tresino, Trebia, Trasimeno y Cannas. La forma usual es un terreno reproducido en detalle sobre grandes tableros, y allí, con piezas, soldaditos de plomo o fichas adecuadas, se desarrollan los acontecimientos históricos y sus variantes, en largas operaciones de un realismo asombroso que llegan a durar horas, e incluso días.

Como masones, los adictos al género intercambian informaciones, reglamentos, experiencias. Hay especialidades, por supuesto: artistas del combate táctico a nivel de pelotón, capaces de batirse casa por casa durante días en los alrededores de la fábrica de tractores de Stalingrado, y genios de la logística que llevan tercios a Flandes por el camino español de la Valtelina entre las diez de la mañana y las ocho de la tarde de un mismo día. A algunos les gusta reunirse en grupos, haciéndose cargo cada uno de un bando, o un cuerpo de ejército, o de una simple unidad de infantería; y otros prefieren habérselas de tú a tú con el tablero, o con la pantalla del ordenador, que facilita el juego a solateras. En cuanto a sexo, predomina el masculino; aunque no faltan excepciones, como la novia de mi amigo Miguel -el hombre que más cargas de caballería ha ordenado en la historia de la Humanidad- , que es una moza dulce y apacible hasta que el fin de semana, ante el tablero, se convierte en una despiadada y lúcida táctica, capaz de cañonearse peñol a peñol con el Victory, o putear al general Dupont en Despeñaperros hasta que el maldito gabacho pide cuartel y misericordia.

Son la leche. Cuando los ves descargar adrenalina en sus excitantes aventuras finisemanales, compruebas asombrado cómo se transforman ante el tablero para compensar otra vida a menudo monótona, tal vez insustancial. De pronto, inclinados sobre los hexágonos del mapa, considerando los factores de movimiento entre Washington y Gettysburg o la potencia de fuego de una división Panzer en los campos embarrados de Smolensko, les aflora toda la seguridad, toda la pasión, todas las cualidades buenas o malas reprimidas en el día a día: abnegación, buen juicio, crueldad, rapidez, egoísmo, iniciativa, sacrificio. Y comprendes que resulta imposible saber lo que cada ser humano, incluso el de apariencia más torpe, bondadosa, malvada o gris, atesora en su corazón o su cabeza.

Y además, comprendo el placer personal intenso, fascinante, de hacerle trampas a la Historia. De romperle los cuernos a Bismarck en Sedán, o destrozar los cuadros escoceses en Waterloo. O volver a la oficina el lunes por la mañana y dirigirle al imbécil de tu jefe una sonrisa enigmática que él nunca entenderá, ignorante del momento de gloria infinita que viviste a las tres de la madrugada de ayer, cuando, tras doce horas de combate, encendiste con mano temblorosa un cigarrillo para contemplar desde el alcázar del Santísima Trinidad, entre los mástiles derribados y los pasamanos hechos astillas, como ardía la escuadra inglesa frente al cabo Trafalgar.

Arturo Pérez Reverte, El Semanal, 1996


I find the quip about his friend Miguel being "the man who has ordered the most cavalry charges in the history of Mankind" particularly funny.
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I finished reading The Third Reich last night. (You can read this post, I won't spoil anything.)

I liked it, it's definitely geared toward a wargaming readership. Some of the Amazon reviewers complain of nothing much happening in the novel, but that's because they're not wargamers. The ending is something that only a wargamer can really relate to.

As the OP wrote, there's quite a bit of name dropping (title dropping?), with many games other than Rise and Decline of the Third Reich being mentioned.
There's even a short, one-paragraph session report of a game of NATO: The Next War in Europe.
The General magazine is mentioned several times, as well as the name Beyma, an obvious reference to Robert Beyma, who wrote real-life Third Reich articles for the magazine.

The overall impression I got was that at the time he wrote this in 1989, the author was an avid wargamer and, as such, he felt compelled to write about his obsessive hobby and wanted to publicize it, an urge many of us have felt at one time or another. He does a good job of it, in my opinion, even though he didn't publish it in his lifetime, for whatever reason.

For wargamers, The Third Reich is a must-read.
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Pablo Galbraith
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Hello Tom,

I am an avid Bolaño reader, and I read " El Tercer Reich" about a year ago. I published a review of the novel here in this site:

The Third Reich, a novel by Roberto Bolaño

and also here, with a preview and some interesting discussion:

Wargames, Literature and Roberto Bolaño

I made the same questions you are doing, and found out that Roberto Bolaño was an avid wargamer, loved Rise and Decline of the Third Reich and that is the game portrayed in the novel. He played wargames in the 70's and 80's mostly, played with his son as well, and also loved computer wargames (Panzer General, etc.). The novel was published posthumously, after it was found in his computer hard disk. The editors suspect he was not convinced that the novel was publishing material, maybe because of the topic depicted –wargaming–, but it was almost completely finished decades ago, so after Bolaño died, Jorge Herralde, editor of Bolaño in Spain, decided to publish it.

I am also interested in the representation of boardgames and wargames in literature and other media, but it is very scarce. Let me know if you discover any other important example. I will let you know as well if I found examples as well.

BTW, did you enjoy the novel?

Cheers,
Pablo.
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Chris Stevens
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I was pleasantly surprised to see this book in the window of my local Waterstones/Waterstone's!
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Tom Russell
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angelusnovus wrote:
BTW, did you enjoy the novel?


More-or-less. It's not quite my taste in fiction (which I only read infrequently compared to non-fiction), but the wargaming stuff kept my attention.

Thanks for linking to your review and discussion thread-- very interesting stuff.
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