“Through the window comes the murmur of the sea mingled with the laughter of the night’s last revelers, a sound that might be the waiters clearing the tables on the terrace, an occasional car driving slowly along the Paseo Marítimo, and a low and unidentifiable hum from the other rooms in the hotel.”
––Roberto Bolaño, The Third Reich
Part Two: Bolaño on the Beach
During the six days I spent in the tiny coastal town of Blanes, I shifted between two books: Bolaño’s the Third Reich and one by his translator, Chris Andrew, Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe. In the first case, the story was set in a Blanes-like town, much of the action taking place at a fictional seaside hotel seemingly near the real life one where I stayed. In the second case, the novel’s terms were being exposed in a manner that was both liberating and disconcerting.
From the beginning, Bolaño’s work has had a terrible hold on me; Andrew’s book showed why. It wasn’t as complicated as I once might have thought––a kind of celebration of anarchistic tendencies, a fascination with failure, and mostly unrealized threats of violence, which magnify tension and heighten even the most banal of fictional stakes.
So, on the one hand, I was engrossed in a tale featuring a vacationer’s mysterious death, an unlikeable protagonist playing a WWII strategy game, and the local people he perceives as enemies. On the other, the story’s unrelenting tension were revealed as a kind of magic trick that, in theory, anyone might pull off, the way we sometimes convince ourselves we could produce magic, if only we had the magician’s tools.
As described in The Third Reich, the protagonist’s hotel seemed stately and deteriorating in an elegant and interesting way. The guests were Western Europeans with disposable incomes and minimal worries.
My hotel was not like that. It too was deteriorating but in a predictable and unfashionable manner. It seemed to have been built quickly, like all the hotels lined up on either side in one neat row facing the sea. Its walls were thin. Its mattresses cheap foam. Its elevator smelled of cigarettes and human sweat. The lobby staircase mimicked a chrome and wooden showpiece of a stylish place. But it wobbled when you stepped on it, and seemed to pull away from the wall.
Also staying at the hotel, were troupes of young dancers and their adult chaperones from countries like Armenia, Albania, Serbia, and Poland. There was a folk dancing festival in town, but I couldn’t seem to determine where it took place.
Each day just before sunset, Europe’s young people emerged from the hotels and walked along the sea in their national costumes behind silken banners, heading toward the older more local part of town. Each night, they returned from their performances and a local DJ played Eurodisco in the hotel bar. Children clustered in groups of manic dancing while their chaperones drank beer and watched from the sides.
Also at the hotel––four blonde unaccompanied young men with Aryan chins right out of Bolaño’s novel. They spoke English with the hotel staff, but I didn’t recognize the language they spoke amongst themselves. At night, they came to the bar in white jeans, fitted t-shirts, and gelled hair. The boys were silly and compelling and bursting with sexual energy. They drank to excess, played pool, and hit on the female chaperones, who responded with patience and pity.
Once, as evening approached, I sat on my balcony, peering at the endless sea in a split state of gratitude for the beauty before me and unrelenting longing for something more.
Suddenly, the four young men walked onto the deserted beach with three young women between them. The group sat upon the sand in heterosexual pairings of lust and attachment, leaving one lonely young man without companionship. He tried, for a moment, to be cool. He wasn’t the least good-looking or, perhaps, the most undeserving, just unlucky. After all, four willing girls would have been a lot to find in this quiet seaside town.
It all seemed so Bolaño-like, the heightened sexual energy, vague potential for masculine violence, and a lone failure bearing the marks of middling performance and an unrealized dream. Though, I suppose, were it unfolding in a Bolaño story, there would also be the sound of a distant barking dog and knowledge of a gun buried in the sand.
The breeze shifted and the couples drew closer, melding into three writhing lumps, while one stiff figure remained in sharp silhouette against the horizon. He took a sneaking glance at his brothers and then rose quickly, walking back to the hotel at a quick and angry pace.