IN OUR PREVIOUS INSTALLMENTS...
In August, Udo Berger, a young war-games champion, returned to the Del Mar Hotel, where he used to spend summers as a child. He found the Costa Brava changed, seedier and less welcoming than he remembered; soon he and his girlfriend, Ingeborg, fell among shady company: Charly and Hanna, fellow Germans in a tempestuous—sometimes violent—relationship; two underemployed locals known only as the Wolf and the Lamb; and El Quemado—the Burn Victim—a disfigured young man who rents pedal boats on the beach.
Udo had planned to spend his vacation developing a new strategy for the war game known as The Third Reich, but finds himself distracted by these new acquaintances. When Charly disappears in a windsurfing accident, Udo resolves to stay in Spain until his body is discovered. After Ingeborg goes back to Stuttgart, Udo embarks on a romance with Frau Else, the enigmatic owner of the Del Mar, whose ailing husband emerges only at night.
To pass his evenings, Udo begins a game of The Third Reich with El Quemado. Udo hardly expects a challenge from the mysterious loner, but El Quemado turns out to be a natural. Udo’s pleased surprise gives way to suspicion as El Quemado (playing the side of the Allies) forces Udo’s troops to retreat on the Eastern front. Even when Charly’s body washes up, Udo stays on in Spain, unable to tear himself away from either Frau Else or the match. And yet, as he haunts the empty hotel, deserted beaches, and shabby cantinas, Udo feels a growing sense of dread, “something intangible, strange, circling around me in a threatening way.”
Anzio. Fortress Europa.
Omaha Beachhead. Summer 1942
I walked the beach when all was dark, reciting the names of the forgotten, names languishing on dusty shelves, until the sun came out again. But are they forgotten names or only names in waiting? I remembered the player as viewed by someone from above, just the head, shoulders, and the back of the hands, and the board game and counters like a stage set, where thousands of beginnings and endings eternally unfold, a kaleidoscopic theater, the only bridge between the player and his memory, a memory that is desire and gaze. How many infantry divisions was it—depleted, untrained—that held the Western front? Which ones halted the advance in Italy, despite treachery? Which armored divisions pierced the French defenses in ’40 and the Russian defenses in ’41 and ’42? And with what key division did Field Marshal Manstein retake Kharkov and exorcise the disaster? What infantry divisions fought to clear the way for tanks in 1944, in the Ardennes? And how many countless combat groups sacrificed themselves to stall the enemy on all fronts? No one can agree. Only the player’s memory knows. Roaming the beach or curled up in my room I invoke the names and they come in soothing waves. My favorite counters: the First Parachute in Anzio, the Panzer Lehr and the First SS LAH in Fortress Europa, the eleven counters of the Third Parachute in Omaha Beachhead, the Seventh Armored Division in France ’40, the Third Armored Division in Panzerkrieg, the First SS Armored Corps in Russian Campaign, the Fortieth Armored Corps in Russian Front, the First SS LAH in Cobra, the Grossdeutschland Armored Corps in Third Reich, the Twenty-first Armored Division in the Longest Day, the One Hundred and Fourth Infantry Regiment in Panzer Armee Afrika . . . Not even reading Sven Hassel aloud at the top of the lungs could be more invigorating . . . (Oh, who was it who read nothing but Sven Hassel? Everyone will say it was M. M.—it sounds like him, it suits him—but it was someone else, someone who resembled his own shadow, someone Conrad and I liked to mock. This kid organized a role-playing festival in Stuttgart in ’85. With the whole city as stage he set up a macrogame about the last days of Berlin, using the reworked rules of Judge Dredd. Describing it now I can see the interest it sparks in El Quemado, interest that could well be faked to distract me from the match, a legitimate but vain strategy, since I can move my corps with my eyes closed. What the game—dubbed Berlin Bunker—was about, what its objectives were, how victory was achieved, and who achieved it were never quite clear. Twelve people played the ring of soldiers defending Berlin. Six people played the Nation and the Party and could move only inside the ring. Three people played the Leadership, and their task was to manage the other eighteen so that they weren’t left outside the perimeter when it shrunk, as it generally did, and especially to prevent the perimeter from being breached, which was inevitable. There was a final player whose role was murky and secret; he could [and should] move all over the besieged city, but he was the only one who never knew the coordinates of the defensive ring; he could [and did] move all over the city, but he was the only one who didn’t know any of the other players; he had the capacity to unseat a member of the Leadership and replace him with a member of the Nation, for example, but he did this blindly, leaving written orders and receiving reports in an agreed-upon spot. His power was as great as his blindness—his innocence, according to Sven Hassel—and his freedom was as great as his constant exposure to danger. He was watched over by a kind of invisible and careful guardian, because his fate determined the ultimate destiny of all. The game, as might have been predicted, ended disastrously, with players lost in the suburbs, cheating, plotting, protesting, sectors of the ring abandoned at nightfall, players who throughout the entire match saw only the referee, etc. Naturally neither Conrad nor I took part, though Conrad went to the trouble of following events from the gymnasium of the School of Industrial Arts where the festival was held and was later able to explain to me the initial dismay and then the moral collapse of Sven Hassel when faced with the evidence of his failure. A few months later Hassel left Stuttgart, and now, according to Conrad, who knows everything, he lives in Paris and has taken up painting. I wouldn’t be surprised to run into him at the convention . . . )
After midnight, the photocopies tacked to the wall take on a funereal air, little doors to the void.
“It’s starting to get chilly,” I say.
El Quemado is wearing a leather jacket, too small, doubtless the gift of some charitable soul. The jacket is old but well made; when he comes over to the game board after eating, he takes it off and sets it on the bed, folding it carefully. His abstracted courtesy is touching. He has a notebook (or maybe a diary, like mine?) in which he jots down the strategic or economic shifts in his alliance, a notebook that he never lets out of his sight . . . It’s as if he’s found, in Third Reich, a satisfactory mode of communication. Here, alongside the map and the force pool, he isn’t a monster but rather a thinking being who expresses himself through hundreds of counters . . . He’s a dictator and a creator . . . And he’s having fun . . . If it weren’t for the photocopies, I’d say that I’ve done him a favor. But these are like a clear warning, the first signal that I should watch my step.
“Quemado,” I ask him, “do you like the game?”
“Yes, I do.”
“And do you think that because you’ve brought me to a standstill you’re going to win?”
“I don’t know, it’s still too early to tell.”
As I open the balcony doors to let the night air clear the smoke from the room, El Quemado, like a dog, his head tilted, snuffles with difficulty and says:
“Tell me which counters are your favorite. Which divisions you think are the most beautiful (yes, literally!) and which battles the most difficult. Talk to me about the games . . . ”