The Secret of Evil, p.1Roberto Bolaño
Translated by CHRIS ANDREWS
with NATASHA WIMMER
A NEW DIRECTIONS BOOK
The Secret of Evil
The Old Man of the Mountain
The Colonel’s Son
Scholars of Sodom
The Room Next Door
Vagaries of the Literature of Doom
I Can’t Read
Death of Ulises
Sevilla Kills Me
The Days of Chaos
This volume gathers a handful of stories and narrative sketches gleaned from the more than fifty files found on Roberto Bolaño’s computer after his death. Many of those files contain poems, stories, novels, articles, talks and interviews that Bolaño had published during his lifetime or had prepared for publication. Other files contain poems and narrative sketches or fragments in various states of completion, sometimes on their own, but more often grouped and inventoried in what appear to be drafts of books, to which Bolaño himself, from a very early stage, would usually give a provisional title, and sometimes even a dedication. Such is the case with the file entitled “BAIRES,” which has served as the basis for the composition of this volume. There are multiple indications that Bolaño was working on this file in the months immediately preceding his death, although there is no record of the dates on which the various files were created or modified. The conviction that this was one of the last documents on which Bolaño worked motivated the editors’ decision to preserve the dedication that figured at the beginning of the file, after the title New Stories. The possibility of keeping that title was also considered, but in the end we chose to borrow the title of one of the stories in the file, which opens with a declaration that is apposite to many of the pieces collected here: “This story is very simple, although it could have been very complicated. Also, it’s incomplete, because stories like this don’t have an ending.”
Bolaño’s work as a whole remains suspended over the abysses that it dares to sound. All his narratives, not just The Secret of Evil, seem to be governed by a poetics of inconclusiveness. The eruption of horror seems to determine the interruption of the storytelling; or perhaps it is the other way around: the interruption of the telling suggests the imminence of horror. In any case, the inconclusive nature of Bolaño’s novels and stories makes it difficult to decide which of the unpublished narrative texts should be regarded as finished and which are simply sketches. The task is further complicated by Bolaño’s progressive radicalization of what I have called his poetics of inconclusiveness. And to make the distinction more difficult still, Bolaño rarely began to write a story without giving it a title and immediately establishing a definite tone and atmosphere; his writing, which is always captivating, virtually never stumbles or hesitates. Kafka’s notebooks and posthumous papers place the reader in a similar situation: one is continually coming across marvelous narrative openings, which then break off abruptly. Decisions as to the wholeness and self-sufficiency of particular pieces can only be based on judgments that, although grounded, are inevitably subjective, and little would be gained by explaining them here.
Almost half the pieces in this volume come from the file mentioned above, specifically: “The Troublemaker,” “The Tour,” “The Room Next Door,” “Vagaries of the Literature of Doom,” “The Colonel’s Son,” “Scholars of Sodom,” “The Secret of Evil,” and “Sevilla Kills Me” (in that order in the file). There is evidence to suggest that some of these pieces are unfinished. But we thought it better to let the reader form his or her own opinion on that matter. “Vagaries of the Literature of Doom” and “Sevilla Kills Me” are the texts of two addresses given by Bolaño (the second is clearly unfinished) and have been published in the posthumous volume Between Parentheses (Barcelona: Anagrama, 2004; New York: New Directions, 2011), despite which they are reproduced here in order to respect and continue a marked tendency, in Bolaño’s late collections, to include non-narrative pieces, with the obvious intention of enriching the genre of the short story by blurring its boundaries.
The remaining pieces in this volume — “I Can’t Read,” “Labyrinth,” “Daniela,” “Death of Ulises,” “Suntan,” “Colonia Lindavista,” “Beach,” “The Old Man of the Mountain,” “The Days of Chaos” and “Crimes” — come from a file labeled STORIX. The text entitled “Beach,” first published in the newspaper El Mundo on August 17, 2000, appeared in Between Parentheses, but is republished here in what we consider to be a more appropriate context. As to “I Can’t Read,” which is clearly unfinished, its content is wholly autobiographical and the narrator is, without doubt, Roberto Bolaño himself; nevertheless, he refers to the text, in the first line, as “a story” — a clear indication of his increasingly open idea of the genre.
The piece entitled “Scholars of Sodom,” which is no doubt incomplete, comes from a file labeled STOREC, and is in fact composed of two texts with the same title, the second, written some years later, taking the first as its starting point. In this volume, the two versions are given one after another, so as to form a sequence. Incidentally, Bolaño toyed with the idea of using the title “Scholars of Sodom” for a collection of stories very similar to the one that was finally published as Murdering Whores (Putas asesinas, Barcelona, Anagrama, 2001).
The long story entitled “Muscles,” probably the beginning of an unfinished novel, perhaps an early version of Una novelita lumpen (Barcelona, Mondadori, 2002), is the only text in a file labeled MUSCLE.
All the texts are reproduced here without any changes apart from the correction of occasional oversights or literal errors. It is worth emphasizing that Bolaño’s texts, whether written by hand or on a word processor, almost always exhibit a high degree of clarity and orderliness. As a result, the author’s verbal intentions are unequivocal, and there has been no need for editorial reconstructions, which are always open to dispute.
The order in which the texts are presented here is the product of intuition rather than capricious decisions on the part of the editors, who hope not to have presumed too far or erred too much in their desire to endow the whole with a deliberate rhythm and an inner coherence.
Barcelona, September 2005
THE SECRET OF EVIL
for my children Lautaro and Alexandra
When we arrived in Mexico, in 1968, a friend of my mother’s put us up for the first few days, after which we rented an apartment in Colonia Lindavista. I’ve forgotten the name of the street; sometimes I think it was called Aurora, but maybe I’m getting mixed up. In Blanes I lived for a few years in an apartment on a Calle Aurora, so it seems unlikely that I lived on another Calle Aurora in Mexico, although the name’s not all that unusual: quite a few cities have a street with that name. The Calle Aurora in Blanes, by the way, is no more than twenty yards long, and more like an alley than a street. The on
The woman we rented the apartment from was called Eulalia Martínez. She was a widow and she had three daughters and a son. She lived on the first floor of the building, a building that seemed normal to me at the time, but thinking back now, I see it as a conglomerate of oddities and blunders, because the second floor, which you got to by climbing an outdoor staircase, and the third floor, to which there was a metal ladder, had been added much later on and possibly without permits. The differences were striking: the apartment on the first floor had high ceilings and a certain dignity; it was ugly but it had been built according to an architect’s plans. The second and third floors were the fruit of ad hoc interactions between Doña Eulalia’s aesthetic sense and the skills of a builder friend. The reasoning behind this architectonic corpulence was not entirely mercenary. The owner of our apartment had four children, and the four apartments on the two additional floors had been built for them, so that they would stay close to their mother when they got married.
When we arrived, however, the only apartment that was occupied was the one directly above ours. Doña Eulalia’s three daughters were unmarried and lived with their mother downstairs. The son, Pepe, who was the youngest, was the only one who had married, and he lived above us with his wife, Lupita. They were our closest neighbors during that time.
There’s not much more I can say about Doña Eulalia. She was a strong-willed woman who’d been lucky in life, and she may not have been a very nice person. I scarcely knew her daughters. They were what used to be known, in those long-gone years, as old maids, and they endured their fate with all the grace they could muster, which is to say not very much; at best they gave off a dingy kind of resignation, which stained the things around them or the way I remember those things now that they’ve all disappeared. The daughters were rarely to be seen, or at least I didn’t see them much; they watched soap operas and gossiped spitefully about the other women in the neighborhood, whom they saw at the grocer’s or in the dark entrance way where a skeletal Indian woman sold nixtamal tortillas.
Pepe and his wife, Lupita, were different.
My mother and father, who were three or four years younger than I am now, made friends with them almost right away. I was interested in Pepe. In the neighborhood all the boys my age called him “The Pilot” because he flew for the Mexican Air Force. Lupita was a housewife. Before getting married she had worked as a secretary or a clerk in a government office. Both of them were friendly and hospitable, or tried to be. Sometimes my parents would go up to their apartment and stay there a while, listening to records and drinking. My parents were older than Pepe and Lupita, but they were Chilean, and at the time Chileans saw themselves as the acme of modernity, at least in Latin America. The age gap was offset by the markedly youthful spirit of my progenitors.
On a few occasions I went up to their apartment too. The living room (which we called a living) was relatively modern, and Pepe had a record player that seemed to be a recent acquisition. On the walls and the sideboards in the dining room there were photos of him and Lupita, and photos of the airplanes he flew, which were what interested me the most; but he preferred not to talk about his work, as if he were always protecting some military secret. Classified information, as they said in the North American TV shows. The secrets of the Mexican Air Force, which, frankly, no one was losing any sleep over, except for Pepe with his somewhat extravagant sense of duty and responsibility.
Little by little, from conversations at the dinner table or overheard while I was studying, I began to get a sense of what our neighbors’ life was really like. They’d been married for five years and still didn’t have any children. There were frequent visits to the gynecologist. According to the doctors, Lupita was perfectly capable of having children. And the tests showed that Pepe was the same. The problem was mental, the doctors said. As the years went by, Pepe’s mother began to resent the fact that Lupita hadn’t provided her with grandchildren. Lupita once confessed to my mother that the problem was the apartment, and being so close to her mother-in-law. If they went somewhere else, she said, she’d probably be able to get pregnant right away.
I think Lupita was right.
Another thing: Pepe and Lupita were short. I was taller than Pepe and I was seventeen at the time. So I guess Pepe can’t have been more than five foot nine, and Lupita would have been about five foot two at the most. Pepe was dark, with very black hair, and a thoughtful expression, as if there was always something on his mind. Every morning he went to work wearing his air force officer’s uniform. He was always impeccably turned out, except on the weekend, when he put on a sweatshirt and jeans and didn’t shave. Lupita had fair skin, dyed-blonde hair, and a more or less permanent perm, which she used to get done at the hairdresser’s, or did herself, using a little kit containing all a woman’s hair needs, which Pepe brought back from the United States. She used to smile when she said hello. Sometimes from my room I could hear them having sex. This was around the time I started getting serious about writing and I used to stay up very late. My life seemed pretty dull to me. In fact I was dissatisfied with everything about it. I used to write until two or three in the morning, and that was when the groans would suddenly begin in the apartment upstairs.
At first it all seemed normal. If Pepe and Lupita wanted to have a child they had to fuck. But then I asked myself, Why were they starting so late at night? Why couldn’t I hear any voices before the groans began? Needless to say, my knowledge of sex at the time was limited to what I’d been able to glean from movies and porn magazines. In other words, it was minimal. But I knew enough to sense that something strange was happening in the apartment upstairs. In my imagination, I began to embellish Pepe and Lupita’s sex life with incomprehensible gestures, as if sadomasochistic scenes were being played out upstairs, scenes that I couldn’t completely visualize, that weren’t built around actions intended to produce pain or pleasure, but around dramatized movements that Pepe and Lupita were executing in spite of themselves, movements that were gradually unhinging them.
None of this was obvious from the outside. And in fact I soon reached the smug conclusion that nobody else had noticed. My mother, who was, in a way, Lupita’s friend and confidante, thought that all the couple’s problems would be solved by moving away. My father had no opinion on the matter. Freshly arrived in Mexico, we were too busy taking in all the new things that dazzled us every day to puzzle over the secret life of our neighbors. When I think back to that time, I see my parents and my sister, and then I see myself, and the little group we compose looks overwhelmingly desolate.
Six blocks from our house there was a Gigante supermarket where we went on Saturdays to shop for the whole week. That’s something I can remember in elaborate detail. I also remember that I was sent to an Opus Dei high school, although in defense of my parents I should point out that they had never heard of Opus Dei. It took me more than a year myself to realize what a diabolical place it was. My Ethics teacher was a self-confessed Nazi, which was weird, because he was a little guy from Chiapas with indigenous features, who’d studied in Italy on a scholarship — a nice, dumb guy, basically, who would have been gassed by the real Nazis without a second thought — and my Logic teacher believed in the heroic will of José Antonio (many years later, in Spain, I ended up living on an avenue named after José Antonio). But, at the beginning, like my
Pepe and Lupita were the only people who interested me. And a friend of Pepe’s, his only friend, actually, a fair-haired guy, the best pilot in his year at the academy, a tall thin guy who’d been injured in an accident when his fighter crashed and would never be able to fly again. He turned up at the house almost every weekend, and after saying hello to Pepe’s mother and his sisters, who adored him, he went up to his friend’s apartment and stayed there drinking and watching TV while Lupita made dinner. Sometimes he came during the week, and then he would be wearing his uniform, a uniform I have trouble visualizing now; I would have said it was blue, but I could be wrong, and if I shut my eyes and try to conjure up the image of Pepe and his fair-haired friend, I see them wearing green uniforms, light green, a dashing pair of pilots, alongside Lupita, who’s wearing a white blouse and a blue skirt (she’s the one wearing blue).
Sometimes the fair-haired guy stayed for dinner. My parents would go to bed while the music went on playing upstairs. I’d be the only one awake in our apartment, because that’s when I used to start writing. And in a way the noise from the apartment upstairs kept me company. At about two in the morning, the voices and the music would stop and a strange silence would fill the whole building: not just Pepe’s apartment but ours as well and the apartment where Pepe’s mother lived, which was holding up the extensions and seemed to creak at that time of night, as if the weight of the extra stories was too much to bear. And then I could only hear the wind, the night wind of Mexico City, and the steps of the fair-haired guy as he walked to the door, accompanied by Pepe’s steps, then the sound of footsteps on the stairs, and on our landing, and then going down the next flight of stairs to the ground floor, and the iron gate opening, and the steps fading away down Calle Aurora. Then I’d stop writing (I can’t remember what I was writing, something awful, probably, but something long that kept me absorbed) and listen for the sounds that didn’t come from Pepe’s apartment, as if after the fair-haired guy had left, everything in there, including Pepe and Lupita, had suddenly frozen.
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