The Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño cuts a strange figure in Anglophone literary culture because he was first published in translation (with 2003’s By Night in Chile) in the year he died, and only found critical favour and wider fame with the publication of The Savage Detectives (2007) and 2666 (2008). To an English-speaking readership he has, in some sense, always been a posthumous writer. The combination of a relatively small oeuvre with a tremendous appetite for new work, has meant a roaring trade in fragments, off-cuts and left-overs which, a cynic might think, is beginning to wear a bit thin.
The Secret of Evil is the latest volume to be assembled from the files left on Bolaño’s computer. It is a collection of unfinished stories, and according to the introductory remarks by Ignacio Echevarría, Bolaño’s editor and literary executor, it is composed from the contents of a single folder complete with a title (New Stories) and a dedication (‘for my children Lautaro and Alexandra’). It was planned as a coherent volume and apparently among the projects Bolaño was working on when he died. Echevarría’s preliminary note tentatively suggests that this is more than an exercise in barrel-scraping; while these stories are quite clearly unfinished the collection was planned for publication by an author at the height of his powers. However faint, there is a sense of resemblance with an unfinished symphony or the paintings left incomplete in an artist’s studio. It is interesting and precious, in part, because it was interrupted and there is something more than a little sad about the sudden truncation of these witty and engaging stories in full flow.
The Secret of Evil was not the title Bolaño intended but one borrowed from a story in the collection. The story in question begins, ‘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’. It tells the tale of a journalist walking through the streets of Paris with a mysterious informant who has a hint of Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd’ about him. Just as Poe’s story begins and ends with a meditation on inscrutability and unreadability – with an unreadable man compared to an unreadable book ( ‘“er lasst sich nicht lesen” – it does not permit itself to be read’) – so Bolaño’s story denies the possibility of neat narrative closure. With this choice of title, the editors seem to throw down a gauntlet and ask us to appreciate these stories as we find them, each on their own terms. And this is a compelling idea – after a while, the loose ends do start to feel like part of the design and even begin to hint at what Echevarría calls a ‘poetics of inconclusiveness’.
It is perhaps worth bearing in mind that, though it was considerably more finished than the majority of the stories in The Secret of Evil, 2666 was also developed from an advanced, but not entirely finished, draft by Echevarría. It was, Echevarría assures us in his ‘note to the first edition’ of 2666, ‘very nearly what [Bolaño] intended it to be’ but that ‘there is no doubt that Bolaño would have worked longer on the book’. Though it is quite clearly a very different case, the fact that even his acknowledged masterpiece was never quite finished should perhaps give us pause for thought before we dismiss The Secret of Evil as negligible.
One rich seam within this collection is its refusal to accept simple categories or genres. Fact and fiction wrestle with each other within individual pieces and in the overarching structure of the volume. Memoir collides with fiction which morphs into literary criticism. Much of the discussion over whether Bolaño was a heroin addict, for example, rests on whether ‘Beach’ is read as an autobiographical essay or as a first-person short story. The decision to reprint essays and lectures from Between Parentheses is amply justified by this jumbling together of modes; why hold Bolaño’s essays separate from his fiction when, even within a single piece, he makes no such simple distinctions?
The way Bolano’s characters un-fussily meander in and out of each other’s plots creates an effortless sense that they inhabit a shared universe and, as such, minor pieces (as The Secret of Evil, for all its strengths, undoubtedly is) read like part of that larger scheme. Arturo Belano, Bolano’s alter ego familiar to us from The Savage Detectives and Amulet, is a named character in three stories by my count and implied in at least one other. The stories Belano appears in trace his relationship with Ulises Lima, a friend of his youth who remained in Mexico City while Belano moved to Europe. This sequence leaps through their lifetimes, from their meeting in ‘The Old Man of the Mountain’ to Lima’s death in ‘Death of Ulises’; they read like instalments in a much larger narrative and create a coherence that might otherwise be missing. We also recognise Daniela de Montecristo – the star of ‘Daniela’, a shortish character sketch – from Nazi Literature of the Americas where she appears with a swastika tattooed on her left buttock and a catalogue of lovers including war-criminals and poets. These recurrences weave this volume into its author’s wider body of work and lend it a weight and sense of development that it might lack as a standalone work.
There is a problematic feeling, though, that this book is not just peddling minor pieces, but also repackaging too much material that has already been published elsewhere. This collection was published in Spanish in 2007 and the English translation released in the US in 2012. Because of this delay, much of The Secret of Evil has already been published in various forms. As well as the declared overlap with Between Parentheses, some of the more ‘complete’ pieces were recently published in journals in Britain and the US and remain available online. Bolano’s riff on Naipaul’s strange essay about sodomy and Argentine politics, for example, is enriched by its inclusion on the NYRB blog where it sits alongside the original dispatches Naipaul wrote from Buenos Aires for the NYRB in the 1970s. ‘Beach’ was previously published both in Between Parentheses and in Granta and has been much discussed and disputed because of the light it may – or may not – shed on Bolano’s life. ‘The Colonel’s Son’ also appeared in Granta along with an animated companion piece by Owen Freeman and web designers Jocabola. ‘The Labyrinth’ is available on the New Yorker, along with the photo which is the absent prompt for the story in this volume. Because of this quite extensive recycling – perhaps more than most short story collections – The Secret of Evil needs to work as a whole, each story enriching and building on the rest so that the complete volume is more than the sum of its parts.
Any Cop? This is a vibrant, if strange, collection in its own right and an illuminating accompaniment to Bolaño’s wider work. For obvious reasons it is probably not a good place to start, but for anyone with even a little experience of Bolaño’s work, there is much to enjoy in this slim volume.