The Secret of Evil
by Roberto Bolaño (El secreto del mal, 2007)
translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews, with Natasha Wimmer (2012)
New Directions (2012)
192 pp

I know that there is some criticism toward publishing anything we can find written by Roberto Bolaño. The most recent, The Secret of Evil, is actually composed of some stories and sketches (many obviously incomplete) found on Bolaño’s computer after he died in 2003. Whatever criticism levelled by others, I’m one who gratefully receives. His is such a unique voice, and even the short sketches here exhibit his vim and clarity as he leads his characters to the abyss. It’s particularly refreshing to get a few stories in here with Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. And, to be honest, who cares if these stories conclude? It’s not as if even in his published works Bolaño gave us any real sense of resolution, so what we get here is Bolañoesque. Hey, many of these inconclusive pieces may actually have been finished for all we know. After all, the title story begins like this:

This story is very simple, although it could have been very complicated. Also, it’s incomplete, because stories like this don’t have an ending.

The Secret of Evil contains nineteen potentially incomplete pieces (some are obviously incomplete) that, so says the preface, Bolaño was working on in his last months. It’s a little treasure, filled with openings and meanderings I wish others could write now that Bolaño is gone. A sign of the appetite for more Bolaño, many of the pieces have been seen recently elsewhere. Three — “Vagaries of the Literature of Doom,” “Beach,” and “Sevilla Kills Me” — were published in Between Parentheses (my review here), one — “Labyrinths” — in The New Yorker (my thoughts here), one — “Scholars of Sodom” — in The New York Review of Books (full text here), and one — “I Can’t Read” — in Harper’s (full text here). And Granta (which also published “Beach”; the abstract here) went so far as to make a graphic HTML experience for the incredibly violent “The Colonel’s Son” (click here), which they published last year in their horror issue (my review here).

Let me briefly give a sense of a few of the pieces. First, “The Colonel’s Son,” which I hadn’t read when I posted on Granta‘s horror issue, is a very disturbing and apparently complete piece of horror fiction. While much of Bolaño’s fiction can be called horrific, I mean that this one has zombies — well, kind of. The piece begins, “You’re not going to believe this, but last night, at about four a.m., I saw a movie on TV that could have been my biography or my autobiography or a summary of my days on this bitch of a planet.” The movie our narrator watched that so resembled his life is a violent B-grade zombie movie. The remainder of the piece describes the movie in detail, examining the motives while maintaining the narrator’s voice. It does indeed sound like a fairly typical zombie movie, but given the story’s first sentence, and given that this is Bolaño, we know there’s a bit more here. For example, the HTML movie has as its disclaimer: “The following HTML5 movie contains the sort of images that you see every day in the news, and thus might not be suitable for children.”

A particularly chilling but realistic piece is “The Room Next Door,” which begins, “I was once, if I remember rightly, present at a gathering of madmen.” Another, “Scholars of Sodom,” contains two parts. The first is an incomplete start to story about V.S. Naipaul. Part II is a look back at that story:

Many years ago, before V.S. Naipaul — a writer whom I hold in high regard, by the way — won the Nobel Prize, I tried to write a story about him, with the title “Scholars of Sodom.”

This Part II proceeds to tell what the story might have been meant to tell, and, in a brilliant way, brings up for criticism Naipaul’s strange essay accusing Argentina as being a country full of sodomites.

As this short book proceeds, the pieces seem to get shorter and more evidently incomplete. But these also contain some real gems, such as “Death of Ulises,” which, if you’ve been following Bolaño, you know is about Ulises Lima and Bolaño’s alter-ego Arturo Belano. It begins, “Belano, our dear Arturo Belano, returns to Mexico City.”

And one of my favorite pieces may be the shortest and most incomplete of all. It’s “The Days of Chaos,” the book’s last entry. It begins, “Just when Arturo Belano thought that all his adventures were over and done with [. . .].” We find out that Belano’s handsome young son Gerónimo “had disappeared in Berlin during the Days of Chaos.” The story contains seven short paragraphs; three of those are simply “This was in the year 2005.” Obviously, Bolaño didn’t live to see 2005, but this is a sort of cast out into the future, and it ends up by taking us to the past, almost making a journey with Bolaño return full circle:

This was in the year 2005.

Gerónimo Belano was fifteen. Arturo Belano was over fifty, and sometimes he could barely believe that he was still alive. Arturo had set off on his first long trip at the age of fifteen too. His parents had decided to leave Chile and start a new life in Mexico.

And that’s the end. To me it’s as if I’ve just finished Finnegans Wake, and I’ve just been escorted back to the very beginning. How’s that for the poetics of inconclusiveness?

Bolaño’s body of work is too complicated to be contained in one or two complete, published works. Each piece, even these small ones, are part of a larger puzzle that is well worth the time considering, even if we’ll never get to the end.

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