Tuesday, April 7, 2015

A Memory that is Desire and Gaze


I've been reading Robert Bolano's The Third Reich in off-again, on-again spurts, and recently came across a section (or passage, as my seventh grade English teacher would say) that captured my attention:
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, the shoulders, and the backs 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 Marshal Manstein retake Kharkov and exorcise the disaster? What infantry divisions fought to clear the way for tanks in '44, 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. (Emphasis mine)
Bolano's The Third Reich is a novel about a German tourist, named Udo, who brings two things to his holiday in Spain; his beautiful girlfriend, Ingeborg, and a copy of Avalon Hill's famed strategic war game, 'The Rise and Decline of the Third Reich'. Udo is quite the competitive 'Third Reich' player, having won several tournaments in Germany, and part of his vacation plans involve playing through and refining a new, 'killer' strategy of his own design for the German forces. At the point of the novel from which the above quote is taken, Udo is entering the final stages of long, drawn-out malaise that keeps him from returning to Germany, his only activity centering around a game of 'Third Reich' set-up between himself and a badly burned and disfigured local, whom Udo befriended earlier, known only as El Quemado. What began as a sort of learning game in which Udo believes he cannot lose has, at this point, transformed into a cunning match between two players of equal skill.

Several elements of the quote strike me as worth deeper investigation. To begin, there is the idea put forth of a 'player's memory' that is reflective but also speculative. It eternalizes, memorializes those 'forgotten names' while also recognizing that such ossification is futile, or at best nostalgic, because new fates await such 'forgotten names' with every game. Furthermore this reflective/speculative perspective comes about through the telescoping of play, demonstrated through Bolano's evocation of 'Someone' looking over the player's shoulder, just as the player looks over the figurative shoulders of units and divisions portrayed in cardboard-counter form on the game board. Interestingly the quote also hints that the scene described is that of solitaire play, a mode quite common for aficionados of war games.  There is a sense that the telescoping effect of play allows the solitaire player to become mobile within the endless perspective afforded, their own identity, like the counters below, both forgotten and in waiting.



But what grounds this floating, endless perspective? I believe this answer comes from Bolano's metaphoric descriptor of the war game as 'kaleidoscopic theater'. Kaleidoscopes utilize refraction to generate novel patterns, just as the play of war games generates novel outcomes of battles or, as is the case of 'Third Reich', entire World Wars.  Yet the kaleidoscope works only along a fixed perspective, offering novel configuration within a limited plane of view. War games operate along similar lines, utilizing a fixed perspective to offer novel configurations within the confines of a limited plane of view dictated by rules, materials, and, most importantly, the player's memory which is desire and gaze.  

When Udo questions 'which armored divisions pierced the French defenses' or 'what infantry divisions fought to clear the way for tanks in '44, in the Ardennes', his recompense is to state that while impotent groups cannot agree on sufficient answers only the player's memory can act as a sort of arbiter of truth, no matter how temporarily or ephemeral such truths turn out to be given the endless churning of play. Access to this truth, to this players memory, is provided by the war game itself which Bolano describes as the 'bridge between the player and his memory.' One cannot access this memory unless they play the game and engage in the act of kaleidoscopic theater. Hence the desire, hence the gaze.

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