Dead Man’s Party: A Review of Roberto Bolaño, The Secret of Evil

Roberto Bolaño, The Secret of Evil

Dead men tell no tales, unless they happen to be named Roberto Bolaño. Since the relentlessly prolific Chilean writer died in 2003, eighteen books of his fiction and nonfiction have been published in English translation; these include his autobiographical masterpiece The Savage Detectives, the epic unsolved mystery 2666, and three books in the last 12 months alone. The latest, The Secret of Evil, published last month, collects the writing Bolaño had saved on his hard drive, some of which has appeared in Granta, Harpers, and The New Yorker. Unless someone finds some napkins or matchbooks on which Bolaño jotted down ideas, the posthumous party seems to be nearing the end.

The Secret of Evil seems less likely to win Bolaño new fans and more likely to satisfy addicts who need another fix or scholars who want to analyze every word he wrote. For the enthusiast, reading this slim collection feels like flipping through a scrapbook or photo album of a deceased relative or absent friend.  As always, the protagonists are mostly male literary types who narrate in the first person. As always, Bolaño moves deftly between pulp and literary forms, mixing low and high culture, such as the auto mechanic who quotes pre-Socratic philosophers. There are the familiar settings from the writer’s life: his native Chile, the Mexico of his youth, the Spain of his adulthood.  There are the recurrent motifs: literature, death, exile, crime, and fear. There are the withering critiques of Latin American writers whom Bolaño skeweres without mercy. Several stories feature Arturo Belano, the author’s alter ego from The Savage Detectives.  Now middle-aged, Belano reflects on his past, still haunted by the ghost of Ulises Lima, his poetic partner in crime, the Neal Cassady to his Jack Keroauc.  Even the translators, Natasha Wimmer and Chris Andrews, are the same pair responsible for rendering Bolaño’s massive oevre into English.

As the introduction notes, many of the pieces in The Secret of Evil are sketches. Opening sentences such as “This is the story of four people” or “She was sleeping with two men” sound like writing prompts designed to inspire plot. In this way, Bolaño seems to obey the advice of one of his characters, who declares: “When beginning any account… one should make the starting point incontrovertible and the style simple and dignified.” Others read like craft exercises. The ekphrastic “Labyrinth” imagines the lives of eight French people in a photograph. “Beach” is an interior monologue consisting of a single-sentence that sprawls over four pages.

Had he lived longer Bolaño might have fleshed out these short stories or incorporated them into novels. Or maybe they were merely a way to work on a smaller canvas as he wrestled with poor health and his final masterpiece, 2666, which runs nearly 1,000 pages.  (Curiously, three pieces in The Secret of Evil are duplicates from Between Parentheses, which gathered various uncollected essays, speeches, and newspaper articles from his final years, and reads like a collection of B-Sides or literary blog posts.) Regardless of the author’s intent, The Secret of Evil offers a window into the creative process of a man who seemed to write as feverishly as he chain-smoked cigarettes.

In a way, The Secret of Evil might have been titled The Secret Evil, especially compared to Bolaño’s previous work.  Though there are zombies (“The Colonel’s Son”) and a stalker sock salesman  (“Crimes”), there’s no menace as pernicious as the mass murders and rapes in 2666, or the neo-Nazis in Distant Star and The Third Reich. Overall, not much happens and everything matters, the drama is primarily existential, and endings are ellipses, not epiphanies. Throughout, Bolaño shuns the classic structure of conflict and resolution in favor of minimalist, abbreviated slices of time in which what happens matters less than the fear of what might happen. (The editors label this his “poetics of inconclusiveness.”)

Much of the evil seems to originate in Argentina. “Scholars of Sodom” imagines the author V.S. Naipul strolling the streets of Buenos Aires. In “Daniela,” an Argentine woman recounts being raped as a teenager. “The Vagaries of the Literature of Doom” offers a scathing critique of 20th century Argentine writers and ends on an exhortation to read more Borges. (“Labyrinth,” is a nod to a recurrent Borgesian motif; a prior collection The Insufferable Gaucho is Bolaño’s attempt to write in the Borgesian mode.)  Mostly unsaid, but clearly implied, is Argentina’s history of  violence, terror, and repression, which surely resonated with Bolaño, who was briefly imprisoned after the 1973 coup that ousted Salvador Allende and installed the dictator Augusto Pinochet. In this context, non-Argentine stories which feature mysterious disappearances recall los desaparecidos, the victims of the Pinochet regime, who, in the national euphemism, “disappeared.”

While The Secret of Evil feels like the last possible Bolaño book that could be published, there is at least one poetry collection (The Unknown University) and a novel (Woes of the True Policeman) slated for publication in English in 2012.  And at least one more novel (Diorama) has yet to be translated. Apparently, the party is still going.

Keith Meatto is editor in chief of Frontier Psychiatrist. He has read nearly all of Bolaño’s published work in English translation and reviewed The Skating Rink, The Third Reich, and Between Parentheses. He is the grandson of a New Jersey narcotics detective and a New York copywriter, both of whom he suspects would have appreciated Bolaño, but for different reasons.

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