The Secret of Evil by Roberto Bolano, book review: Crumbs from a master's table


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The Independent Culture

Eleven years after his death in 2003, Roberto Bolaño books are still hitting the shelves. His executors are doing a good job of prolonging his afterlife – but some might question how much they are helping his literary reputation.

Certainly, at first glance this collection looks scanty. Put together from the files left on his hard drive it consists of 19 pieces: a mix of stories, apparent book-openings and curious literary essays, many of which are clearly half-finished, and some barely even started. Scraps from the table, in other words.

Yet while this is not a good starting place for first time readers of Bolaño, those familiar with him will know that his crumbs are likely to be interesting.

Bolaño rarely wrote a story without first giving it a title, says Ignacio Etchevarría in his enjoyable introduction, and "immediately establishing a tone and atmosphere". The various headings are correspondingly evocative. Who wouldn't want to read a piece called "Vagaries of the Literature of Doom", not to mention "Scholars of Sodom"? Then there are the three apparently complimentary pieces: "Beach", "Muscles" and "Suntan". The title "Sevilla Kills Me" had me chuckling. And of course, the heading that provides the title of the collection itself is a doozy. The Secret Of Evil? Go on then, tell me.

Naturally, that last story doesn't provide any definitive answer, dwelling instead in that realm of unsettling enigma. In fact, you'll get to the final sentence wondering whether you've had the whole story at all. A problem which is neatly set up by the first lines: "This story is very simple, although it could have been complicated. Also, it's incomplete, because stories like this don't have an ending."

Given that opening it could be assumed that the story's trailing, inconclusive nature precisely fits Bolaño's intentions. But there's also the worrying thought that it was shortened by his untimely death. Did Bolaño really intend to drop his reader off this particular cliff? There are frustrations in such questions – but they also bring an additional haunting power to the pieces. It's curiously fitting for a writer who specialised so much in dislocation and uncertainty and who dwelt so often on death and on destinies unfulfilled. Etchevarría calls this atmosphere of doubt Bolaño's "poetics of inconclusiveness" and the fact that this book is steeped in incertitude helps justify its existence.

There are other pleasures too. It's possible to question whether Bolaño would want to have one of his satirical newspaper columns laying into some of the leading lights of Latin American literature published in a collection like this. But it's still enjoyable to learn that, "when it comes to [Osvaldo] Soriano, you have to have a brain full of fecal matter to see him as someone around whom a literary movement can be built".

There are also a few bravura, remarkable pieces of writing, most especially a story called "Labyrinth" which takes a photograph of a group of friends as the starting point for a dizzying exploration of their intertwined lives, loves and betrayals.