Roberto Bolano: “Labyrinth”

01/23/2012 § 3 Comments

Originally published in The New Yorker, January 23, 2012.

[Translated, from the Spanish, by Chris Andrews.]

What is the labyrinth of Bolano’s playfully vapid story? Is it life, which the author chases about as he imagines the lives of the eight people — J. Henric, J.-J. Goux, Ph. Sollers, J. Kristeva, M.-Th. Reveile, P. Guyotat, C. Devade, and M. Devade — that he has glimpsed in a photo and decided to follow, momentarily, down a literary rabbit hole? Is it literature, a hopeless pursuit of dead ends with its occasional glimpses of some central point of enlightenment; are the sentences, then, walls to hold the minotaur-like idea in long enough to catch that glimpse before it flutters away and escapes? Is it meant to be external, with the people in the photo limned by this stopped moment in time, or is it an internal thing, in which the people are limned by their own unknowable desires? I repeat the motifs of “glimpse” and “limn” here, because Bolano is working from the convention of a photo, a fragment, and so we only really have the initial description, that “captured” glimpse, before the story — if you can call it that, and not a writing exercise — spirals outward. As for the labyrinthine structure, I side with this as metaphor for life: yes, at one moment, eight different paths have converged, but from here on out — even among the married people and the secret lovers (and longers) — they will venture on their own paths.

Bolano’s rhythm at least fits his concept well: he begins slowly, with a full page of talented descriptions: “His face is round. It would be an exaggeration to say that it’s the face of a fat man, but it probably will be in a few year’s time: it’s the face of a man who enjoys a good meal.” Sherlock Holmes would get a laugh out of the deductions that Bolano draws from such observations and guesswork, he might even get aroused by Bolano’s persistent focus on sex: “At first glance she could almost be Vietnamese. Except that her breasts, it seems, are larger than those of the average Vietnamese woman. Hers is the only smile that allows us a glimpse of teeth.” Bolano continues with his close interpretation of this natural photo (one can only imagine what fun he’d have had with, say, the promo pictures HBO mocks up for new seasons of their big dramas), and once he’s exhausted the room itself, he follows the labyrinth, “a more complex and subtle web of relations among these men and women” (or life), out of it: “Let’s imagine J.-J. Goux, for example . . . . his space in the photo is momentarily vacant and we see him walking along Rue de l’Ecole de Medecine….”

One by one, he absents the characters from their initial scene and literally “imagines” where they might be, what they might do. He adds characters to the original photo — the ones who are out of the frame, implied to be there by the knowledge that a photographer is out there, along with other people, smoking at the bar (perhaps), whom our photographed heroes are staring at in various fashions: “It makes Carla Devade feel like a protective older sister or a missionary nun in Africa, but it catches at Marie-Therese Reveille like barbed wire and triggers a vague erotic longing.” He even pauses to describe the obscured strangers who sit behind our heroes, to note just how busy the photo is, if you detach yourself from its central subjects and appreciate the entirety of all these temporarily united lives. And in his moment of climax, a single run-on sentence (as is Bolano’s wont) follows all eight of them on the following evening:

And it occurs to Henric that his motorcycle is like an Assyrican god, but for the moment his legs refuse to walk on into the darkness, and Marie-Therese shuts her eyes and opens her legs, one foot on the sofa, the other on the carpet, while Guyotat pushes into her, the panties still around her thighs, and calls her his little whore, his little bitch, and asks her what she did during the day, what happened to her, what streets she wandered down, and J.-J. Goux is sitting at the table and spreading pate on a piece of bread….

Well, you get the picture (pun intended). This is about as slice-of-life as a story can get, and I respect Bolano’s ability to capture it. But I struggle, as I have with 2666, to really care about it, since he has the ability to go long stretches without having a plot, or with the intent to follow some random thread of Ariadne’s as far as he can take it before returning to the main path. This is well-written and well-paced material, but I don’t need the labyrinth of life described to me: I’m within it already it. I long for the moment at which Bolano turns a new corner and escapes his own restrictions, wanders into something new and surprising (not that his views of this octet aren’t necessarily surprising, especially given his sense of eroticism), and, most importantly, reveals something — rather than just asserts something.

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§ 3 Responses to Roberto Bolano: “Labyrinth”

  • Raul Silva says:

    The life of every single human being is certainly a “labyrinth,” a mesh in which we interlock our own drama, but do we really think about it? Do we truly live trying to make a sense about the convoluted jungle in which we intersect? I don’t think so. Jobs and education for my daughters, my wife’s health, and my social security check are my daily basis priorities. That’s why writers are, to tell us metaphorically speaking what is going around us, to remind us that perhaps if we focus a bit in this mess that our lives are, we can do some positive changes, maybe stop screwing up around or give a little break to our greediness. Sometimes we need lucid minds, like a mother or a father, to make us rationalize a little bit about our own lives. It seems to me that Roberto Bolaños is doing that for which I think Labyrinth is a very appealing fictional story.

  • Aaron Riccio says:

    Raul, I’m firmly in your camp in that the labyrinth here is life, and that the writer’s goal is to focus on a part of that great unknowable thing and to give some perspective (it would be naive to say they could explain it, so “rationalize” is perhaps the wrong word). However, I’m still left wondering if Bolano has succeeded any more than any *other* writer, since every story is essentially about life (some less metaphorically than others). Does Bolano’s story attempt to “make a sense about the convoluted jungle”? Does it succeed in reminding us to “do some positive changes”? (On this particular point, should it?)

    I guess that’s the ultimate unknowable thing: why, for you, does it work and appeal to your fictional senses, and yet remain a lifeless, pointed thing that I can admire yet not fully embrace?

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