Sunday, July 29, 2012

intricate themes or universal themes in fiction

A casual reflection on what makes some classic fiction linger in memory suggests character and place are probably the most compelling reasons.  Character often includes a memorable physical appearance, personal traits, and voice.  Place in memorable fiction might be a character's interior state of mind: think of Kafka's stories; or, the external, physical world: think of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, or Llewellyn's coal mining region of Wales.  Also, memorable fiction tends toward having universal themes: love found or requited; bravery or cowardice; faith or lack of it; and so on.  The trappings or settings of any time period may also add to the interest of the story: for example, the clothing worn; the profession or trade of the character; the tools or machines of the time.

The framework of elements found in memorable fiction came to mind while reading Roberto Bolano's "Third Reich."  The novel is worth reading, but time is needed to tell how memorable it will become for me.  Two German couples, including the first-person narrator, Udo, are on holiday in Spain, do a lot of drinking in local bars, become acquainted with two local characters, nicknamed the Wolf and the Lamb, and another withdrawn character, called El Quemado.  He tends a fleet of rickety paddle boats on the beach, and sleeps among his boats each night.  Grotesque burn scars cover much of his body, and he is a very withdrawn man.

The story framework brings to mind some of the structure of Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises," another story set in Spain, with endless bar hopping and drinking, and portraying relationships of the men and women on holiday.  Where Hemingway uses sport fishing as a balancing literary diversion, Bolano uses Udo's passion for a war game, called "Third Reich," a board game based on WWII.  The game includes all the fighting units of the combatant armies, with details right down to the names, strengths, and weaknesses of the individual generals who commanded the actual fighting units.  Depending on the competing players' abilities, the outcome of a game may be different than the actual, historic outcome.  Udo is a renowned expert on the game in his homeland, and he keeps a game board set up in his hotel room while on vacation to help in research needed to write a current article on the game for publication.  Udo eventually teaches Quemado the rudiments of the game, and they begin to play an ongoing game for a few hours every day.  Unsettled by the presumed drowning of his compatriot Charly and the subsequent departure of their two girlfriends for Germany, Udo's game begins to suffer and the German Army positions wither.  Quemado's skill with the Allied Armies fortunes meanwhile improves rapidly, partly aided by the hotel's German expatriate owner spying on the games progress in Udo's room while he is away each day, and advising Quemado each night in his hut on the beach.  The story ends on a very somber, life-is-almost-over note for Udo.

A point of interest for a writer reading the story might be whether the inclusion of a somewhat specialized contemporary interest, i.e., the board game, which can require pages of narrative exposition, might diminish a universal appeal sought for most good fiction.  Bolano, however, does a pretty good job of telling us just enough to imagine the rules and mechanics of the game, and the strategies and goals, as well as contrasting the game's action with some of the parallels or reverses to the historic campaigns and outcomes.  He injects some passion into the fate of the set pieces on the board by somehow employing the flesh and blood attributes of the professional soldiers waging the battles.  How much that can influence the outcome of novel strategies tried by the players is hard to discern, however.

The sketch introducing this blog is sort of a universal theme pose from my recent life drawing session.

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