Bolaño’s Last, Great Secret

May 7, 2012 | 2 books mentioned 6 9 min read

We are poor passing facts

warned by that to give

each figure in the photograph

his living name.

Robert Lowell, “Epilogue”

coverNext year marks the tenth anniversary of the death of Roberto Bolaño, the prolific genre-bender whose narratives and exile from Chile began seriously enchanting the literary world in 2005, the year The New Yorker began publishing his short stories. Altogether, nine stories have appeared in the magazine, including January’s “Labyrinth,” which accompanied a curious photograph. But I’ll get to that in a moment. First, a bit about Bolaño’s following, which may be credited in part to his early exit from said world at the age of 50, by way of liver failure. For the uninitiated, “Gomez Palacio,” his posthumous New Yorker debut about a tormented writer interviewing for a teaching post in a remote Mexican town, tends to work a kind of magic. A ragged copy of the issue in which “Gomez Palacio” appeared caught critic Francine Prose in a waiting room: “I was glad the doctor was running late,” she wrote later in reviewing Last Evenings on Earth, “so I could read the story twice, and still have a few minutes left over to consider the fact that I had just encountered something extraordinarily beautiful and (at least to me) entirely new.”

covercoverFrancisco Goldman, who likened “The Great Bolaño” to Borges in a profile for The New York Review of Books, dates the ex-Chilean’s rise to 1999, the year The Savage Detectives won a coveted Venezuelan prize for the best Spanish-language novel. “The inseparable dangers of life and literature, and the relationship of life to literature, were the constant themes of Bolaño’s writings,” reads Goldman’s summary of his subject’s legacy, which at the time spanned ten novels and three story collections. (Bolaño’s drive to finish his 900-page masterwork, 2666, a far-flung novel involving the murders of women in the Sonora desert, is thought to have exacerbated his liver condition.) “It’s as if Bolaño is satirizing the routine self-pity of exile,” adds Goldman, in turning to one of his short fictions (“Mauricio ‘The Eye’ Silva”). “Yet the story’s mood of nearly inexpressible and lonely grief leaves you an intuitive sense of its truthfulness, which seems something other than a literal truthfulness.”

Separating facts from other kinds of “truthfulness” in Bolaño’s oeuvre becomes a difficult task, to say nothing of counting up the author’s works themselves. The Millions began keeping “A Bolaño Syllabus” in 2009 and has updated that list since. “Oh!” an anxious reader posted the following year. “But what about all the new and recent translations out from New Directions? What of them?” What indeed; let’s recap. With the help of American translator Natasha Wimmer and Melbourne-based Chris Andrews, who first brought Bolaño to English and continues to handle his shorter works, New Directions has published more than a dozen posthumous volumes ranging from poetry to newspaper columns. In an interview that coincided with “Labyrinth,” Barbara Epler, president of New Directions and a longtime editor, relates the story of her house’s 2006 windfall to The New Yorker:

Bolaño’s rights were represented by Agencia Literaria Carmen Balcells, and I was asking and asking them about the offer we’d made for The Savage Detectives and getting no reply. My heart sank when they e-mailed to say, “We’re coming to New York and want to take you out to dinner.” I knew they must be shopping The Savage Detectives. I went to supper, and considerably (by our standards) improved my offer. Finally one of the Balcells ladies put her hand on my arm and said, “The Estate wants a larger house for the big books.” I was about to cry, and they knew we’d done everything we could for the author here, so they offered, if we were willing to take all the “small” books on, that we could. So we took everything we could get, everything that at that point we knew existed.

coverWith the close of the post-Bolaño decade, it seems that the tide of the author’s original works is finally ebbing. New Directions’ latest release, much to my delight and that of other genre boundary-watchers, is The Secret of Evil, a thin collection of fictions that occasionally read as essays. Or is it the other way around? At times, we’re not sure. In turning the title page, explains the book’s jacket, we open a certain computer file: “BAIRES,” Bolaño called it — a nickname for Argentina’s metropolis. “There are multiple indications that Bolaño was working on this file in the months immediately preceding his death,” writes Ignacio Echeverría, the author’s executor, in his prologue. But the task of gleaning 19 semi-finished works from BAIRES, STORIX (another riddle), and about 50 other files was not without complications — namely Bolaño’s “poetics of inconclusiveness,” which Echeverría compares to Kafka’s abruptness. “Decisions as to the wholeness and self-sufficiency of particular pieces,” he warns the critic, became inevitably subjective. Thus, along with a couple of previously-published lectures (“Vagaries of the Literature of Doom” and “Sevilla Kills Me”) as well as the story of a Spanish family’s decimation in a bus accident (“Muscles,” likely an unfinished novel), the bulk of The Secret borders on flash fiction — two, four, and six-page sketches ranging from the swimming pools and watering holes of Mexico City, Guatemala, Santiago, and Buenos Aires, to Madrid, Berlin, and most luminously, Paris.

coverAs with The Insufferable Gaucho and Last Evenings before it, The New Yorker had the honor in January of cherry-picking from The Secret. Unlike the task of compiling this year’s collection, the choice was obvious: at 18 pages, “Labyrinth” stands apart. It narrates the comings and goings of a cadre of European intellectuals, including a brush with “Z,” a foreigner who ambushes the offices of Tel Quel, the Paris journal of the avant-garde whose disappearance in 1982 roughly mirrored the waning of structuralism. “Who else knows Z?” Our narrator — presumably Bolaño — poses the question, which gradually nags at the reader. “No one, or at least there is nothing to suggest that his presence is of any concern to the others.” But then a few clues: “Maybe he’s a young writer who at some stage tried to get his work published in Tel Quel; maybe he’s a young journalist from South America, no, from Central America, who at some point tried to write an article about the group.”

The startling thing about “Labyrinth,” beyond Z’s ghostly presence on the page, is the way the story unfolds, almost by way of evasion. (A footnote: Bolaño quit the Americas in 1977 after being imprisoned and nearly tortured by Pinochet’s forces in 1973; Barbara Epler vouched for this sometimes disputed fact in her January remarks.) For an illustration, try picturing the opening scene:

They’re seated. They’re looking at the camera. They are captioned, from left to right: J. Henric, J.-J. Goux, Ph. Sollers, J. Kristeva, M.-Th. Réveillé, P. Guyotat, C. Devade, and M. Devade.

There’s no photo credit.

They’re sitting around a table. It’s an ordinary table, made of wood, perhaps, or plastic, it could even be a marble table on metal legs, but nothing could be less germane to my purpose than to give an exhaustive description of it.

What Bolaño’s last masterpiece does proceed to describe, with East Germanic voyeurism, is the web of relationships on display. Why? Because (1) unlike many tableside portraits in Paris, this image was not intended for a magazine spread; and (2) because, importantly, not everyone is paying attention to the photographer. Two of the women pictured gaze off-camera, in the same direction. They might be preoccupied with an object of affection and it’s precisely this quality of deduction that fuels Bolaño’s narrative.

What of the photo itself? Unfortunately for readers, it can’t be found in The Secret of Evil. But it did appear in The New Yorker’s publication of “Labyrinth,” spread right across the opening pages. What more can be said of the seated figures, we begin to wonder? This Henric, Goux, Sollers, Kristeva, Réveillé, whose gaze might betray surprise, her companion, Guyotat, and Mr. and Ms. Devade, one of whom wears a half-smile? Quite a lot, we discover, as the story wanders away from the table, into streets and garages and bedrooms, and back again in the evening, when “night falls over the photograph.” Yet these figures — their vigorous couplings and jealousies — are not at all figments of Bolaño’s imagination. A peculiar hint of this reality can be found in a credit omitted from print but included in the story’s online publication, just below the magazine’s end sign: “PHOTOGRAPH: COURTESY JACQUES HENRIC.”

There are other signs, amid his wanderings, that our narrator is employing a fact pattern that Bolaño found more intriguing than outright fiction: “The photo was probably taken in 1977 or thereabouts”; “The photo was taken in winter or autumn, or maybe at the beginning of spring, but certainly not in summer”; “Let’s suppose, for the moment, that it’s in a café.” By the story’s midpoint, first names have emerged, via conjecture and supposition, along with a few biographical details. Jacques Henric is a broad-shouldered French novelist, born in 1938. Philippe Sollers, editor in chief of Tel Quel, has the look of a man who enjoys a good meal. Julia Kristeva, the Bulgarian seminologist at Sollers’s elbow? His wife. And Pierre Guyotat, author of Prostitution, among other works? A balding pervert whose temples resemble “nothing so much as the bay leaves that used to wreathe the heads of victorious Roman generals.” Réveillé and the Devades come into focus, too, but Bolaño’s chess game is already a thing to behold. He’s built for himself not just a labyrinth of the houseplants that obscure our view of the table (“there are three plants — a rhododendron, a ficus, and an everlasting”), but a living-breathing, true-to-life mystery with so many shades of exposure, the story’s inconclusiveness seems preordained, exquisitely inevitable.

coverIn Reality Hunger, David Shields’ manifesto on society’s latter-day enthusiasm for art rooted in fact (and often troubled by genre), some 600 hastily-sourced meditations, including this essay’s epigraph, narrate the author’s own evolution as a consumer of literature, in a sort of collage. “I’m interested in the generic edge, the boundary between what are roughly called nonfiction and fiction,” reads an from entry from Jonathan Raban (no. 191). But in the end Shields, like Bolaño, crosses over the border, leaving behind the dusty Republic of the Make-Believe. Take the following passage, one of the few in Reality Hunger that doesn’t need sourcing: “I find it very nearly impossible to read a contemporary novel that presents itself unself-consciously as a novel, since it’s not clear to me how such a book could convey what it feels like to be alive right now” (Shields, no. 212). Plotlines, for this kind of writer, begin to feel like artifice — something to be stripped away and replaced by shape-shifting narratives “open for business way past closing time.” Photographs, it just so happens, do just that. Why take them so constantly, so obsessively? “So that I’ll see what I’ve seen” (Janette Turner Hospital, no. 137). “It’s just this breathtaking world — that’s the point. The story’s not important; what’s important is the way the world looks. That’s what makes you feel stuff. That’s what puts you there” (Frederick Barthelme, no. 142).

Bolaño goes missing from Shields’ collage, but I imagine Bolaño would have enjoyed following its leads in the manner of a good detective or a wayward journalist. “I would have liked to be a homicide detective, much more than a writer,” Bolaño told the Mexican edition of Playboy, in his last interview. “Of that I’m absolutely sure. A string of homicides. Someone who could go back alone, at night, to the scene of the crime, and not be afraid of ghosts.” That fondness for investigation and self-projection becomes recognizable throughout Bolaño’s fiction, but especially in later stories such as The Insufferable Gaucho’s “Police Rat,” about four-legged Pepe, a rodent cop assigned to a vacant sewer. The Secret of Evil’s title story, a three-page sketch of Joe A. Kelso, an American journalist in Paris stalked by a pale man, “a watcher with no one to watch him in turn, someone it’s going to be hard to get rid of,” carries a similar paranoia. And the same holds true for “Labyrinth,” whose shadowy, off-camera Z seems not a stand-in for Bolaño but a kind of alter ego: the handsome-but-nervous sort of exile desperate to join a circle of writers sitting just beyond his reach.

I’ve said enough about the above gathering already, but there is one further mystery worth noting. The photo that appeared this past January — the same arrangement of eight figures from “1977 or thereabouts,” courtesy of Henric — can be found published 14 years earlier, in a French history of Tel Quel by Philippe Forest (Histoire de Tel Quel, Seuil, 1998). In translation, Forest’s caption reads “Party of L’Humanité, 1970. From left to right: Jacques Henric, Jean-Joseph Goux, Phillip Sollers, Julia Kristeva, Thérèse Réveillé, Pierre Guyotat, Catherine and Marc Devade (photo D. R.).” L’Humanité, the Internet tells us, is a Paris daily still in print today, although its circulation rose and fell with the French Communist Party, which began a slow decline that same decade. Where was Roberto Bolaño in 1970? Not, as the overexcited reader might assume, leaning against the bar, drawing stares from the table, but working as a journalist in Mexico City, already involved with liberal causes and preparing to return, three years later, to socialist Chile.

We could go on in this vein, asking questions about Henric and “D. R.” and wondering whether Bolaño happened on Forest’s book late in life. Perhaps he recalled reading Tel Quel during his first days in Paris, still shaking from what he’d escaped, and decided to change a few details in service of a last, great story. But we should, in fairness, allow Bolaño a few secrets, and instead pause to marvel at the whole collection. In some respects, The Secret of Evil fails to cohere: two brilliantly speculative shorts about a roving V. S. Naipul vexed by the origins of sodomy end in confusion; another promising piece about Bolaño and his son playing a game of turning invisible turns into a rant. Still, the range and “reality” of the writing left behind in cryptic BAIRES and STORIX, from an artist whose days were numbered, will enchant even the uninitiated Bolañonista. And taxonomists, myself included, should praise New Directions for a small thing that happened somewhere between the uncorrected proof and the finished hardback that arrived at my door the other day: “FICTION,” on the book’s jacket, now reads “LITERATURE.”

Image: Jean Silver/Flickr

teaches writing at the University of South Dakota and edits nonfiction for South Dakota Review. His previous work has been published by Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Colorado Review, The Normal School, Phoebe, and NPR, among other outlets. You can also find him online at