The Ofi Press Magazine

International Poetry and Literature from Mexico City

Review: 3 Books on Roberto Bolaño


Roberto Bolaño: The Secret of Evil. Translated by Chris Andrews with Natasha Wimmer

Picador, 2014

192 pages





Bolaño, A Biography in Conversations by Mónica Maristain

Melville House, 2014

300 pages

Translated by Kit Maude




Roberto Bolaño's Fiction: An Expanding Universe by Chris Andrews

Columbia University Press / New York, 2014

304 pages

$25.67 (hardcover), $24.00 (paperback)




Review by Eniko Jakab

Published in The Ofi Press issue 43


Chilean novelist and poet Roberto Bolaño died in 2003, while waiting for liver transplant surgery, but several years after his death his legacy is still very strong.

The Secret of Evil, published in English in 2014, is a collection of 19 short stories and narrative sketches – most of them unfinished –, found amongst the files on Bolaño’s computer following his death.

The collection begins with the preliminary note of Spanish critic Ignacio Echevarría, explaining how difficult it was to determine whether the pieces were incomplete or purposefully open-ended, because of Bolano's so-called 'poetics of inconclusiveness'. He cites the beginning of The Secret of Evil, a passage characteristic of Bolano's stories in this collection: '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'.

The stories are characterized by a very particular tone and atmosphere; there is a sense of menace, of evil, of omnipresent threat, along with the usually inconclusive or ambiguous ending. The collection may not be an easy initiation into Bolaño's fiction, but the almost hallucinatory qualities present in the stories will invite many readers new to Bolaño to discover his novels as well – among them Distant Star, 2666, or The Savage Detectives.

Mónica Maristain's Bolaño, A Biography in Conversations can be regarded as a response to the cult surrounding Bolaño. Maristain – an Argentine journalist living and working in Mexico – happened to be the last person to interview Bolaño. Her biography also follows the format of interviews, along with the author's own reflections and interpretations. Curiously, Bolaño's closest family members – in particular, Carolina López, the author’s widow, to whom he was married for nearly 30 years, or Lautaro and Alexandra Bolaño, his children – did not contribute to the book, and did not even allow access to Bolaño's correspondence, diaries or unpublished work, so the author herself calls her work 'provisional', relying on conversations with Bolaño's long estranged father, as well as with friends, colleagues, members of the Infrarealist (or visceral realist) movement in Mexico, and his literary circle in Spain.

The book contains several interesting facts about Bolaño, starting from childhood. The biography sheds light on the people interviewed as well, and we get a glimpse into the fascinating literary circles Bolaño used to inhabit. The author is clearly passionate about her subject, and seems tireless in her quest to unearth as much information about Bolaño as possible. However, instead of in-depth research, the book is more of a series of anecdotes and speculations. Maristain seems to accept the views of the interviewee without sufficient criticism or reflection. The texts connecting the interviews lack genuine depth, and neither the structure nor the writing style has a clear focus. The episodic nature of the text contributes to the general feeling that the book is lacking in real cohesion. The somewhat clumsy translation further emphasizes this incoherence.

In contrast, the literary criticism of Chris Andrews, revealing true sensitivity for the Bolaño and his texts, clearly demonstrates that an author can be passionate about its subject and meticulous in literary examination at the same time. This elegant and well-structured volume investigates the oeuvre from several aspects, offers valuable insights into Bolaño's reception, and analyses his narrative style, recurrent themes and characters, and Bolaño's whole fictional universe in rich detail. At the same time, the author blends in biographical facts as well, dissipating myths. Andrews, the translator of several Bolaño novels, offers thorough analysis, and his close reading never becomes pedantic or tedious.

The book contains an appendix, detailing and comparing the fictional victims in 'The Part About the Crimes' (2666) with real murder victims in Ciudad Juárez from 1995 to 1998, as documented in Sergio González Rodríguez’s Huesos en el desierto.