There’s always something left, isn’t there. Discarded short stories, novels begun and abandoned, shorthanded ideas on dried-up Post-it notes or scribbled in the middle of the night on a Kleenex. For a lot of writers most of this is discovered, in the brittle light of dawn, to be crap, though at the time of writing it always seems like deathless prose of staggering originality. But we hang onto it; or at least some do.
Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, whose posthumous career in the English speaking world, deservedly so for his two great novels, The Savage Detectives and 2666, and some remarkable short works of fiction, left behind a computer full of stories and poems and prose fragments, ideas for possible development, or incorporation into a larger project, and we’re now, I expect, reaching the end of these. (Though FSG will be bringing out a novel, Woes of the True Policeman, this November, continuing with a character from 2666, Amalfitano). The Savage Detectives and 2666 will always cast a shadow over the shorter works, but Bolaño felt he was first and foremost a poet, and many of his short novels and stories are very fine.
And so, now that The Secret of Evil has been published by New Directions, we open it with something bordering on dread: if these are half-thoughts and embryonic characters still to be given the fullness of a proper fictional life, are we about to be disillusioned about his gifts? I’m happy to offer a resounding No. Published by New Directions and variously and expertly translated by Chris Andrews and Natasha Wimmer (whose three contributions here were previously published in ND’s volume of essays and interviews by and with Bolaño, Between Parentheses) this volume of fragments, beginnings, sometimes finished stories and observations, contribute something more to our understanding of the author and his process. Although this isn’t the best entry into the universe of RB (for that I would suggest a volume of his short fiction, such as Last Evenings on Earth) this collection is well-suited for the hardcore Bolaño fan—the reader who’ll smile when Arturo Belano (the author’s alter ego and a main character in The Savage Detectives) appears (twice) or when the author devotes an entire fragment to V. S. Naipaul in what is both a work of fiction and a narrative of his intentions in writing about the prickly Nobel laureate.
One of my favorite pieces in this volume appeared recently in the New Yorker, “The Labyrinth,” a kind of a Robbe-Grillet dissection of and meditation on a photo (included in the New Yorker, but not in this volume) of a handful of celebrated writers sitting in a Paris café—Julie Kristeva, Philippe Sollers, Pierre Guyotat, and others—lending each of these people motives, sexuality, an inner life, and a time before and beyond the moment of the photograph. It’s a tour de force, even for those who know nothing of the people of whom he writes.
As always with Bolaño there is no adherence to genre, no compartmentalization in this collection. He throws everything together—policiers, thrillers, zombie movies, philosophical disquisitions—into whatever he’s concocting at the moment. This isn’t to suggest that he’s a lousy cook, intent on cleaning out the fridge of all the stuff that’s about to go past its sell-by date. Instead, his mind is working on many different levels simultaneously, and though some of the pieces are clearly fragments, works started, then abandoned or set aside for future use, there is something we take away from each of them, some phrase that stops us dead with admiration, or a vision that plunges us far beyond the surface of the prose.
Reading Bolaño’s works, one gets a sense of the man—the first impression being there’s nothing extraordinary about him—which makes his writing seem all the more impressive. We know that he was married, had two children, and lived in the town of Blanes, an hour up the coast from Barcelona. He suffered from hepatitis C, and was awaiting a liver transplant when he died in 2003. His condition was so bad that when a friend brought him a pound of coffee from Bolaño’s beloved Mexico, all the author could do was smell it. Drinking it would have done amazing and terrible things to his already-shredded liver. Photographs of him at various times in his life show a skinny, bespectacled guy, often in a leather jacket, in his younger days with hair to his shoulders. But he wrote with a power and originality and a head for the enigmatic that keeps his books, stories and poems lingering on long after the volume is closed. They seem always to be vibrating with a kind of literary electricity that so much of the fussy, knitted works of literary fiction in contemporary America seem to lack. We know that he had lived far more than a literary life: he had seen the darkness, found the words for it, and returned to tell us the tales.
Which isn’t to say he’s not a funny writer. “You’re not going to believe this,” Bolaño begins his story “The Colonel’s Son,” “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. It scared me so fucking shitless I tell you I just about fell off my chair.”
Sounds a little like Holden Caulfield working off a head full of crystal meth, right? Except the film the narrator describes is a convoluted zombie story. And he describes it flatly, event after event, this bizarre cinematic world that could be the story of the teller’s life: “At this point four people come in. They’re Mexicans. It’s not hard to imagine them taking classes at a drama school, or, for that matter, dealing drugs on the corners of their neighborhood, or picking tomatoes with John Steinbeck’s farmhands. Three guys and a girl, in their twenties, mindless and prepared to die in any old alleyway. The Mexicans show an interest in Julie’s vomit too. The storekeeper says the money’s not enough. The colonel’s son says it is. Who’s going to pay for the damage? Who’s going to pay for this filth? says the storekeeper, pointing at the vomit, which is a nuclear shade of green. While they’re arguing, one of the Mexicans has slipped in behind the till and is emptying it. Meanwhile the other three are staring at the vomit as if it concealed the secret of the universe.”
Put it to music and you’ve got mid-Sixties Dylan, a spew of bizarre lyrics dueling with Mike Bloomfield’s guitar. But what appears to be an example of surrealism is nothing of the sort. Bolaño famously shunned the Latin American magical realist movement, believing that life itself was strange enough without the need for flying horses or talking trees. His characters—his narrators—see this weirdness interwoven with the ordinariness of everyday life as they snake their way through clichés and careless tossed-off expressions, inelegant words instead of more refined ones, and images that take five or six seconds to make any sense to the human brain. There’s an audacity to everything Bolaño turns his hand to, a boldness and a sense of risk that we don’t often see these days, that makes him somehow that much more of an artist. This is a man who wrote as though his whole life depended on it.
His work is firmly planted on the soil, mostly in Mexico, sometimes in Europe, rarely in the U.S., but his characters are always credible, and their situations, such as those endured by the protagonists of The Savage Detectives, Ulises Lima and Bolaño’s more-or-less stand-in Arturo Belano seem, to anyone who has ventured beyond the margins of their comfort zones, absolutely believable. There is madness out there, my friends, and Bolaño has seen it first-hand.