Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Crime writer Stuart Neville has accused fellow northern Irish novelist Sam Millar of using a 'sock puppet' alias' to praise his own novels on Amazon and give them five-star ratings.
Neville also claims that Millar has used the same aliases to give poor reviews to novelists he doesn't like and single star ratings. Millar has denied the allegation.
For context read Neville's blog here and this BBC report. Below is my own commentary which appeared in http://www.irishnews.com/ on September 4.
Flare ups between writers are nothing new – Norman Mailer once punched Gore Vidal and James Joyce described WB Yeats’s Celtic Twilight movement as Cultic Twalette. The verbal war between two of the north’s best-known crime writers probably doesn’t reach those scales but it is pretty spicy all the same.
Both Stuart Neville and Sam Millar are writers of fast-paced, often violent but extremely well-written novels.
They were both included in an award-winning anthology of Irish crime fiction called Requiem for the Departed, pictured, in which I also had a story.
Although I don’t normally write crime stories I was very taken by the camaraderie among the half dozen or so writers who attended the book’s launch in No Alibis on Botanic Avenue. Stuart Neville was there, but Sam Millar couldn’t make it.
For people who spend their time describing murder, violence and twisted psyches the writers were all a very amiable lot who seemed relaxed in each other’s company and supportive of one another’s work.
The public fall out between Millar and Neville is causing ructions in the crime-fiction writing community and making some people very uncomfortable.
The literary rumble has also brought home a phenomena which has been making global headlines in recent weeks in the world of books – sock puppetry.
This is where a writer establishes an online alias, or a number of them, who writes glowing reviews of his own books and in some cases slags off those people he or she doesn’t like.
It is unethical but in a climate where writers are fighting to get attention it is probably understandable, although I have never done so myself.
In the great scheme of things this story will also play out in Millar and Neville’s favour as at least some of you who have read about their fall out will pick up their novels when you see them in a book shop or browse for them on Amazon.
In the competitive world of fiction no publicity is bad publicity – by the way did I mention my new novel A Verse to Murder will be coming out as an ebook at the end of this month.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Hollywood Cemetery by Liam O'Flaherty

Liam O’Flaherty abandons his usual stark tone and dark storylines for slapstick comedy in this hard-to-find 1934 novel.
The main character Brian Carey is a recognisable O'Flaherty creation - a sullen, arrogant, hard-drinking writer whose belief in his own genius makes him contemptuous of many of those whom he meets.
The rights for one of his books has been purchased by Hollywood media mogul Jack Mortimer who wants to turn it into a movie.
The novel opens in Ireland where Mortimer, reluctantly accompanied by Carey, is searching for a female lead.
The wild, promiscuous girl he choses is reinvented as Angela Devlin who is brought by Mortimer back to Hollywood but no-one is allowed to see her face as the mogul manufactures a media frenzy about his mysterious new starlet.
Carey, who despite initial hostility towards her has fallen in love with Angela, is bribed, blackmailed and eventually threatened with assassination to play along with the scheme.
O'Flaherty's portrayal of Hollywood is cartoonish - everyone is on the make, no-one, apart from Carey, has any real talent. Mortimer doesn't want to shoot the movie in Ireland because he reckons he can create a more authentic version of Ireland in his Hollywood studio.
The story becomes more convoluted to the point of absurdity as the novel progresses, any semblance of plot disintegrating in the process.
The brashness and falsity of Hollywood and the prostitution of talent for the sake of a quick buck is old hat these days, but that this novel was published nearly 80 years ago.
O'Flaherty was a native Irish speaker, born on the Aran Islands, who fought for the British army in the First World War, tried to lead a communist uprising in Dublin during the Civil War and became a prolific short story writer and novelist. He had direct experience of the movie industry. His novel The Informer was made into a film by his cousin John Ford.
He also worked in Hollywood during the 1930s, trying to make a living as a screenwriter, and so it can be presumed that this ultimately unsuccessful novel, is based on at least some personal experience.
As in interesting foot note, a quick web search on Hollywood Cemetery brought up this little nugget:
Sometimes an author arrives unheralded on the literary scene, publishes one book, then disappears without a trace. That seems to be the case with Mary Cavendish Gore, who appears to have produced one novel and nothing else. (The only Google hit shows that she renewed the copyright in 1961.) Or could the author, whose voice is masculine, be using a pseudonym? Could the author, in fact, be Liam O’Flaherty (best known for The Informer), whose life roughly parallels that of the protagonist? I admit that's not likely, but it would be fun, if true.
Mad Hatter’s Village by Mary Cavendish Gore. Alfred H. King (1934), 306 pp.
A pedantic writer hopes that his latest novel will bring him fame and fortune. In the meantime he lives in a shack on a beach near Los Angeles and ekes out a living on his pension check from the British army. Several of his friends are similarly strapped for cash. He is pursued by a nearly divorced woman with two children. Although he finds her unattractive, uncouth, and unresponsive, they start an affair. He can’t open up to her but can’t break it off the relationship either.
Despite its satirical edge, in the last analysis this is a plaintive story of a decent if talentless fellow who must cope with painful memories, unrealistic aspirations, and dire poverty. He tries to solve his problems by walling himself off emotionally, a strategy that fails in the novel’s surprise (and inadequately foreshadowed) ending. The protagonist, if not exactly likable, is credible and skillfully drawn. The same may be said for the girlfriend and the minor characters. In a just world this thoughtful and well written book would takes its place with other struggling-writer novels, such as Martin Eden and Ask the Dust. As it is, potential readers will be lucky to find a copy.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Who Is That Man? In Search of the Real Bob Dylan by David Dalton

Who Is That Man? In Search of the Real Bob Dylan is more a psychological analysis than a biography. It presumes that the reader already has a firm grasp of its subject—Dylan’s life story, the supporting characters, and the changing times in which he lived.
The reader should also be aware of additional costs that come with reading this study because David Dalton takes each of Dylan’s albums in his hands, holds it up to the light, and turns it at different angles to look for clues about his subject’s state of mind.
It is not just the lyrics that are dissected, but the guitar chord changes, the linear notes, and even the pictures used on the album cover. If you don’t already have them in your collection there is a serious temptation to go out and buy them, or in the case of this reviewer rebuy them, to compare notes with the author (musical and written).
Mr. Dalton contends that each Dylan album brought with it not only a change in musical style but a change in persona—the protest singer of The Times They Are a Changin’, the Rimbaudian beat poet with electric guitar who released Highway 61 Revisited, the trippy hippy from Blonde on Blonde, the country singer from Nashville Skyline, the abandoned husband of Blood on Tracks, and the Saved born-again preacher, etc.
Then there are the films he made, Renaldo and Clara and Don’t Look Back, his novel Tarantula, and autobiography Chronicles Volume I.
It is not a new thesis and has already been explored in the film I’m Not There in which different actors, including Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, and Cate Blanchett portrayed different phases of Dylan’s public persona.
Mr. Dalton writes: “From his more than 500 songs to his linear notes, interviews, Chronicles, and heavily allegorical movies, Dylan is the most prolific writer of musical autobiographies of all time. But these are essentially works of fiction, and behind them there is a man who writes compelling tales about his character in a series of self-portraits that he then peevishly paints over. That’s who we want to know about.”
Mr. Dalton takes Dylan’s self-spun mythology by the throat in a bid to strangle out the truth.
When he arrived in New York in the early 60s Dylan claimed to have visited Woody Guthrie on his deathbed and been given his blessing to become his musical successor. Not true, insists Mr. Dalton saying that Guthrie would have been so ill at the time Dylan said he had visited him that he could hardly recognize his own family.
For years Dylan claimed that he was an orphan, even though his parents were alive and well and even attending his concerts.
The motorcycle crash that nearly claimed his life in 1966 was no more than a tumble that Dylan exaggerated, claims author Dalton, firstly to create a new level of mystique but also as an excuse to withdraw from public attention.
The main focus of Who Is That Man? is the iconic Dylan of the mid-1960s—the one who wrote “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and “I Want You”—and who, according to Mr. Dalton, spent the following decades trying to flee.
The Dylan of the 1970s, the country singer and ex-Jewish born-again Christian also come under close scrutiny, but the 80s, 90s, and OOs are skipped over. Nonetheless, the portrait that emerges is no less interesting.
Mr. Dalton’s stated task of discovering the true nature of the man behind the multiple personas ultimately proves to be fruitless as he concludes Dylan himself could probably not untangle the fabrications, self-mythologizing, and urban legends that have grown around him from who he truly is.
That does not devalue this study. Who Is That Man? is a superb dissection of one of the most enigmatic figures in modern music. This review was written for and first published on New York Journal of Books

Friday, 10 August 2012

The Welkinn Complex by Keving Kiely (interview)

US PSYCHOLOGIST Darren Welkinn fantasises about seducing his female patients, is unfaithful to his wife and administers trial drugs to his patients knowing that they might have dangerous side affects.
He travels from the States to take up a position on the island of Guernesy in an exclusive clinic, the owner of which is testing XcellN - a new drug with psychedelic properties that brings to the fore suppressed memories and unleashes other psychological material.
The Welkinn Complex has big themes and insights into the world of psychology but these are a mere vehicle for a dissection of the twisted psyche of Dr Welkinn.
Author Kevin Kiely, who was born in Co Down and now lives in Derry, says he wrote his new novel while lecturing in the US.
"The idea for it came to me after talking to people in the US who had gone to clinics and told me about this practice," he said.
"People are being used to test drugs at clinics and the doctors who are administering them see this simply as part of their job and are ignoring the ethics.
"And clearly the pharmaceutical industry has a vested interest in making sure that their products continue to be used - there could be as many as 2.5 million people addicted to prescription tranquilisers in the UK alone."
Written in jerky, almost note-like form, The Welkinn Complex reflects the style in which Dr Welkinn might write up the case notes on one of his patients.
However, the real subject being analysed is Welkinn himself - his unethical medical behaviour, his self-obsession and his philandering.
He desperately scrambles for self-preservation after the police launch an investigation into the death by suicide of his lover, who Welkinn knew was psychologically unbalanced and vulnerable.
"Welkin is an icy person inside and was drawn from my experience of some types of Americans that I met," says Kiely.
"There are many Americans who have never gone to Europe, Republican Americans - Wasps - who see us as a museum, going back in time, and Welkinn is one of those.
"I'm not anti-American but they do tend to live much more in the present than we do here in Europe.
"Welkinn is surrounded by people who are cracking up and yet he functions with a cold detachment." This interview was first published in The Irish News.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Robert's Alibi by Declan Burke-Kennedy

Despite some pretty fundamental flaws in his story-telling technique Burke-Kennedy's 1988 novel has drawn me back to it a number of times.
Geoffry, the central character and sometimes first-person narrator, is an Irish novelist living in a mountain cabin in the Basque Country.
Although on the French Pyrenees his cabin is close to the Spanish border and the separatist conflict, which was much more virulent when the novel was published, occasionally impinges.
Indeed the historical identity of the Basque people – described by Burke-Kennedy as the equivalent of Europe’s native Americans who were subsequently displaced and marginalised by later waves of invaders – is one of the many layered themes of this novel.
Linguistic similarities between obscure Tibetan dialects and Euskara (the Basque’s indigenous language) are posited, although evidence is never presented.
Slightly more convincing is the similarity between the four pronged Basque Lauburu found on ancient tombs and the Tibetan swastika (an ancient Hindu and Buddhist symbol that existed long before it was hijacked by the Nazis – see below).
Geoffry’s solitude in his mountain retreat is interrupted by the arrival of an Irish woman, whose name we never learn, and her son Julian.
Although he has no idea who she is, Geoffry soon becomes aware that she is very familiar with him and believes that he was her late husband Robert's best friend who used to come and spend his holidays with Geoffry.
Geoffry plays along, initially hoping to learn more information and recall if he had ever actually met Robert, but he is also attracted by her physically and by her obvious vulnerability, and is reluctant to disillusion her in case she leaves.
He learns that Robert is missing and presumed dead following an avalanche while climbing in the Himalayas and that his widow wants Geoffry to edit the manuscript of a book he was writing about the region, its religions, links to the Basque Country and even European Druidism.
As Geoffry becomes further implicated in Robert's deception he and the widow work on the manuscript which initially fascinates him then repulses him. Parts of Geoffry's own past start to click into place – an affair with a Basque photographer called Noelle who took part in photographic expeditions to the Himalayas and who often disappeared out of Geoffry's life with no explanation.
While Geoffry has become complicit in providing an alibi to Robert’s deceptions against his wife, he gradually comes to the conclusion that he has also been deceived.
He in turn embarks on a deception, luring Noelle back to his bed by making her believe that Robert is still alive and that Geoffry is the only person who knows where he is hidding out.
The fairly soap-operish storyline and the author’s frequent insistence on ‘telling’ us that Geoffry is an enigmatic solipsists to whom women are constantly shooting “interested glances” and preening themselves to make him notice them, do grate slightly.
We also get an extended rehearsal of Geoffry's Nietzschean ideas, which just smacks too much of the author trying to tell us what he believes.
This is more a novel of ideas – perhaps Burke-Kennedy wanted to write the book that his fictional character Robert did. A quick google did reveal some speculation on ethnic links between ancient Tibetans and Basques.
There is a good novel in here trying desperately trying to get out but that is burdened down with simply trying too hard to make its central character Geoffry appear more interesting.
A Basque Lauburu
A Tibetan swastika

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Jung and Moriarty

John Moriarty strikes me as a Jungian figure although he never really mentions the Swiss psychologist in his writings. Yet he is constantly drawing upon archetypes to illustrate his philosophy. His autobiography Nostos could also be read as a diary of individuation during which the floodgates to his unconsciousness are opened and almost sweep him away in a deluge of libido.
Jung defines an archetype as an image that exists within the collective consciousness in-potentia. Incarnations of these archetypes keep recurring throughout history that can be seen as a representation of human experience and which are personified in the stories and characters we find in religions, myths, legends and art. Woman as temptress whose actions result in the down fall of a male hero, for example, can be seen in the archetypes of Eve, Delilah, Salome, Cleopatra and Morgan le Fey.
In Invoking Ireland, Moriarty, who died in 2007, focuses almost entirely on Irish myths to try to illustrate his belief that there has been a schism between what we as humans instinctively are and what we have become and how we choose to live. In it he becomes a character living in a parallel Ireland called Fódhla lamenting the wrong turn that his fellow countrymen, and the rest of the Western world has taken.
For Moriarty the mythological peoples of the Tuatha Dé Dannan and The Fomorians personify the schism. The Tuatha Dé Dannan where a magical people who “spent their time acquiring visionary insights and foresights and hindsights, acquiring the occult knowledge and the occult art of the wizard, the druid, the witch, these, together with all the magical arts, until, masters in everything concerning them, they had no equals in the world”. (Invoking Ireland P25). It was their “particular delight to be of one mind with the wind and rain”… “you could walk through the land and not know they were in it”.
By contrast the brutal Fomorians are out to exploit nature, rather than be a part of it. They had features “hanging like seaweed when the tide is out, their tongues the colour and shape of cormorant tongues, the clamour of the ocean their talk”. Their arrival in Ireland saw "forests cut down, rivers rerouted, towers everywhere, it was soon clear it must come to a fight.” (P28).
But in the battles that followed it was ultimately the Fomorians who were victorious and who dominate the psychic and physical makeup of the modern Irish while the Tuatha Dé Dannan became spectral figures “harmonised to all things [they] were of one mind with the wind and rain. Now again, you could walk through the land and not know they are in it." (P28)
Despite the Fomorian domination of modern Ireland, Moriarty contends that there is still enough of the Dé Dannan in us that we can sometimes hear and see beyond the coarse world of Ireland to the more subtle one of Fódhla and to the parts of us that still inhabit it.
“Yet we a rougher people who came later to Ireland, out alone in lonely places we will sometimes hear their [Tuatha Dé Dannan] music”.
It is not just the music of the Dé Dannan that Moriarty believes we can still catch snatches of, but also their wisdom.
He quotes WB Yeats: “I know now that the revelation is from the self, but from that age-long memoried self, that shapes the elaborate shell of the mollusc and the child in the womb, that teaches birds to make their nest; and that the genius is a crisis that joins that buried self for certain moments of our trivial daily mind.” (Invoking Ireland P92)
Moriarty plunders the writings of philosophers, poets and mystics to reiterate this. On page 215 of Invoking Ireland he quotes Jacob Boehme: “In man is all whatsoever the sun shines upon and heavens contains, also hell and all the deeps.”
Moriarty elaborates: “In other words, we aren’t only a microcosm, the universe in little. In us also are the transcosmic immensities as heaven and hell, and the deeps as well, all of them.”
On the same page he quotes Hopkins: “O the mind, mind has mountains, cliffs of fall/Frightful, sheer, no-man fathomed…”
Joseph Conrad: “The mind of man is capable of anything, because everything is in it, all the past as well as the future.”
And, as he has often done in his other books, repeatedly, from Friedrich Nietzsche: “I have discovered for myself that the old human and animal life, indeed the entire prehistory and past of all sentient beings, works on, loves on, hates on, thinks on in me.”
Moriarty’s life, as depicted in his books seems to me to be a Jungian exercise in integrating the unconscious (Dé Dannan) aspects of himself with the coarser conscious (Fomorian). And it is a venture fraught with risks and which, as described in Nostos, left Moriarty floundering on the verge of one of Hopkins’s precipices and occasionally tipping over into psychosomatic chaos that left him both mentally and physically debilitated.
But while the process is a risky one it is something that Jung argued is a necessary one if we are to reach our full potential. For him consciousness is comprised of the ‘ego’ that aspect of us that is defined by the world we live in and and a result of experiencing everyday reality, while the unconsciousness is the domain of the ‘self’ – in Moriarty’s world the ego could perhaps be personified by the Fomorian archetype and the self by the Tuatha Dé Dannan.
In his commentary on Jung’s work Anthony Storr, quoting the psychologist writes: “The goal toward which the individuation process is tending is ‘Wholeness’ or ‘Integration’: a condition in which all the different elements of the psyche, both conscious and unconscious, are welded together. The person who achieves this goal possesses 'an attitude that is beyond the reach of the emotional entanglements and violent shocks – a consciousness detached from the world’. Individuation, in Jung’s view, is a spiritual journey; and the person embarking upon it, although he might not subscribe to any recognised creed, was nonetheless pursuing a religious quest. By paying careful attention to the unconscious, as manifested in dream and fantasy, the individual comes to change his attitude from one in which ego and will are paramount to one in which he acknowledges that he is guided by an integrating factor which is not of his own making.” (The Essential Jung, P229).
While the archetypes (personifications of aspects of the unconsciousness) that dominate Invoking Ireland are predominantly Irish, Moriarty also draws copiously on myths, legends and religions from all over the world. Again and again he reiterates his central message that humanity has taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way and is not paying attention to what those myths and the characters who are inhabiting them are telling us about ourselves. We are more than the base Fomorian (self) that inhabits this world and exploits it for our own benefit, we are also Tuath Dé Dannan and can access vast untapped reserves within ourselves if we so choose.
Moriarty quotes Rilke: “However vast outer space may be, yet with all its sidereal distances, it hardly bears comparison with the dimension, with the depth dimension of our inner being, which does not even need the spaciousness of the universe to be within itself almost unfathomable.” (Invoking Ireland P201/202).
Invoking Ireland for me it is a symbolic journey of Jungian individuation in which Moriarty opens his consciousness to unconsciousness content and casts himself as a man who lives in Fomorian Ireland who is given a glimpse of Fódhla and occasionally even ripped out of everyday reality and relocated into the Ireland of the Dé Dannan.
Invoking Ireland by John Moriarty is published by The Lilliput Press

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Indian Himalayas

A GROUP of people are bent over a bundle on the ground –a middle-aged woman and some younger men, including one with a ponytail sprouting from a shaved head.
Gradually they start to shuffle the bundle towards the river, the man with the shaved head descending a couple of steps into the fast-flowing water and with the help of the others eases a large black plastic bag towards himself.
He tilts the opening and pours a cloud of dust that briefly swirls on the undulating surface of the river before dispersing. The shaven-head man submerges the black bag and fills it with water, washing out the remaining contents before releasing it as well to be swept downstream.
The man in the River Ganges lifts handfuls of water to douse his upper body before mounting the steps to the ‘ghat’ – a paved area with steps dipping into the river where Hindu rituals take place.
He briefly rejoins the woman and young men to stand and gaze downstream as the ashes of their dead relative disperse before making way for others who wish to perform rites, rituals or simply douse themselves in the river’s waters.
The River Ganges, worshipped as a manifestation of the goddess Ganga by Hindus, emerges from the Himalayas just a few kilometres from Haridwar.
The city has added spiritual significance because Hindus believe it is one of the sites where a celestial bird called Garuda accidentally spilt drops of the elixir of immortality.
As evening darkens to night those gathered on the ghat release wreathes of flowers with candles burning in the centre into the river to swirl in aimless eddies before catching a current and being swept
Others gather in groups to chant mantras accompanied by drums, tinkling bells and crashing cymbals.
As well as milling pilgrims, and aimlessly meandering cows of course, there are wandering sadhus – holy men dressed in orange robes. Some of the younger ones have simply dropped out for a while but for the ones with longer beards it has become a way of life.
However, away from the ghat the spirititual frenzy takes on a more commercial tone and the streets bulge with souvenir kiosks, food stalls, shops selling mobiles phones, hotels and ashrams.
It’s all a bit tacky – Lourdes or Knock for Hindus.
Green hills rise in the countryside surrounding Haridwar towards the Shivalik mountain range that in turn ascends into the Himalayas.
Ragaji National Park is home to herds of wild elephants, two species of deer, monkeys, tigers and leopards.
In the distance a herd of elephants lingers close to the shelter of a tangle of bushes, a mother and baby lagging behind.
Sitting in a tree a white eagle screeches in the air while a stork, visiting to escape the savage winter of Siberia, soars overhead.
As the day fades the bushes rustle, the deer stand still, tense and sniffing the air but the tigers and leopards stay hidden and I leave disappointed.
From Haridwar I shift base 17 kilometres up the road to Rishikesh where the Ganges pours out of the Himalayas and down through India and into Bangladesh.
Here too Hindu pilgrims gather on the ghats to worship at its multi-tiered temples, but the shops are more new agey and the restaurants, while still for the most-part vegetarian, offer pizza and Tibetan cuisine catering for western spiritual seekers and trekkers who also gather here.
Rishikesh gained its international reputation in 1968 when the Beatles and their entourage came to find enlightenment in the ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Back then the ashram included a hospital, post office, supermarket, hotel, luxury apartments and meditation pods overlooking the Ganges but it has lain abandoned since the early ‘70s.
It lies past the last settlements of Rishikesh and there are no signposts to it – a sign on the padlocked gate says ‘No Entry’, however an accommodating security guard (who is happy to accommodate
the 50 rupee note I slip him) unlocks the gate and ushers me in.
Pod number nine was where John Lennon meditated but it is cracked and crumbling now, tendrils of jungle slithering through its brickwork. The pathways are overgrown and strewn with huge elephant turds.
The luxury hotel, the hospital and even the Maharishi’s private accommodation are all being slowly sucked back into the foliage which was once cleared to make way for them.
At 1,500 metres the temple on top of Kunjapuri isn’t the highest in the area but it is from here that I catch sight of the snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas proper.
Stooping into the temple to be engulfed by a billow of incense an old woman marks a tilik – a pressed thumb of red dye and some grains of rice – onto my forehead.
Brightly painted, almost cartoonish paintings adorned the walls as pilgrims mutter prayers before coming back outside to ring a bell.
The rituals and the significance of the temple are mysteries to me but the shimmering snow-covered crags on the horizon – Bandarpoonch and Chaukhamba, which is nearly 8,000 metres high – are hauntingly beautiful and I want to be on them, even more so as my superbly knowledgeable guide Chandar tells me about expeditions he has led or taken part in.
We start to descend along the winding road which leads up to the temple but soon cut off into barely defined track of shifting shale, past scrub and forest.
Occasionally the foliage is broken by a strip of cultivated land and a few houses, but Chandar tells me that most of them have been abandoned as people flee the unpredictability of life in the country for the crowded but more stable incomes provided by the cities.
Chandar stops to talk to a group of women gathering sticks and while I can’t understand the conversation their narrow, sinewy faces say more about the lives they live than language could ever do.
This article first appeared in The Irish News on March 10.

Monday, 16 January 2012

The Third Reich by Roberto Bolaño

Are dark, sinister forces at work, the embodiment of evil, or is the narrator, Udo Berger, just losing touch with reality and experiencing the world through a cloud of paranoia?
He is a German on holiday with his girlfriend Ingeborg in a Mediterranean coastal resort in the Catalonian region of northern Spain.
While Ingeborg suns herself on the beach, Udo works in his hotel room on strategies for a board game called The Third Reich.
He is an arrogant man, contemptuous of the frivolity of the tourists around him and full of self-importance over his reputation as a champion gamer.
Udo and Ingeborg fall in with another German couple, Charly and Hanna, and through them with two Spaniards, the Wolf and the Lamb, who Udo tolerates rather than likes.
He is also drawn to a badly scarred man El Quemado (the burnt one), who hires out pedal boats to tourists during the day and sleeps beneath them on the beach at night.
Charly seems to be going off the rails, drinking heavily and getting in to fights, disappearing until one day he sails out to sea on his windsurf board and doesn’t return.
As events unfold Udo becomes haunted by the notion that there is a guiding hand, or force, behind what is unfolding and is convinced that El Quemado is the personification of that force.
As he watches people coming and going in a hotel “convinced they were at the center of the universe” Udo muses: “What did it matter whether Charly was alive or not, whether I was alive or not? Everything would roll on, downhill, toward each individual death. Everyone was the center of the universe! The bunch or morons! Nothing was beyond their sway! Even in their sleep they controlled everything! With their indifference! Then I thought about El Quemado. He was outside. I saw him as if underwater: the enemy.”
Ingeborg and Charly’s girlfriend, Hanna, return to Germany, leaving Udo alone with the Spaniards and to begin a game of The Third Reich with El Quemado in which the stakes are never defined but which Udo becomes convinced will result in a terrifying forfeit.
He tells the German-born hotelier, whose husband is dying, and with whom Udo has an unconsummated affair: “And if I tell you that I feel something intangible, strange, circling around me in a threatening way, do you believe me? A higher force keeping watch over me.”
This “forgotten” novel by the late Roberto Bolaño was apparently discovered among his papers after the Chilean novelist’s death.
It has a raw and unfinished feel to it, as if he were working out ideas, playing with tropes and styles, all of which more fully realized in his later, more mature fiction.
There are better Roberto Bolaño novels already out there, but The Third Reich stands up well and gives us an intriguing insight into how their author’s world view was informed paving the way for those better novels and the underlying sense of dread and tangible evil that weaves through them.