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Labyrinth by Roberto Bolano

January 29, 2012

Weaving a tale from a picture

Do you ever sit in a restaurant and speculate about other diners’ relationships? Father/daughter or new mistress? Gay or colleagues? Who having an affair with who? Of course you do.

Last week’s New Yorker story, Labyrinth by Roberto Bolano, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews, is a masterpiece of such observation.

A group of intellectuals, the writer Jacques Henric (left), editor Philippe Sollers (3rd left), critic Julia Kristeva (centre), and poets Pierre Gyotat (3rd right), and Marc Devade (right) are photographed in a Paris cafe.

Bolano tells us, in detail, what we can learn, or imagine we can learn, about their marital and extramarital relationships.

Henric failing to turn up for an assignation with J-J Goux (2nd left); “Let’s imagine […] his absence on this occasion is strategic, as amorous absences nearly always are.”

The two women on the right, Marie-Thérèse Réveillé  and Carla Devade recognising a South American writer, who had passed through the office the previous day, and aroused erotic and protective thoughts in their minds.

Gyotat in bed with Marie-Thérèse. Gyotat pursuing Carla.

The story ends with Devade touching his crotch; “He has an erection and yet he doesn’t feel sexually aroused in any way”.

They are all real people who, when not fornicating with each other, wrote about Marxism, feminism, semiotics and every sort of constructivism for the literary magazine Tel Quel, run by Sollers from 1960 to 1982. If it strikes an Englishman as bonkers, dangerous, or both, they embraced it.

Eventually Henric married Catherine Millet, the author of the autobiographical Sexual Life of Catherine M. Sollers inspired a Japanese rock group, Sollers. Kristeva founded the Simone de Beauvoir prize for promoting gender equality. Gyotat wrote three controversial novels, Tomb for 500 soldiers, Eden, Eden, Eden, and Prostitution, and went off his rocker in the early 1980s.  Devade painted pretentious abstracts.

Bolano, the Chilean writer off camera left, was also real, and more gifted than anyone in the picture. He died in 2003, age 50. I hope he got off with Marie-Thérèse.

Read the story here.

Jim Thornton

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jamil Ahmad permalink
    March 2, 2012 5:31 pm

    Thanks for throwing light on this extraordinary story. I had wondered if the people in the story are real and the picture is theirs. I am still curious about a few points. How do we know that the person off-camera is Bolano? The story says he is a Central American, whereas Bolano was Chilean.

    The story is obviously fiction, but if it uses characters’ real names and real picture, aren’t some of the statements libelous, such as the exposure of private relations between Henric and Goux or between Gyotat and Carla. Was this the reason that the story was not published in the author’s lifetime?

    • March 3, 2012 4:14 pm

      You’re right about the person off camera. Forgive me, ignorantly equating Central America with Chile!

      Libel in fiction is tricky. If you complain you confirm the truth of it. Libel in fiction about real people… . You might well be right.

    • sys permalink
      December 20, 2012 5:50 pm

      “Maybe he’s a young journalist from South America—no, from Central America . . . .” Here the narrator at first teasingly welcomes the reader (viewer?) to identify “Z” with Bolaño himself but then alters the plan, a gesture suggesting that the association would be too obvious for a story that takes Labyrinth as its title and overriding motif.

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