Udo Berger and his girlfriend, Ingeborg, are vacationing in the Costa Brava, a beachfront resort in the Catalonia region of Spain. Their hotel, the Del Mar, is a repository of memory for Udo, who is nostalgic for his childhood vacations spent with his brother and parents, his quirky and permissive Aunt Giselle, and José―a summer friend who worked at the Del Mar ten years ago. Uppermost in his wistful memories is Frau Else, the hotel's proprietor, who was kind to him as a child and whom Udo found beautiful and mysterious. His glimpse of Frau Else inspires an onrush of memory. He finds her ageless, and he looks forward to meeting her again.
Udo notes that both he and the hotel row, the Paseo Marítimo, have "come up in the world." The Del Mar is more luxurious, and he is a man now with a girlfriend whose beauty he is proud of, friendships he finds deep and meaningful, good health, and a steady job. He rhapsodizes about Ingeborg and hopes to marry her someday. She sleeps while Udo records his restless thoughts. Ingeborg hopes to enjoy the beach, the bars, and her Florian Linden detective novel for the weeks they spend in the Costa Brava. Udo intends to work.
Udo is disappointed that Frau Else does not remember him. He reports that after explaining at length who he is, even dredging up "some rather evocative incidents" he would rather not have, she recalls his mother and Aunt Giselle. Nevertheless, in her eventual response, "You've grown so much," he believes he detects subtle meanings.
Udo reveals that the diary he is keeping is an exercise suggested by his best friend, Conrad, to improve his writing. Udo wishes to prevent any defects in his writing by detracting from the content of his articles, which are published in "specialized journals." He is incensed by readers who, despite his stature as a champion in his field, insist on picking apart...
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Udo's diary entry records the minutiae of his and Ingeborg's breakfast, its cheapness compared to eating at the hotel, and the fact that the old cafe proprietors of his childhood are gone, replaced by people who speak Catalan. They join Charly and Hanna on the beach near the pedal boats; Udo studies the boats as the women talk about Charly's drinking problem and his passion for windsurfing, as well as Hanna's past with a guy from Oberhausen. The pedal boat renter emerges from the water, engaged in business. His head, neck, and chest are scarred from a severe burn, a feature that overshadows his powerful build, long hair, and otherwise dark skin. Hanna says that she would kill herself rather than be scarred like that, and Udo notes the ease with which he imagines her "covered in burns, screaming and wandering blindly around her hotel room."
Later, Udo sets up the wargame he intends to write about while Ingeborg, Hanna, and Charly go shopping. Udo thinks about Frau Else and estimates that she is about thirty-five―ten years older than himself. He thinks about Conrad and compares his own preference for daytime work to Conrad's nighttime activity. Conrad is a major player in the Stuttgart's gaming scene, and Udo believes that the high level of play in their crowd is dependent on Conrad's tireless fostering of gamers such as Udo. Early in their friendship, Conrad and Udo competed in a tournament; Conrad had been eliminated by Mathias Müller but shared what he had learned in the match with Udo, who then defeated Müller. Udo went on to his victory in Cologne, where he met Heimito Gerhardt―Germany's oldest wargamer. For his courage at the table in the face of youthful mockery, Conrad esteems Heimito as a "uniquely German phenomenon." Udo notes that an important consequence of Cologne was his introduction by Heimito to play-by-mail and the suggestion that he challenge the great American gamer Rex Douglas to a...
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Udo has had an exciting day. He records that Ingeborg had returned from her boat ride in a good mood and that his gifts hadn't been required to patch up their relationship. Rather than risk "disturbing our newfound peace," Udo resists his own inclination to keep Ingeborg to himself, and the evening begins at the Andalusia Lodge, a local―not a tourist―bar. With Charly and Hanna, they watch a soccer match between Spain and Germany on the bar TV. Udo suggests that they might be more comfortable watching at the hotel with their fellow German tourists, but the other three insist it would be more fun to cheer for the German team in the midst of "enemies." The team, however, turns out to be East German, making the match irrelevant.
Two locals known as the Wolf and the Lamb sit down at their table and present themselves as tour guides. Udo is skeptical, but they all go clubbing outside the tourist areas, where the atmosphere is murky and the prices cheap. By the end of the night, Charly is again extremely drunk and tearfully confesses to Udo his fear of dying. They return to the almost empty Andalusia Lodge for coffee, where the Wolf and the Lamb introduce them to El Quemado, the Burned One. Charly swims out to sea with the Wolf and the Lamb, who soon return though Charly continues swimming. Udo realizes that the pedal boat formation is El Quemada's home―his "fortress." Charly swims confidently back to shore.
By morning Charly has forgotten almost the entire night. Udo notes, though, that Charly retains a surprising amount of personal information about the Wolf and the Lamb. The day is spent on the beach, watching El Quemado. In the evening, Udo meets Frau Else in the hotel bar. She tells him that her husband is sick and also that she had recently been in Germany―"The same as always."
Udo finds that Charly and Hanna are becoming a burden. Not...
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Udo is sunburnt. He spent most of the day at the beach talking to El Quemado, because "there was nothing else to do." Udo admits to El Quemado that he wants to be a writer. They then discuss poetry, which Udo says is pointless unless for a "love object." El Quemado adds it is "grotesque." Udo wonders to himself how someone so grotesque could use the word. He clarifies that he wants to be a creative essayist, and launches into a description of the world of wargaming. El Quemado listens while Ingeborg finishes her Florian Linden novel. Udo wonders if any woman would kiss El Quemado; El Quemado meanwhile expresses a wistful interest in Udo's wargaming universe. Udo confesses that he has a game set up in his room and that he hasn't been able to work on it or make any progress on his article. Udo finds El Quemado sympathetic, and he is surprised by his own unlikely choice of confidant. Too much sun has made Udo sick. After a swim, he listens to advice from El Quemado, who recommends "in a strange voice" coconut oil and a dark room.
In a fever, Udo wanders out to find a pharmacy and, after a dreamlike odyssey, returns with salve. In bed, he dreams that he and Ingeborg are each reading a book when there is a scratching at the door. Florian Linden's voice from the hallway tells them to get out as they are in danger. Ingeborg goes out to find Florian, while Udo thinks "How can anyone be in danger in this room?" From the balcony, Udo does not see Florian and Ingeborg but rather El Quemado. He wakes in terror.
Ingeborg says that Hanna misses her son and is thinking of leaving Charly because he drinks too much. In addition, Charly and Hanna have been asked to leave their hotel after Charly, along with the Wolf and the Lamb, beat up the night watchman. Charly wants to move to the Wolf's house, but Hanna objects that the two Spaniards won't keep their hands off her.
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It is raining. Tourists in the Del Mar are staying indoors, getting bored, and organizing shopping trips. Charly, Hanna, and Ingeborg decide to go to Barcelona. Udo stays behind, but instead of working he goes to the Andalusia Lodge for coffee and cognac with the Lamb. The Lamb tells Udo a story about the Wolf and Charly that Udo doesn't understand, then declares that both men have hearts of gold but when drunk would drive anybody crazy. They observe three kids watching television, one of them weeping―drawn only to the music and the fight scenes. Udo is seized with a powerful impulse to find El Quemado and wonders about his home under the pedal boats. The Lamb calls El Quemado "weird," but...
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Udo has not slept. He idly contemplates the seagulls and the waiters, while Ingeborg sleeps with her Florian Linden novel. Udo sets the book on the night table, but he notes a random passage that catches his eye: "You say you've committed the same crime several times. . . .That is the very nature of evil."
Bored, Udo goes to a bar for breakfast. The Wolf and Charly follow him there. Charly had gone to stay at the Wolf's, though the Wolf, not able to speak German, doesn't seem to know what is going on. Charly lectures Udo about friendship, remarking that the Wolf is a true friend because he might lose his job looking after Charly instead of going to work. Charly is especially...
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In the morning, Udo, Ingeborg, and Hanna report to Navy Headquarters, where they find that Charly's surf board has been recovered, though Charly himself hasn't been. Ingeborg again stays with Hanna, and Udo returns to his room and falls asleep. He dreams that someone is knocking at his door, and following the person down a long hallway, he discovers a mysterious figure―Frau Else's husband―writhing in bed. Ingeborg wakes him. She admits that after repeatedly trying to phone him, when he didn't answer, she thought he had left her. She says that the hotel scares her and that she doesn't understand what he sees in wargames, that "everyone in the world has handled Hanna" and that she doesn't...
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Udo has taken Ingeborg to the station and she has left. When Udo told Frau Else about their change of plans, she was surprised that Ingeborg was leaving but more surprised that Udo was staying. After returning to the hotel, Udo cannot find Frau Else. The laundry room is locked. The maid appears and tidies up his room, and Udo again tips her generously. He spends the rest of the day telling El Quemado about his games.
El Quemado comes to visit Udo in his room. Udo tells him about Ingeborg's leaving, then compares gaming to playing music and then to rotting food. He gives El Quemado a sandwich, but El Quemado's ruminant-like chewing revolts...
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The owner of the Andalusia Lodge does not seem to like the Wolf and the Lamb, and he tells Udo a story―one that he finds amusing but Udo finds incomprehensible―about a rape that the two Spaniards were apparently mixed up in. When Udo asks them about it, they laugh and deny it. Udo feels that he is the butt of some joke and leaves without paying for their drinks.
The game has now progressed to the summer of 1940, and El Quemado is beginning to hold his own, moving troops and outguessing Udo's planned attacks. Udo writes in his diary as El Quemado takes his turn, observing that the game relaxes El Quemado.
As Udo escorts El Quemado out, a maid walks on them...
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The game has progressed to the winter of 1940. Udo explains the necessary preparations for success from both the Russian and the German perspectives. Udo notes that El Quemado doesn't know all this yet because he hasn't explained it to him. El Quemado flounders on the Russian front and in the Mediterranean, while Udo's plans "simmer at the General Staff Command." Udo has already projected his own victory―"annihilation"―and classifies El Quemado as a "mule"―the kind of loser that plays to the end no matter what. Udo then wonders what secret weapon El Quemado may hold.
Frau Else interrogates Udo about his whereabouts that day. He...
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A body has been found, and Udo and Mr. Pere go the police station to identify it as Charly. Afterward, Udo seeks out Frau Else on the staff-only rooftop patio of the hotel. She scolds him, and when he presses for more intimacy, she tells him that while she hasn't ruled it out, she believes he must be "quite unbalanced." She denies that she sees him as a child, especially as she doesn't even remember him as a child. She insists that the Wolf and the Lamb had asked about him and that she had merely been sending them away the previous night. Frau Else asks him what it means to be a German; Udo says he doesn't know―something "we've gradually forgotten."
The tourists are now gone...
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It is raining. Frau Else has gone out with her husband. Udo visits Mr. Pere and asks him about the rape that happened "just before my friend drowned." Mr. Pere denies that there had been any rape.
The game has progressed to the winter of 1941, but Udo wants to see Frau Else before El Quemado comes. He hesitates to go down to meet El Quemado but worries that he has already been seen on the balcony. Udo wonders where Frau Else is and what she is doing with her husband. El Quemado tries but fails to drive Udo out of England. Udo's mind is more on Frau Else than on the game, but El Quemado circles the board and makes notes. Udo thinks of his fellow fanzine columnists and wonders how...
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Udo wakes late. Frau Else is still in Barcelona with her husband. Udo goes to the beach but El Quemado is not there, and he falls asleep on the sand. He dreams that he and Ingeborg are in the hotel room and someone is knocking. Ingeborg does not want Udo to answer, and he pushes her to the ground. Seeing her on the floor, Udo thinks about how easy it would be for "anyone" to rape her. The knocking turns into scratching and from the hallway, Florian Linden warns Udo not to open the door. The room begins to freeze, and three times Florian Linden approaches the door before telling Udo that there is "shady business" going on and that Udo should go home. In terror, Udo believes Florian Linden is...
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Anzio. Fortress Europa. Omaha Beachhead. Summer 1942
Udo goes for an evening walk on the beach, meditating on past wargames. He mulls over the "names of the forgotten"―names of generals, battlefields, military divisions, the "countless combat groups sacrificed," not people of flesh and blood but pawns represented by counters in his beloved games. He reminisces about a zealous player who once organized a live role playing festival called Berlin Bunker, which ended in disgrace with players being lost in the suburbs.
El Quemado's photocopies, tacked to the wall, begin to remind Udo of "little doors to the void." El Quemado records detailed notes about the progress of the game. Udo...
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Autumn 1942. Winter 1942
The game has apparently turned in El Quemado's favor. Udo notes his opponent's fervid attention to the board, his nervousness, his avoidance of the balcony window, and he likens El Quemado to a prisoner. A greenish glossiness on El Quemado's burn scars seems to Udo to be the regeneration of skin. El Quemado seems bothered, but "with his kind" Udo finds it hard to tell for sure. El Quemado tells Udo that he had thought Udo had left for home, but he had come anyway because of their "agreement." That is, he would come every night until the game was over. Udo replies that eventually the hotel may stop letting El Quemado in and that Udo will certainly leave before 1945. Udo insists...
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Frau Else has returned. She is disgusted by the condition of Udo's room and by the photocopies on the wall over Udo's bed. Udo explains that they are like a backdrop to the game for El Quemado. She asks if it doesn't make his "stomach turn," then clarifies that she isn't talking about history but about Udo's recent lifestyle and about his ruining her hotel. She takes the photocopies down, once again repulses Udo's lovemaking, scolds him for his bad habits, and leaves with the photocopies in her pocket. But she has agreed to meet Udo later that night.
At dinner, Frau Else admits that her husband is dying of cancer. Udo believes that this explains many things, in particular Frau...
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After a sleepless night, Udo finds the night watchman asleep and takes the opportunity to visit Frau Else's room. Though it is morning, the room is dark, and the voice of Frau Else's husband invites Udo to come in. Frau Else is not there, but her husband greets Udo politely and turns on the light. Udo notes that the old man has aged "rapidly and poorly" in the ten years since Udo and his family used to summer at the hotel. When Udo asks where Frau Else has gone, her husband replies that that is "nobody's business but her own," causing Udo to wonder if Frau Else has yet another lover.
Frau Else's husband begins to point out to Udo his strategic mistakes―getting bogged down in...
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Frau Else scolds Udo, who is suffering from sleep deprivation, secret drinking, and mood swings. She threatens to call his parents, then to call a doctor, but Udo insists that he is fine. She berates him for mistreating the staff, who hate him and wish he would drown; he accuses her of being a tease, tempting him and then turning him away. As he argues with her, half asleep, memories of last night's play bleeds through, El Quemado forces relentlessly advancing across eastern Europe just as happened in the real war.
Later, Udo goes to bed and dreams that he is Florian Linden investigating Charly's death in the hall of some ancient temple. Atahualpa is playing chess against...
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Udo is awakened by an ambulance idling in front of the hotel. It is dark, and it has been raining. Frau Else's husband is brought out on a stretcher; he is escorted by Frau Else, their lunch guest, the night watchman, and various staff. As the stretcher passes under Udo's balcony, Udo's eyes meet those of Frau Else's husband.
The game has progressed to the summer of 1944. In his journal, Udo faithfully records his losses, while the rain pours down on the balcony. Udo notes that the sea is rising. El Quemado is soaking wet, and Udo ponders knocking him on the head while he towels his hair. Instead, he gives El Quemado a dry shirt of his own.
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September 25. Bar Casanova. La Jonquera
At dawn, Udo drives away from the Del Mar and stops briefly to leave Third Reich in its box perched on El Quemado's pedal boat fortress. The rain has stopped, but the town is so quiet that Udo thinks it must be a local holiday. Udo notes that the highway is full of German and French license plates heading home.
Five days have passed since Udo's last entry. He is home, but he did not contact anyone for three days. Finally, yesterday, he reluctantly dropped by his club, still shy of seeing his old friends. Udo is greeted warmly by his admirers, but it is Conrad's reserved welcome that makes him feel at...
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