Of the sixteen books of Roberto Bolano's fiction, essays, and poetry that have been published in English, The Secret of Evil is certainly the sixteenth-best. This slim tome was compiled for the Bolano completist, and was posthumously built from the scrapings of Bolano's widowed hard drive (Bolano was an anthologist of his own writing and had created folders and sub-folders on his computer of potential story collections.) Nearly all the pieces here are unfinished, and provide readers with only a fleeting glimpse of what could have been another great book. This will very much intrigue Bolano enthusiasts, but anyone less excited will find The Secret of Evil a difficult book to love. While the few longer stories showcase Bolano's staggering skill as a writer, the rest of the collection is too underdeveloped to fully appreciate.
One of the best pieces in The Secret of Evil is the meandering story "Labyrinth," which projects a wildly inventive back story onto a group of people posed in an enigmatic photograph from the 1970s. Although the photo is not shown here, in the image the writers Jacques Henric and Pierre Guyotat sit with six of their associates around a table, each held in stasis while waiting for the shutter to click. Taking full advantage of this frozen moment, Bolano focuses masterfully on the story lurking between their glances. And suddenly, these flat faces become three-dimensional characters:
"Beside [Philippe] Sollers is J. Kristeva, Julia Kristeva, the Bulgarian semiologist, his wife….Her eyes are dark and lively, as lively as those of Sollers, although there are differences: as well as being larger, they transmit a certain hospitable warmth (that is, a certain serenity) which is absent from her husband's eyes….Hers is the only smile that allows us a glimpse of teeth."
"As their paths cross, Marie-Therese notices a fierce look in his eyes. They bump into each other. Both apologize. They look at each other again (and this is surprising, the way their eyes meet again after the apology), and what she sees, beneath the expedient mask of bitterness, is a well of unbearable horror and fear."
It's blissfully easy to get lost in Bolano's plots. "Labyrinth" feels like a perfectly executed exercise in storytelling, and almost makes up for the other vignettes in The Secret of Evil that feel like filler. However, there's a difficult element to "Labyrinth" that's missing - Bolano's story is actually based on a real photograph, which New Directions really should have printed in The Secret of Evil. When "Labyrinth" ran in The New Yorker earlier this year, the magazine included a full-page reprint of the source material, resulting in a remarkably different reading experience than how readers will encounter the story in The Secret of Evil. The photograph is the evidence needed to corroborate Bolano's remarkable piece, and without it "Labyrinth" is not the same.
Among the other works in The Secret of Evil, New Directions has included new translations of two pieces that were previously published in last year's Between Parentheses. "Vagaries of the Literature of Doom" and "Beach" stand out as some of the most polished pieces here, but they also don't quite fit in to The Secret of Evil's sketchbook-style composition. Other stories like "Suntan," "Muscles," and "Daniela" are noteworthy because Bolano tried them with a female first-person narrator. It's a curious shift for Bolano, but one that ultimately doesn't work out: these stories peter out only after a few pages of development.
"The people walking in the sidewalks, however, are the same; they're younger, they probably hadn't even been born when he left, but basically these are the faces he saw in 1968, in 1974, in 1976. The taxi driver tries to engage him in conversation but Belano doesn't feel like talking. When he can finally close his eyes again, he sees his taxi driving at full speed down a busy avenue, while robbers hold up other taxis and the passengers die with terrified expressions on their face. Vaguely familiar gestures and words."
Like the Mexico in "Death of Ulises," The Secret of Evil shows a Roberto Bolano weathered by experience. The fragments here are fascinating and familiar, but one's enjoyment of these works may be contingent upon their history with Bolano's writing. But a familiar voice can only go so far; like Arturo Belano in his Mexican cab, some readers will find it difficult not to close their eyes in nostalgia and imagine how exciting all this could have been.