Roberto Bolaño: “Labyrinth”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage.  Roberto Bolaño’s “Labyrinth” was originally published in the January 23, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.

Click for a larger image.

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.  You can see it by clicking on the link to The New Yorker website above.  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.

6 thoughts on “Roberto Bolaño: “Labyrinth””

  1. Hi Mookse,
    Hope you get to this one soon: it will be interesting to know how you see it. Hope all is well, meanwhile.
    I found it very interesting and strangely compelling.It never becomes a story as such, I think, but is an imaginative riff on the photograph, like a literary jazz riff it takes off from the uncertainty and speculates. I notice that the eight figures captioned and more that are assumed present, are given a kind of virtual – or provisional – existence (“life”) outside the photograph.
    What is interesting to me is the aura of the provisional that Bolano achieves and maintains in the writing of these speculative vignettes. It is hard to follow the scenes without referring back to the photo (so I stopped doing so) and the effect is really intriguing. He creates life for each figure, and more that we can’t see, but never more of a life than we might gather at a glance, as at a glance of a photo –so the sketches seem to be on a par with the photo!
    The tell-take line is (something like) “Literature kisses these faces and passes by without their ever having noticed” which seems true on more than one level.
    This is imaginative writing, and good writing, with a bit of humor thrown in, I think, and is well worth the read.
    Regards,
    kjml

  2. Tony S. says:

    Does the New Yorker indicate when this story was written, ie. is it early Bolano or late Bolano?

  3. Shelley says:

    It’s been years since I lived in New Haven, but that particular New Yorker cover you picture here stopped me in my tracks:

    January. February. It looks just exactly like that.

  4. Joe says:

    Although I had a hard time getting “swept up” by this one, I found it interesting enough to make a scan of the photo and print it out so that I could refer to it while reading.

    I kept wanting more background on the photo: Is it just a random photo that Bolano found in a thrift store? Does it really have a caption with the given names? Did he actually know some of these people?

    I can’t really say I enjoyed this, but it left me asking a lot of questions — like Tony S., my main question is when this was written and when it was discovered. On these issues, the New Yorker, in both print and web site, is almost perversely silent.

  5. Ken says:

    I think the old Saturday Night Live line “Francisco Franco is still dead” applies here. How much more can one squeeze out of Bolano’s corpse? This strikes me as the type of story of interest only to fans of his (which I actually am-I really enjoyed 2666) and should definitely be put in context, as requested above, of when it was written. I found the story intriguing but ultimately rather pointless, an experiment and yet one that I’m sure has been done before by someone such as Robbe-Grillet or Sarraute although I couldn’t say exactly who.

  6. mehbe says:

    Good enough to keep me pleasurably entertained. And, in case people didn’t catch this – the photo is credited to a character in the story.

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