Review: The Secret of Evil by Roberto Bolano

It might be better said as the immateriality of evil. There’s something pernicious about the way Bolaño writes. It lacks the pulp and flame of commercial horror, but it cuts the center of horror. It takes that nasty thing, throws it against the wall, and watches it drip to the floor. That’s the real secret: how do you grab that thing? How do you shake it in someone’s face like a madman? How do you duck away into the shadows?

My favorite line from the book is pornographic:

Listen: I don’t have anything against autobiographies so long as the writer has a penis that’s twelve inches long when erect. So long as the writer is a woman who was once a whore and is moderately wealthy in her old age. So long as the author of the tome in question has lived a remarkable life.

On the outside, it’s not so horrible. But what’s happening here? It’s from a passage called ‘The Vagaries of the Literature of Doom.’ In the story, Bolaño makes comment on various Argentinean writers and their tendency towards something he calls doom, though he doesn’t disspel this heavy thing. He leaves it there, hanging, and lets this darkness envelop his analyses, and this is how these passages are to be absorbed. Little, nightmarish snapshots, maybe.

Borges is the obvious emulatee here, and the big difference between the two writers is that Bolaño is much more eager to cast off the metaphysics and get into the nasty meat of Being. For example, sodomy makes a frequent appearance in these passages, with off-handed comments ranging from marital sodomy to sodomy as allegory for Argentinean political condition to straight-up sheep fucking, but Bolaño does it in a careful way, taking care not to let his words fall into the abyss of tripe.

The Secret of Evil clocks in at an easy 144 pages, which an excellent and efficient introduction by Spanish literary critic Ignacio Echevarria. Echevarria does an excellent job contextualizing the stories in Secret, none of which were ever intended to be grouped together in a standalone story collection. In fact, the origin story – though not so erotic – is not completely without interest: these 19 passages were copped from Bolaño’s hard drive after his death in 2003. Translators Chris Andrews and Natasha Wimmer (who translated Bolaño’s 2004 masterpiece, 2666) did an excellent job shaping these disparate passages into an intelligible whole for this new New Directions offering. Their intimate knowledge of Bolaño’s Spanish voice is brilliantly reflected in the deftness of their translations.

Though The Secret of Evil lacks narrative cohesion, fans of Bolaño (or the literary tradition his works are capitulating) will know that this shouldn’t be expected of him. Rather, the lack of cohesion belies a much more pervasive (or, as already mentioned, pernicious) unity: a unity of theme. The little worlds in these stories – narrations of movies never made, examinations of photographs never seen, tales of things that always never happen – are disjointed in particularity, but identical in their universality: that evil is a dastardly thing, and Bolaño makes it look easy.

Publisher: New Directions
ISBN: 978-0811218153
Binding: Hardcover
Price: $22.95

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