Roberto Bolaño’s Labyrinth

Labyrinth

Take a look at the photo above. It’s a real photograph, but in a story published in The New Yorker last month, Roberto Bolaño creates a (fictional) story for each of the individuals seen in the photo. He goes in depth hypothesizing on how the characters are named, how they are dressed, why they are or aren’t looking at the camera, what’s going on in the background, and ultimately into behavior of the characters. The title of the story is “Labyrinth,” and it is fascinating:

The photo was taken in winter or autumn, or maybe at the beginning of spring, but certainly not in summer. Who are the most warmly dressed? J.-J. Goux, Sollers, and Marc Devade, without question: they’re wearing jackets over their turtleneck sweaters, and thick jackets, too, from the look of them, especially J.-J.’s and Devade’s. Kristeva is a case apart: her turtleneck sweater is light, more elegant than practical, and she’s not wearing anything over it. Then we have Guyotat. He might be as warmly dressed as the four I’ve already mentioned. He doesn’t seem to be, but he’s the only one wearing three layers: the black leather jacket, the shirt, and the striped T-shirt. You could imagine him wearing those clothes even if the photo had been taken in summer. It’s quite possible. All we can say for sure is that Guyotat is dressed as if he were on his way somewhere else. As for Carla Devade, she’s in between. Her blouse, whose collar is showing over the top of her sweater, looks soft and warm; the sweater itself is casual, but of good quality, neither very heavy nor very light. Finally, we have Jacques Henric and Marie-Thérèse Réveillé. Henric is clearly not a man who feels the cold, although his Canadian lumberjack’s shirt looks warm enough. And the least warmly dressed of all is Marie-Thérèse Réveillé. Under her light, knitted V-neck sweater there are only her breasts, cupped by a black or white bra.

All of them, more or less warmly dressed, captured by the camera at that moment in 1977 or thereabouts, are friends, and some of them are lovers, too. For a start, Sollers and Kristeva, obviously, and the two Devades, Marc and Carla. Those, we might say, are the stable couples. And yet there are certain features of the photo (something about the arrangement of the objects, the petrified, musical rhododendron, two of its leaves invading the space of the ficus like clouds within a cloud, the grass growing in the planter, which looks more like fire than grass, the everlasting leaning whimsically to the left, the glasses in the center of the table, well away from the edges, except for Kristeva’s, as if the other members of the group were worried they might fall) that suggest a more complex and subtle web of relations among these men and women.

If you’re a fan of fiction, don’t miss it.

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