This part is true: It’s September 11, 1973. The democratically-elected president of Chile is committing suicide with an AK-47. * With the backing of elements of the United States government, ** Augusto Pinochet is seizing power, ready to transform Chile into a quasi-fascist state and assassinate, execute, and torture with impunity across South America.
This part might be true: It’s September 11, 1973. Roberto Bolaño, poet, author, and all around leftist, has returned to Chile to “help build the revolution.” But Chile has fallen to a right wing coup d’etat, and Bolaño, like so many leftists, is arrested.
“I would like to have been a homicide detective, much more than being a writer,” Bolaño told an interviewer. “I am absolutely sure of that.” And Bolaño’s characters, who are often poets and writers and leftist dreamers, are nearly always set against implacable, violent mysteries: the secret of the murder/poet Carlos Weider in Distant Star, the search for the founder of an avant-garde poetry movement in the 1920s in the Savage Detectives, the string of murders in a thinly veiled Juarez in 2666.
Bolaño died in 2003 and never saw his masterpiece, 2666, finished or published. He probably wouldn’t have expected to see a collection of unpolished and unfinished work--found as files on his computer--published as The Secret of Evil. But published they were--and translated, too. It came out in English this year, and its constituent stories are clearly unfinished. Still, despite the its rawness, the brilliance is still there. The themes are still the same.
Poetry is dangerous; that’s the message. Art is potent. Bolaño isn’t often overtly political in his writing, but still, there’s the currents of violence and idealism that run through his work mean that his life--so affected by the Chilean coup and the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary movements (the “desperate, generous, mad, courageous, despicable Latin Americans were destroying, rebuilding, and redestroying reality, in a final bid that was doomed to failure.”) in which South America found herself caught in the late 20th century--is inextricably linked to his writing.
The backdrops of his work are always the same: violence, just out of reach. It’s the monster that chases the characters but that you almost never see on screen. And then you do. The fourth book of 2666, Daniel Zalewski writes in the New Yorker, “offers a sickeningly comprehensive account of the killings, written in the frigid tone of a forensic report. This litany is interspliced with accounts of corrupt police officials, one of whom jokes, ‘Women are like laws, they were made to be violated.’ More than three hundred pages long, it may be the grimmest sequence in contemporary fiction.” I read that part in the coldest part of January. It didn’t matter how high I turned the heat up; I was still cold.
That violence, while often (as in 2666) detached, seemingly, from any concrete source, is a clarion call for a better world. Bolaño’s life--a vagabond poet and writer, a leftist thinker and intellectual, a literary strongman--may have been deeply scarred by the violence of Chile, but his writing remains a revolt against violence and against those who would condone it. The Secret of Evil--and, indeed, all of Bolaño’s work--is a reminder that all of us, perhaps writers most of all, are dangerous. Our ideas can take hold and spread, and nothing, not even death, can stop them--as long as someone is listening.
NB: I am indebted to essayist and poet Kazim Ali for the title of this diary.
* Famously, Fidel Castro told a crowd that President Allende went out in a blaze of glory, wrapped in a Chilean flag, firing his AK-47--a gift from Castro--into the hordes of oncoming soldiers
** See Christopher Hitchens’s fantastic book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger, for documentation of this claim. Hitchens lays out a convincing argument that the Kissinger-led U.S. action in Chile constitutes a war crime. This all was written before Hitchens became something of a neoconservative himself, cheering on the post-9/11 U.S. adventure in the Middle East.