"Labyrinth" by Roberto Bolaño Originally published in the January 23, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
I’m a big fan of Roberto Bolaño, though it didn’t come easy. My first encounter with the now legendary writer was in the earliest days of winter in 2008 when 2666 was published (my negative review here). It was powerful, but in the end I decided I didn’t like it. I shake my head at my not-much-younger self and now consider 2666 a true masterpiece. Naturally, any time something else is published by the prolific author, even if it’s just part of his computer files as is the case here, I’m on board. Sometimes I read one of these posthumous pieces and think, well, I’m glad we have that as it’s indeed Bolaño, even if it’s not very good Bolaño. That’s not the case here. I found “Labyrinth” to be an exceedingly powerful short piece that begins when Bolaño looks at a picture.
There are eight people in the photo:
They’re seated. They’re looking at the camera. They are, from left to right: J. Henric, J.-J. Goux, Ph. Sollers, J. Kristeva, M.-Th. Réveillé, P. Guyotat, C. Devade and M. Devade.
There’s no photo credit.
That’s how the piece begins. Not a particularly engaging opening perhaps, but where Bolaño is about to go who needs a good opening.
Incidentally, the photo is real.
It must have been taken in the 1970s (a good time for Bolaño fiction). Bolaño proceeds to pick the photo apart, describing each individual, what they do (the only one I’d heard of was Julia Kristeva), what they are wearing, etc. This is not as dry as you might thinkg, but the story really picks up when Bolaño leaves the photo behind:
Let’s imagine J.-J. Goux, for examle, who is looking out at us through his thick submarine spectacles.
His space in the photo is momentarily vacant and we see him walking along Rue de l’École de Médecine, with books under his arm, of course, two books, till he comes out onto the Boulevard Saint-Germain.
The piece goes back and forth from the photo to some imagined present for the individuals pictures (all real people — most relatively famous). And then there are two ghosts: “Let’s call these two beyond the frame X and Z.” Strangely, when Bolaño strays from the photo, we don’t feel he takes it too far; in other words, one feels Bolaño is being faithful to the image, even as the people suffer in their imagined lives. As usual, Bolaño sums it up best:
Literature brushes past these literary creatures and kisses them on the lips, but they don’t even notice.