The largest art theft in world history occurred in Boston on March 18, 1990 when thieves stole 13 pieces from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
Collectively worth $300 million.
At least $500 million.
Among the pieces stolen was Vermeer’s The Concert, which is considered to be the most valuable stolen painting in the world.
Also among the pieces stolen: Landscape with an Obelisk, which previously was attributed to Rembrandt.
Having achieved youthful success as a portrait painter, Rembrandt’s later years were marked by personal tragedy and financial hardships.
He died within a year of his son, on October 4, 1669 in Amsterdam, and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Westerkerk.
More than half the subjects of Rembrandt’s etchings are portraits and studies of the human figure; about one-quarter are scriptural or religious. There are two dozen landscapes, and the remainder are allegorical and fancy compositions.
Rembrandt was his own most frequent model.
At least 40 paintings and 31 etchings. Maybe 60. Maybe 70.
Frida Kahlo produced 143 paintings, 55 of which are self-portraits.
Because I am so often alone.
Because I am the subject I know best.
The most acclaimed self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci is critically, irreparably damaged.
The portrait has got blotches, stains and spots, a condition called foxing.
Leonardo’s self-portrait measures 33.5 by 21.6 centimetres (13.2 by 8.5 inches).
Any list of most famous paintings would be incomplete without the mention of the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci.
This infamous portrait of Lisa del Giocondo was completed some time between 1503-1519 and currently on display at the Musee du Louvre in Paris.
Leonardo used a pyramid design to place the woman simply and calmly in the space of the painting.
Between 1851 and 1880, artists who visited the Louvre copied Mona Lisa roughly half as many times as certain works by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Antonio da Correggio, Paolo Veronese, Titian, Jean-Baptiste Greuze and Pierre-Paul Prud’hon.
And in 1911, Louis Béroud.
The Mona Lisa’s fame was emphasized when it was stolen on 21 August 1911.
On 22 August 1911, Louis Béroud walked into the Louvre and went to the Salon Carré where the Mona Lisa had been on display for five years. However, where the Mona Lisa should have stood, he found four iron pegs.
French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who had once called for the Louvre to be “burnt down,” came under suspicion; he was arrested and put in jail. Apollinaire tried to implicate his friend Pablo Picasso, who was also brought in for questioning, but both were later exonerated.
(In 1900 Apollinaire would write his first pornographic novel, Mirely, ou le petit trou pas cher, which was eventually lost).
The 1991 film Hudson Hawk (1991) centers on a cat burglar who is forced to steal Da Vinci works of art for a world domination plot.
A colossally sour and ill-conceived misfire.
In 1812 France was devastated when its invasion of Russia turned out to be a colossal failure in which scores of soldiers in Napoleon’s Grand Army were killed or badly wounded.
Napoleon’s conquests in Europe were followed by a systematic attempt, later more tentatively echoed by Hitler, to take the finest works of art of conquered nations back to the Louvre in Paris for a grand central museum of all Europe.
We will now have all that is beautiful in Italy except for a few objects in Turin and Naples.
The contents of nearly all the tombs of the Pharaohs were already completely looted by grave robbers before the invasion of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE.
Rome was sacked seven times.
King Shishak of Egypt attacked Jerusalem and took away the treasures of the Lord’s temple and of the royal palace. He took everything, including the gold shields that Solomon had made.
In the Book of Jeremiah 15:11 the Lord says:
Jerusalem, I will surely send you away for your own good. I will surely bring the enemy upon you in a time of trouble and distress. I will give away your wealth and your treasures as plunder. I will give it away free of charge for the sins you have committed throughout your land.
Sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade, 1204.
The Sack of Baghdad, 1258.
Hernán Cortés and the looting of the Aztec gold.
Adolf Hitler was an unsuccessful artist who was denied admission to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts.
The Third Reich amassed hundreds of thousands of objects from occupied nations and stored them in several key locations, such as Musée Jeu de Paume in Paris and the Nazi headquarters in Munich.
Later, storing the artworks in salt mines and caves for protection from Allied bombing raids.
These mines and caves offered the appropriate humidity and temperature conditions for artworks.
Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man was confiscated from a Polish family by the Nazis in 1939 for Hitler’s Führermuseum in Linz.
It disappeared in 1945 shortly before the end of the Second World War.
On 1 August 2012, the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that the painting had been found in a bank vault in an undisclosed location.
Thirty years after it was stolen, Camille Pissarro’s Le Marche aux Poissons was returned to the French.
Authorities believe they know who stole art from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in the largest art heist in U.S. history.
Eventually they will resurface. Somebody will rat somebody else out. It’s really only a matter of time.
A drawing stolen from an ice cream shop is now back in the hands of its creator.
Vengeance, the latest in Benjamin Black’s Quirke series. From Janet Maslin’s New York Times review last year:
Vengeance” once again leads Quirke into his favorite kind of trouble: “yet another morass of human cupidity and deceit,” involving the deaths of powerful men and the foxy insolence of their glamorous widows. It breaks no new ground.
But why should Benjamin Black tamper with a winning formula? The crimes aren’t graphic or even terribly central. And the detecting questions don’t count for much. The books are far more notable for malaise, atmospherics, sexual chemistry and vast amounts of swirling tobacco smoke and mind-muddling alcohol, without which justice could apparently never prevail.
Vengeance is new in trade paperback from Picador.
Deadly Virtues, a new mystery from Jo Bannister. Publishers Weekly review:
Stubborn morality and acid-tinged whimsy drive this superior stand-alone from British author Bannister (Liars All and eight other Brodie Farrell mysteries). Recovering mental patient Gabriel Ash looks pathetic and vulnerable as he rambles through the town of Norbold while talking to his dog. One day, at the local police station, where he’s recovering from a beating, Gabriel receives a cryptic message from a man who’s then killed by a crazed prisoner. Gabriel forces himself back into contact with normal humanity because he feels he ought to do something about the crime. Rookie policewoman Hazel Best is also dissatisfied with the official explanation of the tragedy. And so the three—the traumatized beating victim, the idealistic young cop, and the dog—begin sniffing under the pristine surface of the virtually crime-free town. They have no idea how dangerous good intentions can be. Bannister’s plotting is neat and her characterization smooth, with just enough irony to keep people from seeming ostentatiously noble
Okay: So I’ve been meaning to get to this one for awhile, but my review stack has just been too big.
Anyway, Michael J. Siedlinger’s My Pet Serial Killer is pretty weird stuff so far, but also compelling and very readable.
At Word Riot, Edward J. Rathke gave the book a favorable review, writing:
My Pet Serial Killer is a psychological thriller as pickup game as college days romance as media study as violent porn as metahorror as the most bizarre and cruelest master/slave relationship I can remember reading since John Fowles’ The Collector. Claire Wilkinson, a forensics graduate student, plays the pickup game but she searches for a very specific kind of lover: a serial killer. She finds her Gentleman Killer, tears him apart, and rebuilds him, hoping to mold the greatest serial killer ever, causing a media frenzy, and furthering her own academic career. Twisted without being overly violent, haunting without the ghosts, Claire is a narrator and protagonist that we race along with, burning through pages at a dizzying rate only to see what she does next.
The book also got a good write-up at HTML Giant, which declared “Seidlinger is the sickest of the fucks. Few can compare.”
“A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud” by Carson McCullers
It was raining that morning, and still very dark. When the boy reached the streetcar café he had almost finished his route and he went in for a cup of coffee. The place was an all-night café owned by a bitter and stingy man called Leo. After the raw, empty street, the café seemed friendly and bright: along the counter there were a couple of soldiers, three spinners from the cotton mill, and in a corner a man who sat hunched over with his nose and half his face down in a beer mug. The boy wore a helmet such as aviators wear. When he went into the café he unbuckled the chin strap and raised the right flap up over his pink little ear; often as he drank his coffee someone would speak to him in a friendly way. But this morning Leo did not look into his face and none of the men were talking. He paid and was leaving the café when a voice called out to him:
“Son! Hey Son!”
He turned back and the man in the corner was crooking his finger and nodding to him. He had brought his face out of the beer mug and he seemed suddenly very happy. The man was long and pale, with a big nose and faded orange hair.
The boy went toward him. He was an undersized boy of about twelve, with one shoulder drawn higher than the other because of the weight of the paper sack. His face was shallow, freckled, and his eyes were round child eyes.
The man laid one hand on the paper boy’s shoulders, then grasped the boy’s chin and turned his face slowly from one side to the other. The boy shrank back uneasily.
“Say! What’s the big idea?”
The boy’s voice was shrill; inside the café it was suddenly very quiet.
The man said slowly. “I love you.”
All along the counter the men laughed. The boy, who had scowled and sidled away, did not know what to do. He looked over the counter at Leo, and Leo watched him with a weary, brittle jeer. The boy tried to laugh also. But the man was serious and sad.
“I did not mean to tease you, Son,” he said. “Sit down and have a beer with me. There is something I have to explain.”
Cautiously, out of the corner of his eye, the paper boy questioned the men along the counter to see what he should do. But they had gone back to their beer or their breakfast and did not notice him. Leo put a cup of coffee on the counter and a little jug of cream.
“He is a minor,” Leo said. Read More
“That wasn’t quite my contention,” he began simply and modestly. “Yet I admit that you have stated it almost correctly; perhaps, if you like, perfectly so.” (It almost gave him pleasure to admit this.) “The only difference is that I don’t contend that extraordinary people are always bound to commit breaches of morals, as you call it. In fact, I doubt whether such an argument could be published. I simply hinted that an ‘extraordinary’ man has the right… that is not an official right, but an inner right to decide in his own conscience to overstep… certain obstacles, and only in case it is essential for the practical fulfilment of his idea (sometimes, perhaps, of benefit to the whole of humanity). You say that my article isn’t definite; I am ready to make it as clear as I can. Perhaps I am right in thinking you want me to; very well. I maintain that if the discoveries of Kepler and Newton could not have been made known except by sacrificing the lives of one, a dozen, a hundred, or more men, Newton would have had the right, would indeed have been in duty bound… to eliminate the dozen or the hundred men for the sake of making his discoveries known to the whole of humanity. But it does not follow from that that Newton had a right to murder people right and left and to steal every day in the market. Then, I remember, I maintain in my article that all… well, legislators and leaders of men, such as Lycurgus, Solon, Mahomet, Napoleon, and so on, were all without exception criminals, from the very fact that, making a new law, they transgressed the ancient one, handed down from their ancestors and held sacred by the people, and they did not stop short at bloodshed either, if that bloodshed—often of innocent persons fighting bravely in defence of ancient law—were of use to their cause. It’s remarkable, in fact, that the majority, indeed, of these benefactors and leaders of humanity were guilty of terrible carnage. In short, I maintain that all great men or even men a little out of the common, that is to say capable of giving some new word, must from their very nature be criminals—more or less, of course. Otherwise it’s hard for them to get out of the common rut; and to remain in the common rut is what they can’t submit to, from their very nature again, and to my mind they ought not, indeed, to submit to it. You see that there is nothing particularly new in all that. The same thing has been printed and read a thousand times before. As for my division of people into ordinary and extraordinary, I acknowledge that it’s somewhat arbitrary, but I don’t insist upon exact numbers. I only believe in my leading idea that men are in general divided by a law of nature into two categories, inferior (ordinary), that is, so to say, material that serves only to reproduce its kind, and men who have the gift or the talent to utter a new word. There are, of course, innumerable sub-divisions, but the distinguishing features of both categories are fairly well marked. The first category, generally speaking, are men conservative in temperament and law-abiding; they live under control and love to be controlled. To my thinking it is their duty to be controlled, because that’s their vocation, and there is nothing humiliating in it for them. The second category all transgress the law; they are destroyers or disposed to destruction according to their capacities. The crimes of these men are of course relative and varied; for the most part they seek in very varied ways the destruction of the present for the sake of the better. But if such a one is forced for the sake of his idea to step over a corpse or wade through blood, he can, I maintain, find within himself, in his conscience, a sanction for wading through blood—that depends on the idea and its dimensions, note that. It’s only in that sense I speak of their right to crime in my article (you remember it began with the legal question). There’s no need for such anxiety, however; the masses will scarcely ever admit this right, they punish them or hang them (more or less), and in doing so fulfil quite justly their conservative vocation. But the same masses set these criminals on a pedestal in the next generation and worship them (more or less). The first category is always the man of the present, the second the man of the future. The first preserve the world and people it, the second move the world and lead it to its goal. Each class has an equal right to exist. In fact, all have equal rights with me—and vive la guerre éternelle—till the New Jerusalem, of course!”
From Chapter V of Part III of Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment.
PRIEST – Then we should not shrink from the worst of all crimes.
DYING MAN – I say nothing of the kind. Let the evil deed be proscribed by law, let justice smite the criminal, that will be deterrent enough; but if by misfortune we do commit it even so, let’s not cry over spilled milk; remorse is inefficacious, since it does not stay us from crime, futile since it does not repair it, therefore it is absurd to beat one’s breast, more absurd still to dread being punished in another world if we have been lucky to escape it in this. God forbid that this be construed as encouragement to crime, no, we should avoid it as much as we can, but one must learn to shun it through reason and not through false fears which lead to naught and whose effects are so quickly overcome in any moderately steadfast soul. Reason, sir – yes, our reason alone should warn us that harm done our fellows can never bring happiness to us; and our heart, that contributing to their felicity is the greatest joy Nature has accorded us on earth; the entirety of human morals is contained in this one phrase: Render others as happy as one desires oneself to be, and never inflict more pain upon them than one would like to receive at their hands. There you are, my friend, those are the only principles we should observe, and you need neither god nor religion to appreciate and subscribe to them, you need only have a good heart. But I feel my strength ebbing away; preacher, put away your prejudices, unbend, be a man, be human, without fear and without hope forget your gods and your religions too: they are none of them good for anything but to set man at odds with man, and the mere name of these horrors has caused greater loss of life on earth than all other wars and all other plagues combined. Renounce the idea of another world; there is none, but do not renounce the pleasure of being happy and of making for happiness in this. Nature offers you no other way of doubling your existence, of extending it. – My friend, lewd pleasures were ever dearer to me than anything else, I have idolized tham all my life and my wish has been to end it in their bosom; my end draws near, six women lovelier than the light of day are waiting in the chamber adjoining, I have reserved them for this moment, partake of the feast with me, following my example embrace them instead of the vain sophistries of superstition, under their caresses strive for a little while to forget your hypocritical beliefs.
NOTE: The dying man rang, the women entered; and after he had been a little while in their arms the preacher became one whom Nature had corrupted, all because he had not succeeded in explaining what a corrupt nature is.
From the Marquis de Sade’s Dialogue Between a Priest and a Dying Man (1782).
Another stand-alone segment from Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666—from “The Part About Archimboldi”:
Our hero Reiter (writer!)—who at this moment (or just before it, unbeknownst to the reader) adopts the ridiculous nom de thing Archimboldi (!!!)—secures a rented typewriter from a failed writer, an old man who takes the time to lecture on writing and camouflage and masterpieces and Jesus &c.—and writing as channeling (or maybe a type of divine madness), as a ventriloquist act (which I touched on here). (Perhaps I’m pushing the limits of copyright law here. Look, I think you should all buy and read this book and give copies to loved ones and enemies alike).
“I was a writer,” said the old man.
“But I gave it up. This typewriter was a gift from my father. An affectionate and cultured man who lived to the age of ninety-three. An essentially good man. A man who believed in progress, it goes without saying. My poor father. He believed in progress and of course he believed in the intrinsic goodness of human beings. I too believe in the intrinsic goodness of human beings, but it means nothing. In their hearts, killers are good, as we Germans have reason to know. So what? I might spend a night drinking with a killer, and as the two of us watch the sun come up, perhaps we’ll burst into song or hum some Beethoven. So what? The killer might weep on my shoulder. Naturally. Being a killer isn’t easy, as you and I well know. It isn’t easy at all. It requires purity and will, will and purity. Crystalline purity and steel-hard will. And I myself might even weep on the killer’s shoulder and whisper sweet words to him, words like ‘brother,’ ‘friend,’ ‘comrade in misfortune.’ At this moment the killer is good, because he’s intrinsically good, and I’m an idiot, because I’m intrinsically an idiot, and we’re both sentimental, because our culture tends inexorably toward sentimentality. But when the performance is over and I’m alone, the killer will open the window of my room and come tiptoeing in like a nurse and slit my throat, bleed me dry.
“My poor father. I was a writer, I was a writer, but my indolent, voracious brain gnawed at my own entrails. Vulture of my Prometheus self or Prometheus of my vulture self, one day I understood that I might go so far as to publish excellent articles in magazines and newspapers, and even books that weren’t unworthy of the paper on which they were printed. But I also understood that I would never manage to create anything like a masterpiece. You may say that literature doesn’t consist solely of masterpieces, but rather is populated by so-called minor works. I believed that, too. Literature is a vast forest and the masterpieces are the lakes, the towering trees or strange trees, the lovely, eloquent flowers, the hidden caves, but a forest is also made up of ordinary trees, patches of grass, puddles, clinging vines, mushrooms, and little wild-flowers. I was wrong. There’s actually no such thing as a minor work. I mean: the author of the minor work isn’t Mr. X or Mr. Y. Mr. X and Mr. Y do exist, there’s no question about that, and they struggle and toil and publish in newspapers and magazines and sometimes they even come out with a book that isn’t unworthy of the paper it’s printed on, but those books or articles, if you pay close attention, are not written by them.
“Every minor work has a secret author and every secret author is, by definition, a writer of masterpieces. Who writes the minor work? A minor writer, or so it appears. The poor man’s wife can testify to that, she’s seen him sitting at the table, bent over the blank pages, restless in his chair, his pen racing over the paper. The evidence would seem to be incontrovertible. But what she’s seen is only the outside. The shell of literature. A semblance,” said the old man to Archimboldi and Archimboldi thought of Ansky. “The person who really writes the minor work is a secret writer who accepts only the dictates of a masterpiece. Read More
1. In Powers of Horror philosopher Julia Kristeva describes the idea with which she’s most closely identified, the abject, the intense horror our subjective psychology—and our bodies—experience when faced with corporeal reality: the edges of our body: filth, vomit, shit, blood, death: the me that is not me. Breakdown of subject and object: abject.
2. Julia Kristeva shows up as a character, a phantom from a photograph in Roberto Bolaño’s story “Labyrinth,” collected in The Secret of Evil, new from New Directions.
3. (Can there be a more Bolañoesque title than “Labyrinth”?)
4. This is ostensibly a review of that Bolaño collection, but I’ll be riffing on some other things.
5. Bolaño created his own genre. His oeuvre, piecemeal and posthumous at times, is nevertheless a complete fiction or discourse of its own. Think of the Bolañoverse like Middle Earth, like Yoknapatawpha County, like dark Narnia with no Aslan to redeem it.
6. The Bolañoverse is abject. Consider the pile of bodies that heap like rubbish in “The Part About the Crimes,” the cruel center of 2666—has ever a book repeated the phrase “vaginally and anally raped” so many times?
7. Kristeva, in Powers of Horror:
The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject. It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object. Imaginary uncanninness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us.
It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite. The traitor, the liar, the criminal with a good conscience, the shameless rapist, the killer who claims he is a savior . . . Any crime, because it draws attention to the fragility of the law, is abject, but premeditated crime, cunning murder, hypocritical revenge are even more so because they heighten the display of such fragility.
8. But I promised to remark upon The Secret of Evil; I used the term “review” even.
A few things:
It’s a beautiful book (I mean the physical book itself; the cover, the design). The name is perfect.
Much of what’s collected here is perhaps unfinished—-scraps, riffs, bits of tales, sketches.
Much of what’s here is finished, or, more to the point, much of what’s here—scratch that, all of what’s collected in The Secret of Evil—fits into the Bolañoverse, fleshes it out, or stretches it, or condenses it maybe (let me have my paradoxes, will you?).
9. Bolaño’s friend (and literary executor) Ignacio Echevarría puts it aptly in his introduction to The Secret of Evil:
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.
10. I have been slowly, slowly rereading my way through 2666, edging my way into it in the latest of hours. I’m nearing the end, or the end of “The Part About Archimboldi,” and what I find most remarkable upon rereading is how precise, how tight it seems this time, how each book seems to answer to the other. (Take, for instance the female politician who, at the end of “The Part About the Crimes,” seems to peer through a strange mirror into the future (past?) to see the English critic Norton, who, in “The Part About the Critics,” in turn gazes into (the same?) mirror at a woman—not herself but surely the politician. Or take another instance: The visitations to madhouses made by peripheral characters to even more peripheral characters: artists, suspects, lovers, poets, teachers. Or take all the abysses. Or the labyrinths. Or mirrors. Or dreams. Or murders. Maybe I’m tipping into a simple recitation of motifs and themes now).
11. But no, what I want to remark on is how The Secret of Evil is part and parcel of the Bolañoverse, how it answers backward and forward and throughout Bolaño’s “poetics of inconclusiveness,” his “eruption[s] of horror.” Fragments like “The Secret of Evil” and “Crimes,” with their journalist heroes and noir lighting seem to dance around the same central mysteries that pulse through 2666. The strange literary criticism of “Vagaries of the Literature of Doom” and “Scholars of Sodom” answers not only to “The Part About the Critics,” but to the entire course of Bolaño’s work as well. And continuing—
12. Of course Arturo Belano appears in The Secret of Evil, as does his erstwhile partner Ulisses Lima. How could they not? They roam the Bolañoverse beyond their own narrative proper, The Savage Detectives (that is what detectives do), even popping up (unnamed) in 2666 where they father (both of them figuratively and one of them literally) that other savage detective, Lalo Cura.
13. And then (back to The Secret of Evil) there’s “The Colonel’s Son,” a sketch of a zombie film, a B-movie, shades of Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror (recall that Rodriguez is given a vague credit for a surreal porno horror film that plays in “The Part About Fate” in 2666). “The Colonel’s Son” shows Bolaño’s poetics of inconclusiveness at their sharpest. Our narrator describes a terrible film he sees on late night TV, only he misses the beginning, so we are without context, without rationale or reason for the awful onslaught that happens. There’s a labyrinth, 0f course, a dark twisting complex of passageways that hide secrets under a military facility, and then a twin labyrinth, a sewer system. There’s love, familial and romantic. There are Kristevan bodies, zombies, corpses infected with life (or is it the other way around). There’s horrific indeterminancy.
14. I remarked on Bolaño’s powers of horror back in the spring, making a bizarre argument that 2666 was somehow a werewolf story. 2666 and the Bolañoverse in general is crawling with all kinds of monsters though.
15. I’ve used the word Lynchian repeatedly when writing about Bolaño, in reference to the American film director David Lynch—whose name is in fact directly evoked in 2666, in “The Part About Fate.” In his essay “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” David Foster Wallace provides a succinct description of David Lynch’s powers of horror, a description that I believe applies to Bolaño as well:
Characters are not themselves evil in Lynch movies—evil wears them. This point is worth emphasizing. Lynch’s movies are not about monsters (i.e. people whose intrinsic natures are evil) but about hauntings, about evil as environment, possibility, force. This helps explain Lynch’s constant deployment of noirish lighting and eerie sound-carpets and grotesque figurants: in his movies’ world, a kind of ambient spiritual antimatter hangs just overhead. It also explains why Lynch’s villains seem not merely wicked or sick but ecstatic, transported: they are, literally, possessed.
16. The Bolañoverse is darkly haunted, comically haunted, savagely haunted, haunted by history and the present as well. The crimes of the Nazis, maddeningly, expertly elided in “The Part About Archimbolid” extend in “The Part About the Crimes” to Santa Teresa, fictional stand-in to real-life murder capital Juarez—and Nazism percolates out into neo-fascism, into the horrific confessions in By Night in Chile or the art-terror of Distant Star, or to the absurdity of Nazi Literature of the Americas. Throughout it all though, Bolaño crafts his powers of horror not so much through evil individuals (although they are easy to find there) but through, to use Wallace’s term, “evil as environment.”
17. How often do the characters in 2666 look out on the desert in a horror approaching madness?
18. And then madness, too, madness as a type of possession, but also madness as a kind of inescapable outcome, or madness as even a type of salvation, the sense that we might end up mad or dead (murder or suicide).
19. Let me try to connect these last few points in a citation from late in “The Part About the Crimes,” a few lines from our female politician trying to find justice for her friend Kelly who soon learns about the extensive victimization of women in Santa Teresa:
As I learned about other cases, however, as I heard other voices, my rage began to assume what you might call mass stature, my rage became collective or the expression of something collective, my rage, when it allowed itself to show, saw itself as the instrument of vengeance of thousands of victims. Honestly, I think I was losing my mind. Those voices I heard (voices, never faces or shapes) came from the desert. In the desert, I roamed with a knife in my hand. My face was reflected in the blade. I had white hair and sunken cheeks covered with tiny scars. Each scar was a little story that I tried and failed to recall. I ended up taking pills for my nerves.
We see here the descent into madness, the rage of it all, the violence of the landscape, the great ventriloquist act of insanity.
20. Bolaño, master ventriloquist, authors the heteroglossic Bolañoverse with an abyssal void at its invisible center. His characters wish to speak some kind of truth or name or answer to this void, but it exists outside of the realm of language, of possibility, accessible instead only in dreams or nightmares or mirrors or strange transmissions, psychic or otherwise. It’s terrifying, of course.
21. But it’s a mistake to cast Bolaño as some kind of malevolent puppet master, confounding his ventriloquized characters and driving them mad (not to mention his poor readers!). Perhaps it’s instructive to dip into Kristeva again, who gives us the deject to go with her abject. From Powers of Horror:
The one by whom the abject exists is thus a deject who places (himself), separates (himself), situates (himself), and therefore strays, instead of getting his bearings, desiring, belonging, or refusing. Situationist in a sense, and not without laughter—since laughing is a way of placing or displacing abjection.
. . . wishing to know his abjections is not at all unaware of them. Often, moreover, he includes himself among them, casting within himself the scalpel that carries out his separations. . . the space that engrosses the deject, the excluded, is never one, nor homogeneous, nor totalizable, but essentially divisible, foldable, and catastrophic. A deviser of territories, languages, works, the deject never stops demarcating his universe whose fluid confines—for they are constituted of a nonobject, the abject–constantly questions his solidity and impel him to start afresh. A tireless builder, the deject is in short a stray.
22. Bolaño the exile. Bolaño the stray.
23. This riff has swollen now, ballooned up, mutated; I can no longer wrangle the rest of my outline into cohesion at this point. Save it for later.
24. I’ll try to end more sensibly, or at least more practically. The Secret of Evil is not some grand intertextual key that unlocks the secret of the Bolañoverse; the “secret” in the title is not a revelation but a synonym for “mystery”. Fans will find some sharp moments here, but it’s not a good starting place for those unfamiliar with his writing (try Last Evenings on Earth or Distant Star). For completists only—but completists will find dark joy here.
‘Tell me this much,’ I ventured. ‘What sort of readings were those in the policeman’s black book?’
The Sergeant gave me a keen look which felt almost hot from being on the fire previously.
‘The first beginnings of wisdom,’ he said, ‘is to ask questions but never to answer any. You get wisdom from asking and I from not answering. Would you believe that there is a great increase in crime in this locality? Last year we had sixty-nine cases of no lights and four stolen. This year we have eighty-two cases of no lights, thirteen cases of riding on the footpath and four stolen. There was one case of wanton damage to a three-speed gear, there is sure to be a claim at the next Court and the area of charge will be the parish. Before the year is out there is certain to be a pump stolen, a very depraved and despicable manifestation of criminality and a blot on the county.’
‘Indeed,’ I said.
‘Five years ago we had a case of loose handlebars. Now there is a rarity for you. It took the three of us a week to frame the charge.’
‘Loose handlebars,’ I muttered. I could not clearly see the reason for such talk about bicycles.
‘And then there is the question of bad brakes. The country is honeycombed with bad brakes, half of the accidents are due to it, runs in families.’
I thought it would be better to try to change the conversation from bicycles.
‘You told me what the first rule of wisdom is,’ I said. ‘What is the second rule?’
‘That can be answered,’ he said.
‘There are five in all. Always ask any questions that are to be asked and never answer any. Turn everything you hear to your own advantage. Always carry a repair outfit. Take left turns as much as possible. Never apply your front brake first.’
‘These are interesting rules,’ I said dryly.
‘If you follow them,’ said the Sergeant, ‘you will save your soul and you will never get a fall on a slippy road.’
‘I would be obliged to you,’ I said, ‘if you would explain to me which of these rules covers the difficulty I have come here today to put before you.’
‘This is not today, this is yesterday,’ he said, ‘but which of the difficulties is it? What is the crux rei?’
‘Yesterday? I decided without any hesitation that it was a waste of time trying to understand the half of what he said. I persevered with my inquiry.
‘I came here to inform you officially about the theft of my American gold watch.’
He looked at me through an atmosphere of great surprise and incredulity and raised his eyebrows almost to his hair.
‘That is an astonishing statement,’ he said at last.
‘Why should anybody steal a watch when they can steal a bicycle?’
From Flann O’Brien’s surreal comic masterpiece, The Third Policeman.