January 23, 2012


By Roberto Bolaño
Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews
~6500 words

A fictitious exploration of the private lives of eight individuals associated with the now-defunct French literary magazine Tel Quel. Central to the narrative is a black and white photograph, purportedly shot in a Paris café around 1977, that shows all eight seated around a table. The photo accompanies the story.

The anonymous narrator occasionally refers to himself in the first person: "as I said," "I know nothing," "I find it hard," etc. While he demonstrates plenty of interest in the events he narrates, he has no discernible role in them. Another way to say it is that the first-person voice in the story is rhetorical in function and limited in scope. On balance, the narrative is best classified as third-person.

"Labyrinth" is Exhibit A in the dangers of multiple-perspective short stories: a veritable character soup that drowns the reader in minute physical and emotional details of each of the eight primary subjects of the photograph. Speculation also runs high about three potted plants, six background figures, and two unseen individuals whose presence is extrapolated from expressions on the faces of others. Bolaño's powers of observation and description are impressive, but does anyone doubt that it would be nearly impossible to follow these sketches without the photograph? Once that point is conceded, a follow-up question emerges: is it wise for a story to rely so heavily on an external image—and an extremely unfamiliar one at that? Wouldn't it have been more effective to limit the perspective to one of the individuals and gradually introduce the others, perhaps concluding with a scaled-down ekphrasis of the photograph? As it is, the reader never knows which character to identify with and ends up indifferent to all of them.

The narrative voice has some interesting idiosyncrasies—its morbid obsession with the subjects of the photo, its internal contradictions and obfuscations, etc.—and the language shines in Chris Andrews's excellent translation. But these positive qualities are insufficient to redeem the story's utter failure in the basics of plot (nonexistent) and character (revealed only in unsatisfying glimpses). Some might cite the title and say, "Yes, but that's the point!" Perhaps, but just because a writer proves his point doesn't mean it was a point worth proving.

If you're writing your PhD thesis on Bolaño and need to read every scrap he wrote, or if you enjoy turgid fantasies about obscure coteries of Parisian intellectuals, you might appreciate "Labyrinth." Otherwise, it's a maze not worth entering.



  1. The only thing I'd say is that I did find this story interesting in theory (which I guess is appropriate, since it's about a table full of theorists). But the best photographs are those that somehow convey a story, and I've always been intrigued by the tension of an image that is frozen in time but simultaneously communicates something about its own before and after. In this case, the author has taken one of these "pregnant" images and delivered all its potentialities. That said, I found the process more interesting in theory than in practice.

  2. I agree with the assessment. The story presupposes great interest in the figures on the part of the reader, which is far from assured. Certainly those figures are semi-heroic to a batch of the population, but it seems fairly hermetic, and I wonder if making a full transposition of the author's excitement instead regarding it as a given might let it work better, i.e. have the narrator fantasize about being one of these figures, living among them, getting to touch, feel, interact, make love, etc. This would make the voyeurism literal while winding up the slighly abject prurience and adulation.