In one of the stories in Roberto Bolaño’s new collection The Secret of Evil, the symbolist painter Gustave Moreau, whose arresting and beastly Jupiter and Seleme graces the American jacket of Bolaño’s 2666, is referenced by a man “present at a gathering of madmen.”
I don’t know if it was then or later that I thought of Moreau’s belle inertie or maybe I remembered having thought about it earlier, in a feverish and futile sort of way: beautiful inertia, the compositional procedure by which Moreau was able, in his canvases, to freeze, suspend and fix any scene, however hectic…Moreau’s tranquility, some critics call it. Moreau’s fear, say others…Terror bedecked with jewels.
The terrifying freeze and its glittering suspension are the recurring and essential elements of successful Bolaño fiction. This collection is populated by characters walking along the edge of the abyss, the possibility of falling in everpresent but never actualized or, in many cases, conceptualized. The stories always stop just short of catastrophe, or even its acknowledgement. It lurks just on the other side of a door, one floor up or buried in the far darkness of a parking garage. At least this is the case in the completed stories. The incomplete fragments peter off, obviously unfinished. This makes it harder to judge them for what they are, rather than fantasize about what they could be.
The included speeches “Sevilla Kills Me” and “Vagaries of The Literature of Doom” as well as the story may have given birth to the myth of Bolaño’s heroin addiction, “Beach”, were already published in the excellent non-fiction collection Between Parentheses last year. Others have reviewed them capably already, so I’ll leave that to them. The philosophy for inclusion and exclusion is given in the “Preliminary Note” by Ignacio Echevarria, literary critic and (most importantly for our purposes) Bolaño’s literary executor. This collection contains translations by both Natasha Wimmer and Chris Andrews, the dynamic duo who brought us all of Bolaño’s American output to date.
The first story, “Colonia Lindavista”, involves a teenage narrator—a burgeoning writer, of course —eavesdropping on the young couple that lives above him. The couple enjoys late-night sex and, as can sometimes annoyingly be the case, the narrator can hear them going at it. What interests him isn’t the sex however, but the interval that precedes it. Prior to the squeaking of their bed springs, there is an unnerving silence that for some reason conjures in him “incomprehensible gestures, as if sadomasochistic scenes were being played out upstairs…movements that were gradually unhinging them.” The story ends with the narrator picturing the couple “suddenly frozen” in a pre-sexual state of cryogenesis. The story is quick but not slight. Bolaño succeeds in conjuring the unknowable empty spaces that an obsessive mind can imagine into the private lives of others.
“The Old Man Of The Mountain”, “Death of Ulises” and “The Days of Chaos” all involve our old friends, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. The stories further flesh-out these mythologized alter-egos of Bolaño (Belano) and Mario Santiago (Lima), founders of Visceral Realism and itinerant poets. The stories are fun if not outstanding. The first begins with the mistaken news of William Burroughs death given to Ulises Lima by Arturo Belano in 1975, subsequently expanding into an abbreviated outline—the content of which will be familiar to readers of The Savage Detectives—of the ensuing decades of their nomadic lives post-Mexico City, their flight from which is described as “pulling them back from the brink of the abyss.” The second involves Belano’s spur-of-the-moment trip to Lima’s apartment after his death, encountering a band named The Asshole of Morelos, whose members were the final disciples of Lima. The last is a brief, unfinished feeling piece involving Belano on his way to find his teenage son, who has disappeared in Berlin. It reads like the beginning of something.
“The Colonel’s Son” is a zombie horror (a recommendable animation of which was commissioned by Granta at Nothingbutamovie.com) that gives oddly poignant treatment to a faithful B-movie rehash. The titular boy and a girl of unclear origin—the narrator has missed the first part of a late night movie he caught on TV, which, according to him, “could have been my biography or my autobiography or a summary of my days on this bitch of a planet” —are on the run from bloodthirsty, military experiments. The boy’s protection of his zombifying girlfriend as well as his father’s frantic attempt to save them just misses the soup of bathos and conjures genuine feeling.
One of the standout stories, “Labyrinth”, takes flight from a (real) photograph of a group of French authors, including Pierre Guyotat and Philippe Sollers. The narrative is wholly invented by Bolaño but integrates the real with the imagined in a particular way. The authorial fingers knead the story like dough, re-setting and stretching the narrative. The photograph, while unfortunately not included in this collection, was included with the story when it was first published in The New Yorker, and fit well with Bolaño’s preferred cross-pollination of fiction with non. In this, he indulges his infatuation with writing about writers, whom he imagines romantically enmeshed and engaged with the business of running a posh literary journal. A chatty, savage Latin American author momentarily obtrudes his fandom and opinions into their world, but the story sticks mainly with French Affairs (cigarettes, wine, sex, etc.). Bolaño’s bird’s-eye camera drops in, surveys the territory for a sentence or three and departs. In these moments Bolaño is able to quickly and voyeuristically erect human moments: J.-J. Goux alone and perhaps stood up at a bar, Guyotat and Marie-Therese Reveille having rough sex, Jacques Henric alone “in the belly of [a] whale-like parking lot,” where hearing an “unusual noise…he stops…and listens…and now the silence is absolute.” We never know what the silence conceals but the curious ominousness of the moment is perfectly conveyed.
This central ominousness is the burning core that all Bolaño characters orbit. In these stories—as well as much of his other fiction—Mexico is this unfortunate centrality, the place where the secret of the title is to be found. The collection begins with the arrival of an unnamed narrator in Mexico in 1968 and ends with a fifteen-year-old Arturo Belano departing from Chile, bound for Mexico. Bolaño’s is a narrative world all of a piece, his characters embarking on ever repeating, doomed journeys. That terrible recursivity is presented well here in most of the completed stories and, unfortunately, only teased at in the fragments. It’s too bad there wasn’t more time for him to complete their own inevitabilities.