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 promise,” he said thoughtfully. What kind of promise? The light in the owner’s eyes suddenly dimmed. I admit that for an instant I was afraid he would cry. I was wrong. The stubborn bastard laughed and waited, like an old cat, fat and evil. Is it something to do with my dead friend? I ventured carefully. With my dead friend’s girlfriend? With one hand on his stomach, the owner exclaimed: “Oh, I don’t know, I really don’t know, but it’s cracking me up.” I didn’t understand what he meant and I was quiet. Soon I would have to meet El Quemado at the entrance to the hotel and for the first time the prospect made me somewhat uneasy. The counter, dimly lit by some yellow hanging lamps, was empty; the woman had gone. You know El Quemado, tell me something abouthim. “Impossible, impossible,” murmured the owner. Through the partially closed windows the night and the damp began to creep in. Outside, on the terrace, only shadowy figures remained, swept occasionally by the headlights of cars turning off the Paseo toward the center of town. Glumly, I imagined myself searching for the well-hidden road to France, far from this town and vacation days. “Impossible, impossible,” he murmured sadly, hunching in on himself as if he were suddenly very cold. At least tell me where
El Quemado is from, for Christ’s sake. One of the movie-watching kids glanced over his shoulder at our table and said he’s a ghost. The owner gazed at the boy with pity. “Now he’ll feel empty, but he’ll be in peace.” Where is he from? I asked again. The movie-watching kid stared at me with an obscene smile. From here.
Situation of the German army in England: satisfactory. Army corps: Fourth Infantry in Portsmouth, reinforced in the Strategic Redeployment phase by the Forty-eighth Armored. The Tenth is still at the beachhead, reinforced by the Twentieth and Twenty-ninth infantries. The British are gathering their forces in London and reserving their airborne units in case of air-to-air attacks. (Should I have marched straight on London? I don’t think so.) Situation of the German army in Russia: optimal. Siege of Leningrad; the Finnish and German units meet in Hex C46; from Yaroslavl I begin to press toward Vologda; from Moscow toward Gorki; in the hexes between I49 and L48 the front remains stable; in the south I advance toward Stalingrad;
El Quemado digs in now on the other side of the Volga and between Astrakhan and Maykop. Units engaged in the north of Russia: five infantry corps, two armored corps, four Finnish infantry corps. Units engaged in the central region: seven infantry corps, four armored corps. Units engaged in the south: six infantry corps, three armored corps, one Italian infantry corps, four Romanian infantry corps, and three Hungarian infantry corps. Situation of the Axis armies in the Mediterranean: unchanged; Attrition Option.
Surprise: when I got up—it couldn’t have been twelve yet—the first thing I saw when I opened the balcony doors was El Quemado; he was walking along the beach with his hands behind his back, his eyes on the ground like someone searching for something in the sand, his tanned and scorched skin so shiny that he nearly left a wake on the golden beach.
Today is a holiday. The last reserves of retirees and Surinamese have gone out after lunch, leaving the hotel at just quarter capacity. At the same time, half the staff has taken the day off. The hallways echoed softly and sadly when I headed to breakfast. (The sound of broken plumbing or something tinkled on the stairs but no one seemed to notice.)
In the sky a Cessna prop plane strove to trace letters that the strong wind erased before I could make out entire words. I was gripped then by a vast melancholy that seized my belly, my spine, my bottom ribs, until I doubled over under the sunshade!
I realized in a vague way, as if I were dreaming, that the morning of September 11 was unfolding above the hotel, at the height of the Cessna’s ailerons, and that those of us who were down below that morning, the retirees leaving the hotel, the waiters sitting on the terrace watching the little plane’s maneuvers, Frau Else hard at work, and El Quemado loafing on the beach, were in some way condemned to walk in darkness.
Was this true of Ingeborg, too, protected by the orderliness of a sensible city and a sensible job? Was it true of my bosses and officemates, who understood, suspected, and waited? Was it true of Conrad, who was loyal and guileless and the best friend anybody could ask for? Was everyone down in the depths?
As I ate breakfast the tentacles of a huge sun crept over the Paseo Marítimo and all the terraces without managing to actually warm anything. Not even the plastic chairs. I caught a glimpse of Frau Else at the reception desk, and though we didn’t speak I thought I detected a trace of affection in her gaze. I asked my waiter what the hell the plane up there was trying to write. It’s commemorating September 11th, he said. But what is there to commemorate? Today is Catalonia Day, he said. El Quemado, on the beach, kept pacing back and forth. I waved; he didn’t see me.
What goes almost unnoticed in the hotel and campground zone is glaringly evident in the old town. The streets are decorated and flags hang from windows and balconies. Most of the businesses are closed, and the bars full of people make it clear that it’s a holiday. In front of a movie theater some adolescents have set up a couple tables where they’re selling books, pamphlets, and little flags. When I ask what kind of literature it is, a skinny kid, no older than fifteen, says “patriotic books.” What does he mean by that? One of his friends, laughing, shouted something that I didn’t catch. They’re Catalan books! said the skinny kid. I bought one and walked away. In the church square—just a few old ladies whispering on a bench—I glanced through it and then tossed it in a trash can.
I returned to the hotel, taking the long way around.
That afternoon I called Ingeborg. First I tidied the room: papers on the night table, dirty clothes under the bed, all the windows open so that I could see the sky and the sea, and the balcony doors open so that I could see the beach all the way to the port. The conversation was chillier than I expected. On the beach people were swimming and there was no trace of the little plane. I said that Charly had turned up. After an embarrassing silence Ingeborg replied that sooner or later it was bound to happen. Call Hanna, let her know, I said. Not necessary, according to Ingeborg. The German consulate would inform Charly’s parents and Hanna would find out from them. After a while I realized that we didn’t have anything to say to each other. And yet I wasn’t the one who ended the conversation. I described the weather, what it was like at the hotel and the beach, how things were at the clubs, though since she left I haven’t set foot in a single one. I didn’t say that, of course. At last, as if we were afraid of waking up someone asleep nearby, we hung up. Then I called Conrad and more or less repeated the same thing. Then I decided not to make any more calls.
Reassessment of August 31. Ingeborg says what she thinks, and what she thought was that I’d left. Of course I was dumb enough not to ask her where she thought I would go. To Stuttgart? Did she have any reason to think I might have gone to Stuttgart? Furthermore: when I woke up and our eyes met we didn’t recognize each other. I realized it and she realized it, too, and turned away. She didn’t want me to look at her! That I, who had just woken, shouldn’t have recognized her, is normal; what’s unacceptable is that the bafflement was mutual. Was that when our love ended? It could be. In any case, something ended then. I don’t know what, though I sense its importance. She said to me: I’m scared, the Del Mar scares me, the town scares me. Had she sensed the thing—the one thing—that I was overlooking?
Seven in the evening. On the terrace with Frau Else.
“Where’s your husband?”
“In his room.”
“And where is that room?”
“On the first floor, above the kitchen. In a little corner where guests never set foot. Completely off limits.”
“Does he feel well today?”
“Not very. Do you want to visit him? No, of course you don’t.”
“I’d like to get to know him.”
“Well, you don’t have time now. I would’ve liked the two of you to meet, too, but not in the state he’s in at the moment. You understand, don’t you? On equal terms, both of you in good form.”
“Why do you think I don’t have time? Because I’m leaving for Stuttgart?”
“That’s right, because you’re going back.”
“Well, you’re wrong, I still haven’t made up my mind to leave, so if your husband gets better and you’re able to bring him to the dining room—after dinner, say—I’d like to have the pleasure of meeting him and talking to him. Especially talking to him. On equal terms.”
“So you aren’t leaving . . . ”
“Why should I? You can’t think I’ve been staying at your hotel just waiting for Charly’s body to turn up. In terrible shape, too. The body, I mean. You wouldn’t have liked it if you had to go and identify it.”
“Are you staying for me? Because we haven’t slept together?”
“His face was ravaged. From the ears to the chin, all eaten away by fish. His eyes were gone, and his skin—the skin of his face and neck—had turned nearly gray. Sometimes I think the poor bastard wasn’t Charly. He might have been, and he might not have been. I’m told that the body of an Englishman who drowned around the same time still hasn’t been found. Who knows. I didn’t want to say anything to the man from the consulate so he wouldn’t think I was crazy. But that’s what passed through my mind. How can you sleep above the kitchen?”
“It’s the biggest room in the hotel. It’s very nice. Everything a girl could ask for. And it’s the place where tradition says the owners should sleep. Before us, my husband’s parents slept there. A tradition in its infancy, really, because my in-laws built the hotel. Do you realize how disappointed everyone will be that you’re not leaving?”
“Who is everyone?”
“Oh, three or four people, my dear, please don’t be upset.”
“No, not him especially.”
“The manager at the Costa Brava; my night watchman, who’s very touchy lately; Clarita, the maid . . . ”
“Which maid? The young, skinny one?”
“She’s terrified of me. I suppose she thinks I might rape her at any moment.”
“I don’t know, I don’t know. You don’t understand women.”
“Who else wants me to leave?”
“What reason can Mr. Pere have for wanting me to leave?”
“I don’t know, maybe for him it’s like putting the case to rest.”
“How idiotic. And your night watchman? Why does he care?”
“He’s sick of you. Tired of seeing you wandering around at night like a sleepwalker. I think you make him nervous.”
“Like a sleepwalker?”
“Those were his words.”
“But I’ve only spoken to him a few times!”
“That’s not the point. He talks to all kinds of people, especially drunks. He likes to make conversation. But with you, he watches you come in and go out at night . . . with El Quemado. And he knows that the last light on in the hotel is the light in your window.”
“I thought he liked me.”
“Our watchman doesn’t like any of the guests. Especially not if he’s seen one kissing his boss.”
“A very peculiar individual. Where is he now?”
“I forbid you to talk to him, I don’t want this to get any more complicated, is that clear? He must be asleep now.”
“When I tell you the things I tell you, do you believe me?”
“Mmm . . . yes.”
“When I tell you that I’ve seen your husband at night on the beach with El Quemado, do you believe me?”
“It seems so unfair to mix him up in this, so disloyal of me.”
“But he mixed himself up in it!”
“ . . . ”
“When I tell you that the body the police showed me might not be Charly’s, do you believe me?”
“I’m not saying that they know it’s not, I’m saying we’re all wrong.”
“Yes. It wouldn’t be the first time.”
“Do you believe me, then?”
“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. I rule out your night watchman, of course, though unconsciously he’s aware of it, too, which is why he doesn’t like me. Working at night heightens some of the senses.”
“Now you’ve gone too far, don’t ask me to be an accomplice to
“It’s too bad because you’re the only one who’s any help to me, the only one I can trust.”
“You should go back to Germany.”
“With my tail between my legs.”
“No, with your mind at ease, ready to reflect on what you’ve experienced.”
“Slip away unnoticed, the way El Quemado wishes he could.”
“Poor boy. He lives in a perpetual prison.”
“Forgetting that at a certain point everything has sounded hellish to me, musically speaking.”
“What is it you’re so afraid of?”
“I’m not afraid of anything. Soon you’ll see for yourself.”
We climbed slowly to the top of the hill. From the lookout point, some hundred people, adults and children, watched the lights of the town, holding their breath and pointing toward a spot on the horizon between the sky and the sea, as if a miracle were about to occur and the sun were about to rise out of turn. It’s Catalonia Day, a voice whispered in my ear. I know, I said. What’s supposed to happen now? Frau Else smiled and her index finger, so long it was almost transparent, pointed toward where everyone was looking. Suddenly, from one, two, or more fishing boats that no one could see or at least that I couldn’t see, preceded by a sound like chalk on a blackboard, there appeared various bursts of fireworks that together made up, according to Frau Else, the Catalonian flag. Soon all that was left were the tentacles of smoke and everyone went back to their cars and drove down to the town, where the late summer night awaited them.
Battles in England. The German army is unable to take London, but the British army can’t manage to push me back to the sea either. Copious losses. The British fighting strength grows. In the Soviet Union, the Attrition Option. El Quemado is waiting for 1942. Meanwhile, he holds on.
“In Great Britain: Reichenau, Salmuth, and Hoth.”
“In the Soviet Union: Guderian, Kleist, Busch, Kluge, von Weichs, Küchler, Manstein, Model, Rommel, Heinrici, and Geyr.”
“In Africa: Reinhardt and Hoeppner.”
My BRP: low, which means it’s impossible to choose the Offensive Option in the East, West, or Mediterranean. Sufficient only to rebuild units. (Hasn’t El Quemado noticed? What’s he waiting for?)
A cloudy day. It’s been raining since four in the morning and the forecast calls for more rain. Still, it’s not cold and from the balcony one can watch children in their bathing suits jumping waves on the beach, if not for long. The atmosphere in the dining room, invaded by card-playing guests who stare gloomily at the fogged-up windows, is charged with electricity and suspicion. When I sit down and order breakfast I’m observed by the disapproving faces of people who can hardly grasp that there are those who rise after noon. At the entrance to the hotel, a bus has been waiting for hours (the driver is gone now) to take a group of tourists to Barcelona. The bus is a pearl gray color, like the horizon upon which there appear the faint silhouettes (but this must be an optical illusion) of milky whirlwinds, like explosions or fissures of light under the roof of the storm. After breakfast I go out onto the terrace: immediately I feel the cold rain on my face and I retreat. Miserable weather, says an old German in shorts sitting in the TV room smoking a cigar. The bus is waiting for him, among others, but he doesn’t seem to be in a hurry. From my balcony I can see that the only pedal boats left on the beach, forlorn, looking more like a tumbledown shack than ever, are El Quemado’s; for everyone else the summer season is over. I closed the balcony doors and went out again; at the reception desk I was told that Frau Else had left the hotel first thing in the morning and wouldn’t be back until that night. I asked whether she’d gone out alone. No. With her husband. I covered the distance between the Costa Brava and the Del Mar by car. When I got out I was sweating. At the Costa Brava I found Mr. Pere reading the paper. “Friend Udo, how delightful to see you!” He really did seem to be happy, so I let down my guard. For a while we exchanged banalities about the weather. Then Mr. Pere said that he would send me to his doctor. Alarmed, I refused. “Take a few little pills, if nothing else!” I asked for a cognac and drank it in a single gulp. Then I asked for another. When I tried to pay, Mr. Pere said it was on the hotel. “You’re already paying for the anxiety of the wait, and that’s enough!” I thanked him and after a bit I got up. Mr. Pere followed me to the door. Before we parted I told him that I was keeping a diary. A diary? A diary of my vacation, of my life, basically. Oh, I see, said Mr. Pere. In my day that was for girls . . . and poets. I detected the mockery: smooth, weary, deeply malicious. Before us the sea seemed about to leap onto the Paseo Marítimo. I’m not a poet, I said, smiling. I’m interested in daily life, even the unpleasant parts; for example, I’d like to write something in my diary about the rape. Mr. Pere looked pale. What rape? The one that happened just before my friend drowned. (At that instant, maybe because I’d referred to Charly as a friend, I was seized by a wave of nausea so severe it gave me the shivers.) You’re wrong, spluttered Mr. Pere. There was no rape here, though of course in the past we haven’t been able to completely avoid such embarrassing incidents, generally attributable to outside elements, since today, as you know, our main problem is the decline in the quality of our tourists, etc. Then I must be wrong, I said. No doubt, no doubt. We shook hands and I ran to the car to escape the downpour.
I want to talk to Frau Else, or see her for a while, but El Quemado turns up before she does. For a moment, from the balcony, I consider the possibility of not receiving him. All I have to do is not show up at the entrance to the hotel, since if I don’t go to meet him, El Quemado won’t come any further. But he must have spotted me from the beach when I was on the balcony, and now I wonder whether I didn’t stand there precisely so El Quemado would see me, or to prove to myself that I wasn’t afraid of being seen. An easy target: I exhibit myself behind the wet glass in order to be spotted by El Quemado, the Wolf, and the Lamb.
It’s still raining; during the afternoon the hotel has gradually been emptying of tourists, picked up by Dutch buses. What can Frau Else be doing? Now that everyone has gone is she sitting in a doctor’s waiting room? Is she strolling on her husband’s arm along the streets of the Barri Gòtic? Are they on their way to a little movie theater almost hidden in the trees? Unexpectedly, El Quemado launches an offensive in England. It fails. Because of my lack of BRP, my response is limited. On the other fronts there are no changes, though the Soviet line is reinforced. The truth is that I stop paying attention to the game. (Not so El Quemado, who spends the night circling the table and making calculations in a notebook, which he brought today for the first time!) The rain, persistent thoughts of Frau Else, a vague and languid nostalgia make me lie on the bed smoking and leafing through the photocopies that I brought with me from Stuttgart and that I suspect will be left here, in some trash can. How many columnists really think through what they write? How many have a passion for it? I could work for The General; even in my sleep—sleepwalking, as Frau Else’s watchman says—I could demolish them. How many have looked into the abyss? Only Rex Douglas knows anything about it! (Beyma, perhaps, is historically rigorous, and Michael Anchors is original and bursting with enthusiasm, a kind of American Conrad.) The rest: deadly boring and inconsistent. When I tell El Quemado that the papers I’m reading are plans for beating him, all moves and countermoves foreseen, all expenses foreseen, all possible strategies invariably noted, a hideous smile crosses his face (against his will, I have to believe), and that is his only answer. As a coda: a few little steps, back hunched, tweezers in hand, troop movements. I don’t watch him. I know he won’t cheat. His BRP have also dropped to a minimum, just enough to keep his armies alive. Has the rain put an end to his business? Surprisingly El Quemado says no. That the sun will come out again. And meanwhile, what? Will you keep living under the pedal boats? With his back to me, moving counters, he responds mechanically that it’s no problem for him. Sleeping on the wet sand isn’t a problem? El Quemado whistles a song.
El Quemado arrrives earlier than usual today. And he comes up alone, without waiting for me to meet him. When I open the door, he looks like a figure rubbed out with an eraser. (Like a suitor who, instead of flowers, carries photocopies clutched to his chest.) Soon I realize what’s behind this transformation. The initiative is now his. The offensive mounted by the Soviet army unfolds in the zone between Lake Onega and Yaroslavl; his armored units breach my front in Hex E48 and move north, toward Karelia, leaving four German infantry corps and a German armored corps cut off at the gates of Vologda. With this move the eastern flank of the armies pressing toward Kuibyshev and Kazan is left totally exposed. The only immediate solution is to bring in units during the Strategic Redeployment phase, units from Army Group South deployed on the Volga and Caucasus lines, thereby lessening the pressure on Batum and Astrakhan. El Quemado knows this and seizes his advantage. Though his face remains unchanged, sunk in God knows what hells, I can still sense—in the creases of his cheeks!—the relish with which he executes his ever more agile movements. The offensive, calculated down to the last detail, has been set up a turn in advance. (For example, the only usable air base within the zone of the offensive is in the city of Vologda; Kirov, the next closest, is too far; to solve the problem, and since a greater concentration of air support was required, in the winter 1941 turn he moved an air-base counter to Hex C51 . . . ) He’s not improvising; not at all. In the West the only substantial change is the entry into the war of the United States; a soft entry due to the limitations of Initial Deployment, which means that the British army must wait to act until it has achieved the necessary conditions for a war of matériel (the BRP expenditures of the Western allies are mostly earmarked for the support of the USSR). Ultimately, the situation of the American army in Great Britain is as follows: Fifth and Tenth infantry corps in Rosyth, five air factors in Liverpool, and nine naval factors in Belfast. The Option that he chooses for the West is Attrition, and he has no luck with the dice. My Option is also Attrition and I manage to occupy a hex in the southwest of England, vital for my plans in the next turn. In the summer of ’42 I’ll take London, defeat the British, and the Americans will have their Dunkirk. Meanwhile I amuse myself with El Quemado’s photocopies. Copies that only eventually does he acknowledge are for me. A gift. They make for surprising reading. But I’d rather not show too much vulnerability, so I choose to see the funny side and ask where he got them. El Quemado’s answers—and my questions gradually begin to adjust themselves to the same rhythm—are slow, bristling, as if they’ve just learned to stand upright and walk. They’re for you, he says. I got them from a book. A book of his, a book he keeps under the pedal boats? No. A book borrowed from the Catalonia Pension Fund Library. He shows me his membership card. Incredible. He goes rummaging around in the library of a bank and finds this shit to fling in my face, no less. Now El Quemado gives me a sidelong glance, waiting for the fear to blossom in the room; his shadow falls on the wall near the door, indefinable and quivering. I refuse to give him satisfaction. Coolly and carefully, I set the copies on the night table. Later, when I walk him to the door of the hotel, I ask him to stop with me for a moment at the reception desk. The watchman is reading a magazine. Our intrusion into his domain irritates him, but fear prevails. I ask for push pins. Push pins? His wary gaze flits from El Quemado to me as if he expects a bad joke and doesn’t want to be caught off guard. Yes, you idiot, check the drawers and get me a few, I shout. (I’ve discovered that the watchman is the cowardly, shrinking type who requires a firm hand.) As he rummages through the desk drawers, I catch a glimpse of a few porn magazines. Finally, wavering between triumph and hesitance, he holds up a little clear plastic jar of push pins. Do you want all of them? he whispers as if he’s about to put an end to this nightmare. Shrugging, I ask El Quemado how many photocopies there are. Four, he says, uncomfortable and staring at the floor. He doesn’t like my lessons in the use of force. Four push pins, I repeat, and hold out my hand, into which the clerk carefully deposits two green and two red pins. Then, without a backward glance, I walk El Quemado to the door and we say our good-byes. The Paseo Marítimo is deserted and poorly lit (someone has smashed one of the streetlights) but I stand behind the glass until I’m satisfied that El Quemado has hopped down to the beach and vanished in the direction of the pedal boats; only then do I go back to my room. There I calmly choose a wall (the one against which my bed stands) and tack up the photocopies. Then I wash my hands and carefully pore over the game.
El Quemado is a quick study, but the next turn will be mine.
It was two in the afternoon when I got up. My body ached and an inner voice told me that I should try to spend as little time as possible at the hotel. I went out without even showering. After coffee at a nearby bar and a glance at some of the German papers, I returned to the Del Mar and inquired after Frau Else. Not back yet from Barcelona. Nor is her husband, obviously. The atmosphere at the reception desk is hostile. Same at the bar. Dirty looks from the waiters, that kind of thing. Nothing serious. The sun was shining, though there were still some black clouds on the horizon, heavy with rain, so I put on my bathing trunks and went to keep El Quemado company. The pedal boats were unstacked, but El Quemado was nowhere to be seen. I decided to wait for him and lay down in the sand. I hadn’t brought a book so the only thing I could do was stare at the sky, which was a deep blue, and remember happy things to pass the time. At some point, of course, I fell asleep; the beach—warm and nearly empty, the clamor of August now remote—was conducive to sleep. I dreamed then about Florian Linden. Ingeborg and I were at the hotel in a room like ours, and someone was knocking at the door. Ingeborg didn’t want me to see who it was. Don’t, she said, if you love me, don’t do it. As she spoke her lips trembled. It might be something urgent, I said resolutely, but when I tried to move toward the door Ingeborg clung to me with both hands so that I couldn’t move at all. Let me go, I shouted, let me go, as the pounding grew louder and louder, until I thought that maybe Ingeborg was right and it was best to stay where we were. In the struggle Ingeborg fell to the floor. I gazed down at her from far above. She was in some kind of swoon, with her legs flung wide. Anyone could rape you now, I said, and then she opened one eye, just one, the left one, I think, huge and ultrablue, and didn’t take it off me; wherever I moved it followed me. Its expression, I’d say, though I can’t be sure, wasn’t vigilant or accusatory, but curious, attentive to something new, and terrified. Then I couldn’t stand it any longer and I pressed my ear to the door. The person outside wasn’t knocking, he was scratching the door from the other side! Who is it? I asked. Florian Linden, private detective, answered a tiny voice. Do you want to come in? No, for the love of God don’t open the door! Florian Linden’s voice insisted, more vigorously, though not much. It was clear that he was hurt. For a while we were both silent, trying to listen, but the truth is that there was nothing to be heard. It was as if the hotel were underwater. Even the temperature was different. It was colder now and since we were wearing summer clothes, that made it worse. Soon it became unbearable and I had to get up and get blankets out of the closet to wrap around Ingeborg and me. But it was no good. Ingeborg began to sob: she said she couldn’t feel her legs anymore and we were going to freeze to death. You’ll only die if you fall asleep, I promised, trying not to look at her. On the other side of the door something could be heard at last. Steps: someone was approaching, as if on tiptoe, and then retreating. The same progression three times. Is that you, Florian? Yes, it’s me, but now I have to leave, answered Florian Linden. What’s going on? Shady business, I don’t have time to explain. You’re safe for now, though you’d better go home tomorrow morning. Home? The detective’s voice creaked and crackled as he spoke. They’re vaporizing him! I thought. Then I tried to open the door and I couldn’t get up. I had no feeling in my feet or hands. I was frozen. In terror, I realized that there was no way out and we were going to die at the hotel. Ingeborg had stopped moving; she was sprawled at my feet and all that could be seen of her under the blanket was her long blonde hair on the black tile floor. I would have liked to hug her and weep I felt so forlorn, but just then, without any help from me, the door opened. Where Florian Linden should have been there was no one, but there was a huge shadow at the end of the corridor. Then I opened my eyes, trembling, and I saw the cloud, giant and dark, looming over the town and lumbering like an aircraft carrier toward the hills. I was cold; everyone had left the beach and El Quemado wasn’t going to come. I don’t know how long I lay there on the sand, looking up at the sky. I was in no hurry. I might have been there for hours and hours. When at last I decided to get up, instead of the hotel I headed for the sea. The water was warm and dirty. I swam for a bit. The dark cloud kept moving overhead. Then I stopped stroking and sank down until I touched the bottom. I’m not sure whether I made it; while I was underwater I think I kept my eyes wide open, but I didn’t see anything. I was being swept out to sea. When I emerged I saw that I hadn’t drifted as far from the shore as I thought. I returned to the pedal boats, picked up my towel, and dried myself carefully. It was the first time that El Quemado hadn’t showed up for work. Suddenly shivers ran through me. I did some exercises: push-ups, sit-ups, a brief jog. When I was dry I tied the towel around my waist and walked off to the Andalusia Lodge. There I asked for a cognac and I told the owner that I would come by later to pay. Then I asked after El Quemado. No one had seen him.
The afternoon dragged on. Frau Else never turned up at the hotel, nor did El Quemado appear on the beach, though at six the sun came out and near the point by the campgrounds I spotted a pedal boat, beach umbrellas, and people playing in the waves. My stretch of beach wasn’t as lively. The hotel guests had signed up en masse for an excursion—to a vineyard or a famous monastery, I seem to remember—and the only people left on the terrace were a few old men and the waiters. By the time it started to get dark I knew what I wanted to do, and soon afterward I asked the reception desk to put through a call to Germany. Before the call went through I had reviewed the state of my finances and discovered that I had only enough to pay the bill, spend one more night at the Del Mar, and put a little gasoline in the car. On the fifth or sixth attempt I managed to reach Conrad. His voice sounded sleepy. And there were other voices in the background. I got straight to the point. I said I needed money. I said I planned to stay a few more days.
“How many days?”
“I don’t know, it depends.”
“Why are you staying?”
“That’s my business. I’ll return the money as soon as I get back.”
“The way you’re acting, a person might think you never plan to come back.”
“What an absurd idea. What could I do here for the rest of my life?”
“Nothing, I know; but do you know it?”
“Actually, there are things I could do here; I could work as a tour guide; start my own business. This place is full of tourists and a person who can speak three languages will always be able to find work.”
“Your place is here. Your career is here.”
“What career are you talking about? The office?”
“I’m talking about writing, Udo, the articles for Rex Douglas, the novels, yes, listen to me, the novels you could write if you weren’t such a mess. I’m talking about the plans we’ve made together . . . The cathedrals . . . do you remember?”
“Thank you, Conrad; yes, you’re probably right . . . ”
“Come back as soon as you can. I’ll send the money tomorrow. Your friend’s body must already be in Germany. End of story. What more is there for you to do there?”
“Who told you that they’d found Charly? . . . Ingeborg?”
“Of course. She’s worried about you. We see each other almost every day. And we talk. I tell her things about you. From before you met. The day before yesterday I took her to your apartment. She wanted to see it.
“My apartment? Shit! And did she go in?”
“Obviously. She had her key but she didn’t want to go alone. Between the two of us we cleaned it up. The floor needed a sweeping. And she took some things of hers, a sweater, some records . . . I don’t think she’ll be happy to hear that you’ve borrowed money in order to stay longer. She’s a good girl but there’s a limit to her patience.”
“What else did she do there?”
“Nothing. I told you: she swept, threw out the spoiled things in the refrigerator . . . ”
“She didn’t go through my files?”
“Of course not.”
“What about you? What did you do?”
“For God’s sake, Udo, the same things.”
“All right . . . Thanks . . . So you see each other often?”
“Every day. I think it’s because she doesn’t have anyone to talk to about you. She wanted to call your parents but I convinced her not to. I don’t think it’s a good idea to worry them.”
“My parents wouldn’t worry. They know the town . . . and the hotel.”
“I don’t know. I hardly know your parents, I don’t know how they’d react.”
“You hardly know Ingeborg either.”
“True. You’re our connection. Though it seems to me that we’ve gotten to be friends, in a way. These last few days I’ve gotten to know her better and I really like her; she’s not just beautiful, she’s smart and practical, too.”
“I know. The same thing always happens. She’s . . . ”
“What, she’s seduced me?”
“No, seduced isn’t the right word; she’s like ice. She has a calming effect on you. On you and everybody else. Being with her is like being alone, focused exclusively on your own pursuits, in a state of total relaxation.”
“Don’t talk like that. Ingeborg loves you. Tomorrow I promise I’ll send you the money. Are you coming back?”
“I don’t understand what’s keeping you there. Is there something you haven’t told me? I’m your best friend . . . ”
“I want to stay a few days longer, that’s all. There’s no mystery. I want to think, write, enjoy the place now that there’s hardly anybody here.”
“That’s it? Nothing to do with Ingeborg?”
“Don’t be silly, of course not.”
“I’m happy to hear it. How is your match going?”
“Summer of ’42. I’m winning.”
“I figured as much. Do you remember that match against Mathias Müller? The one we played a year ago at the Chess Club?”
“A Third Reich. Franz, you, and me against the group from Forced Marches.”
“Yes, and what happened?”
“Don’t you remember? We won and Mathias was so angry—he’s a bad loser, you know—that he swung a chair at little Bernd Rahn and broke it.”
“That’s right. The members of the Chess Club kicked him out and he hasn’t shown his face there since. Remember how we laughed that night?”
“Sure, of course, my memory is still good. It’s just that some things don’t seem so funny to me anymore. But I remember everything.”
“Oh, no doubt.”
“Ask me a question, anything, and you’ll see . . . ”
“I believe you, I do . . . ”
“Ask me. Ask if I remember which parachute divisions were at Anzio.”
“I’m sure you do . . . ”
“Ask me . . . ”
“All right, which . . . ”
“The First Division: First, Third, and Fourth regiments; the Second Division: Second, Fifth, and Sixth regiments; and the Fourth Division: Tenth, Eleventh, and Twelfth regiments.”
“Very good . . . ”
“Now ask me about the SS Panzer Divisions in Fortress Europa.”
“All right, what are they?”
“The First Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, the Second Das Reich, the Ninth Hohenstaufen, the Tenth Frundsberg, and the Twelfth Hitlerjugend.”
“Perfect. Your memory is in perfect working order.”
“What about yours? Do you remember who led the 352nd, Heimito Gerhardt’s infantry division?”
“All right, that’s enough.”
“Tell me, do you remember or not?”
“No . . . ”
“It’s very simple, you can check it tonight in Omaha Beachhead or in any book of military history. General Dietrich Kraiss was the division commander and Colonel Meyer was the head of Heimito’s regiment, the 915th.”
“All right, I’ll look it up. Is that all?”
“I’ve been thinking about Heimito. He really does know everything. He can recite from memory the complete setup for the Longest Day, down to battalion level.”
“Of course, since that’s when he was taken prisoner.”
“Don’t mock him, Heimito is one of a kind. I wonder how he’s doing now?”
“Fine, why wouldn’t he be?”
“Because he’s old and everything changes; because people abandon you, Conrad, I’m surprised you don’t know that.”
“He’s a tough, happy old man. And he isn’t alone. He went to Spain in July with his wife on vacation. He sent me a postcard from Seville.”
“Yes, I got one too. The truth is I couldn’t read his handwriting. I should have asked to take my vacation in July.”
“So you could travel with Heimito?”
“We can still do it in December. For the Paris convention. I got the program a little while ago, it’ll be quite the affair.”
“It’s not the same. I wasn’t talking about that.”
“We’ll be able to present our paper. You’ll get to meet Rex Douglas in person. We’ll play a World in Flames with native citizens. Try to muster a little enthusiasm. It will be fantastic . . . ”
“What do you mean a World in Flames with native citizens?”
“A team of Germans will play Germany, a team of Brits will play Great Britain, a team of Frenchmen will play France, each group under its own flag.”
“I had no idea. Who will play the Soviet Union?”
“That’s a good question. The French, I think, though you never know, there might be some surprises . . . ”
“And Japan? Will the Japanese come?”
“I don’t know, maybe. If Rex Douglas comes, why not the Japanese . . . Though maybe we’ll have to play Japan ourselves, or the Belgian delegation can. I’m sure the French organizers have it all worked out.”
“The Belgians will be ridiculous as the Japanese.”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”
“This all sounds ridiculous. I can’t believe it’s true. So the main event of the convention will be World in Flames? Whose idea was that?”
“Not exactly the main event; it’s just in the program and people are excited about it.”
“I thought Third Reich would be given a place of honor.”
“And it will, Udo, during the presentation of papers.”
“Right, while I’m droning on about multiple strategies everyone will be watching World in Flames.”
“You’re wrong. Our talk is on the 21st in the afternoon, and the match takes place after the lectures each day, from the 20th to the 23rd. And the game was chosen because several teams could play, not for any other reason.”
“Now I don’t feel like going . . . Of course the French want to play the Soviet Union because they know we’ll wipe them out on the first afternoon . . . Why don’t they play Japan? . . . Out of loyalty to the old alliances, of course . . . They’ll probably monopolize Rex Douglas the minute he lands . . . ”
“You shouldn’t speculate like this, it’s pointless.”
“And the Cologne gang will be there, of course . . . ”
“All right. Enough. Say hello to Ingeborg.”
“Come back soon.”
“Don’t be depressed.”
“I’m not depressed. I’m fine here. Happy.”
“Call me. Remember that Conrad is your best friend.”
“I know. Conrad is my best friend. Good-bye . . . ”
Summer 1942. El Quemado shows up at eleven. I hear his shouts as I’m lying in bed reading the Florian Linden novel. Udo, Udo Berger, his voice echoes on the empty Paseo Marítimo. My first impulse is to lie still and wait. El Quemado’s call is hoarse and raw as if fire had also injured his throat. When I open the balcony doors I see him on the sidewalk across the street, sitting on the seawall of the Paseo Marítimo waiting for me as if he has all the time in the world, with a big plastic bag at his feet. There’s a familiar air of terror to our greeting, to the way we acknowledge each other, essentially encapsulated in the abruptly silent and absolute manner in which we raise our arms. Between the two of us a stern and mute awareness is established, to galvanizing effect. But this state is brief and lasts only until El Quemado, in the room now, opens the bag to reveal an abundance of beers and sandwiches. Pathetic but sincere cornucopia! (Earlier, when I passed the reception desk, I asked for Frau Else again. She isn’t back yet, said the watchman, avoiding my gaze. Next to him, sitting in a huge white armchair, an old man with a German paper on his knees watches me with a scarcely concealed smile on his fleshless lips. Judging by his appearance one would say he has no more than a year left to live. And yet from beneath that extreme thinness, the cheekbones and temples especially prominent, the old man stares at me with a strange intensity, as if he knew me. How goes the war? asks the watchman, and then the old man’s smile grows more marked. If only I could stretch over the counter and grab the watchman by the shirt and shake him, but the watchman senses something and backs a little farther away. I’m an admirer of Rommel, he explains. The old man nods in agreement. No, you’re a miserable loser, I shoot back. The old man forms a tiny o with his lips and nods again. Maybe, says the watchman. The looks of hatred that we shoot at each other are naked and full of real aggression. And you’re scum, I add, wanting to put him over the edge or at least get him to come a few inches closer to the counter. Well, that’s that, then, murmurs the old man in German, and he gets up. He’s very tall and his arms, like a cave man’s, dangle down almost to his knees. Actually, that’s a false impression, caused by the old man’s stoop. Still, his height is notable: standing upright he must be [or must once have been] well over six feet tall. But it’s in his voice, the voice of a stubborn dying man, that his authority lies. Almost immediately, as if all he’d intended was for me to see him in his full grandeur, he drops back into the armchair and asks: Any further difficulties? No, of course not, the watchman hastens to say. No, none, I say. Perfect, says the old man, infusing the word with malice and virulence; per-fect, and he closes his eyes.)
El Quemado and I eat sitting on the bed, staring at the wall where I’ve pinned up the photocopies. Without needing to put it into words, he understands the degree of defiance in me. The degree of acceptance. Regardless, we eat wrapped in a silence interrupted only by banal observations that are really silences, added by us to the great silence that for something like an hour has fallen over the hotel and the town.
Finally we wash our hands so we don’t stain the tokens with oil and we start to play.
Later I’ll take London and lose it immediately. I’ll counterattack in the East and be forced to retreat.
—Translated from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer