The Secret Of Evil is the second of three posthumous works by Roberto Bolaño published in English over the course of 12 months—the uncovered early novel The Third Reich was released last November, while his last unfinished novel, Woes Of The True Policeman, will hit shelves this fall. Billed as Bolaño’s final prose collection, Evil is essentially every scrap editors could cull from Bolaño’s computer files.
Its existence raises important questions of authorial intent. Bolaño wrote The Third Reich in longhand in the late ’80s, but editors presumed that since he typed up half the manuscript sometime after purchasing his first computer in the mid-’90s, he intended to publish the work. That’s the same logic by which this collection was assembled, with a preliminary note explaining the names of computer folders where the stories were found, and the order of the contents, which was determined by intuition. An assurance that Bolaño’s manuscripts “almost always exhibit a high degree of clarity and orderliness” does nothing to assuage the feeling that this volume is overreaching.
The Secret Of Evil doesn’t compare to the thrill and sheer ambition of Bolaño’s magnum opus 2666, or even Bolaño’s other story collections. It more resembles reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journals, or Da Vinci’s sketchbooks: It’s a glimpse into the process of a totemic artistic figure. Even after True Policeman is released, there are still two unpublished or untranslated Bolaño works left in the pipeline. Such is the price of fame—every word the man put to paper or typed into a computer is now part of his canon, whether it was finished or hopelessly incomplete.
More than David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, or even Bolaño’s other posthumous work, this collection is glaringly unfinished. Pieces begin with brief, stark arcs, only to drop off just as the action begins. A journalist meets with an anonymous source in the dead of night. A man with a gun to his head shuts his eyes and remembers a night in a boarding house when he overheard another man confess to murder. Daniela de Montecristo—a character in Nazi Literature In The Americas and 2666—recounts the loss of her virginity. Cumulatively, this book feels like starting a car, only for it to run out of gas after a mile, over and over.
But Bolaño’s command of language is so strong that anyone transfixed by his writing will find something of interest within these wisps of story pieces. “Labyrinth,” one of the most complete stories, ruminates on a picture of an art collective, categorically describing the appearance of every writer and artist, detailing actual or perceived romantic entanglements. It’s compelling because of the weight Bolaño gives each description, as though somehow these characters will matter going forward. But when it ends, there can be nothing more. “Labyrinth” feels like the introductory chapter of a longer work, and its drive toward that deeper story makes the premature end disheartening. The collection isn’t wholly dissatisfying—it’s yet another impossible promise of what might have been, had Bolaño lived longer.
The Secret Of Evil isn’t a starting point for the uninitiated. This is a deep cut for completists only, and even then, some may dismiss it as entirely unnecessary, borderline grave-robbery. But like each of Bolaño’s works translated into English after his death, it systematically demonstrates his talents as a writer, and reinforces why he still casts such a grand shadow across Latin American literature.