Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
Whenever I mention to a friend of mine that I’m reading the new Roberto Bolaño book, he always says, “How does someone who died in 2003 keep coming out with new books?” I explain that most of the parade of Bolaño books that readers have been bombarded with over the past five years are translations of earlier works. But like New Directions’ previous Bolaño release, Between Parentheses, The Secret of Evil is different from the novellas, novels, and short story collections that make up the Bolaño canon. The preliminary note to the book explains that the volume gathers stories and sketches taken from over fifty files found on Bolaño’s computer after his death. There are a few full-fledged stories, but much of The Secret of Evil consists of vignettes, re-creations of murder stories Bolaño read in newspapers, memoir, and fictionalized narratives. Though all of the pieces reaffirm Bolaño’s preeminence, all revolving around “the possibility of fear,” many works do feel incomplete. But that doesn’t matter, because as Bolaño says in the title piece, “It’s incomplete, because stories like this don’t have an ending.”
In his family’s first apartment in Mexico City, a seventeen-year-old Bolaño tries his hand at writing —“something awful, probably”— while listening to the groans of his neighbors having sex. “Old Man of the Mountain” is a version of The Savage Detectives condensed into three pages. One piece, “Scholars of Sodom,” is Bolaño’s musings about V.S. Naipaul’s essay expressing disgust with Argentineans due to their macho practice of sodomizing their women. In “The Colonel’s Son,” which was first published in Granta, Bolaño describes the complete plot of a bad zombie movie as a metaphor for his autobiography. In “Muscles,” a body-builder reads the pre-Socratic philosophers every morning over a gigantic breakfast, telling his sister, “Listen to what this son of a bitch Diogenes of Apollonia says.” “Labyrinth,” which was published this year in the New Yorker and is perhaps the longest piece in the collection, reconstructs a story from a photograph of French intellectuals. In the story “The Secret of Evil,” an American journalist living in Paris is woken up in the middle of the night by a mysterious caller who wants to meet in a café in order to pass on some information. That’s all. And that’s why The Secret of Evil is so seductively good. Paragraphs demand to be reread, because they give you the feeling that you’ve missed something. You did miss something, but you won’t find it in the printed words. It’s the space around the words where you’ll find the answer.
Many pieces display Bolaño’s deliciously peculiar style of literary criticism, like “Vagrancies of the Literature of Doom” (first published in Between Parentheses): “Seen as a closet or basement, [Roberto] Alt’s work is fine. Seen as the main room of the house, it’s a macabre joke. Seen as the kitchen, it promises food poisoning. Seen as the bathroom, it’ll end up giving us scabies. Seen as the library, it’s a guarantee of the destruction of literature.” The piece “Sevilla Kills Me,” a lecture on the new Latin American literature—translated sections of which were published in Craig Epplin’s essay in the first issue of The Coffin Factory, as well as Between Parentheses—shows both Bolaño’s humor as he jokes with the emotions of the young writers listening to him, and his precision of intellect: “Where does the new Latin American literature come from? The answer is very simple. It comes from fear. It comes from the terrible (and in a certain way fairly understandable) fear of working in an office and selling cheap trash on the Paseo Ahumada.”
Some pieces are straight memoir, such as “I Can’t Read,” which describes Bolaño’s first trip back to Chile after being away for twenty-five years, when Bolaño’s son Lautaro, in a dream-like state, urinates into a swimming pool as a “physical way of acknowledging” that if Bolaño had been killed in Chile in 1974, then Lautaro wouldn’t have been born. In “Death of Ulises,” we see the mix of fiction and non-fiction that embodies Bolaño’s style—the genre which Bolaño hijacked, tucked under his arm, and ran for the end-zone—with lines like: “Our hero Arturo Belano, dear readers, is forty-six by this stage, and as you all know, or should know, his liver, his pancreas and even his colon are in a bad way, but he still knows how to box, and he’s sizing up the voluminous figure in front of him.” Perhaps the best piece in the collection is “Beach,” which we want to be autobiographical, but which Bolaño’s wife has insisted is fiction. “Beach,” previously published in Granta and also in Between Parentheses, is a five page sentence about heroin withdrawal, which is why it is initially fascinating—was Bolaño ever a junkie? No, says his wife—but the piece is ultimately a gem because the story is really about “a man of thirty-five who had nothing at all but who was recovering his will and his courage and who knew that he would live a while longer.”
If you’ve never read Bolaño before, then first of all, shame on you, and second, pick up one of his short story collections, The Return and Last Evenings on Earth, and his massive novels, The Savage Detectives and 2666. Everyone has to read 2666. If you’ve read all these, then move on to the half-dozen slim noir novels, By Night in Chile, Distant Star, Monsieur Pain, Amulet, The Third Reich, and the Skating Rink. But if you’re a Bolaño freak, as we all should be, then The Secret of Evil is a necessity and you’ll want to read it right away.
Translated by Chris Andrews, with Natasha Wimmer
New Directions May 2012