El secreto del mal
In the introduction to Roberto Bolaño’s posthumous book, El secreto del mal (Anagrama, 2007), Ignacio Echevarría identifies a quality in the late author’s writing that helped him figure out how to edit the short stories and prose texts he found in his friend’s computer files:
“All of Bolaño’s work remains suspended over the abysses he never fears to approach. All of his fiction, and not just El secreto del mal [The Secret of Evil], seems to be governed by a poetics of incompleteness. In it, the irruption of horror determines, one could say, the interruption of a story; or maybe the opposite occurs: it is the story’s interruption that suggests for the reader the imminence of horror. Whatever the case might be, this unfinished nature of Bolaño’s novels along with his stories often makes it difficult to decide which ones, among the narrative texts he left unpublished, can be considered finished and which ones are nothing more than mere outlines. A task made more arduous by Bolaño’s increasingly radical form of cultivating that poetics of incompleteness we’ve been addressing.” (8-9)
This is most evident in Bolaño’s masterpiece, 2666 (Anagrama, 2004), which he raced to complete before his death in the summer of 2003. Reading through the 5 novels that make up that book, one finds countless threads that are precisely tuned to one another across such an epic stretch (pretty much the entire 2oth century, from Weimar Germany well into the horrific decade of murders that continue to afflict Ciudad Juárez today) as to suggest a book that will become a reference point for generations to come. The “incompleteness” of 2666 is most likely, as Echevarría suggests, an aspect of Bolaño’s genius, his method of filtering our age through various levels of horror and disillusion.
So as I read the short prose texts of El secreto del mal, I marveled at their subtle engagement with the disasters we continue to inhabit, four years after Bolaño’s disappearance. At times it’s as though Bolaño had willed himself into the immediate future, as in the final story of this collection, which recounts the protagonist of The Savage Detectives, Bolaño’s alter ego Arturo Belano, traveling to Berlin in 2005 to find his lost teenage son. The story establishes a parallel between Belano’s arrival in Mexico City from Chile in 1968 and his son’s disappearance amidst a mysterious series of disturbances that provide the title for the text, “Las Jornadas del Caos.” A direct line is drawn connecting 1968 with the early years of this deadly 21st century, by means of father and son (maybe author and reader).
Some of these texts read like ironic essays, Borgesian jokes on the reader that nevertheless always stun us with the severity of their subject matter: madness, war, addiction, psychological trauma, miscommunication and the specter of evil among mundane events. One of the texts concludes with two sentences that could read as being “incomplete” in their bluntness:
“Corollary. One must reread Borges again.” (101)
Like Borges, Bolaño’s prose is agile enough to suggest a poet’s sensibility, someone enamored of books and their universes. The specters of Baudelaire, Rimbaud or any of the unknown poets of The Savage Detectives filter throughout this book. Alongside El secreto del mal, Barcelona’s Editorial Anagrama has published a collection of Bolaño’s poems from the 1970s, under the title of La Universidad Desconocida (which I haven’t been able to read yet). According to Echevarría, this manuscript was carefully edited by Bolaño himself, who chose not to publish it during his lifetime.
Whatever shift in his poetics occurred during the transition from poetry to fiction, Bolaño never completely abandoned his identity and stance as a poet. What do I mean by this? Well, that the “incomplete” nature of his texts implies an awareness of poetry’s function as a mirror of the material world. Bolaño, after all, was shaped by the events of Tlatelolco in 1968 and Chile in 1973, and by his friendship with Roque Dalton and the Maoist-Leninist guerrillas of the Salvadoran ERP who would murder the poet in San Salvador in the spring of 1975. His novels register an entire generation’s experience of a desperate belief in utopian possibilities, as expressed in political and literary avant-gardes. Bolaño narrates his own gradual disenchantment with utopia and his generation’s descent into failure, tyranny and oblivion.
In the penultimate text of El secreto del mal, a conference entitled “Sevilla me mata,” which he presented in Spain shortly before his death, Bolaño addresses the younger generations of Latin American writers he sees following closely behind him:
“Actually, I’m dying of jealousy when I see you. Not just you but all the young Latin American writers. You have a future, I can assure that. But that’s not true. I was joking. The future is as gray as Castro’s dictatorship, as Pinochet’s dictatorship, as Stroessner’s dictatorship, as well as the innumerable corrupt governments that have succeeded each other in our land.” (177)
It is this insistent repetition of dictatorships that haunts Bolaño’s prose. He is shaping a poetics of indeterminacy and a commitment to challenge the dismal quality of our time, which seems to be suffused with the very real presence of evil. Bolaño was implacable in his critique of the fascist dictatorships that terrorized Latin America during his lifetime. And he had the integrity to attack fascism on the left as well, identifying the reactionary nature of the regimes currently in power in Venezuela and Cuba, those two grim “beacons of hope” (as I’ve heard some avant-garde American poets describe Chavismo, and by extension Castro’s decades-long plantation). Being the committed poet he remained throughout his life, Bolaño understood that poetry is never on the side of power, that it exists on the margins and is antithetical to the consolidation of a single ideology or aesthetic. Incompleteness trumps utopia.