Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 797
The novel begins on the twenty-fourth of December in Paris. As Juan spends Christmas Eve alone in a gloomy restaurant, he examines the relationship between thought, word, and action and he questions the value of reasoning itself. The deceiving nature of memory is then explored in passages which change swiftly and without warning from a first-to a second-and third-person narrator. Glimpses of specific details of what is going to happen, or has already happened, are introduced mostly through Juan’s thoughts. In the midst of a labyrinthine beginning, which will set the tone of the text, some explanation is provided as to what constitutes the city and the paredros, key elements in the book.
For a great part of the novel, the friends are scattered in different European cities. In London, Marrast, Nicole, Calac, and Polanco amuse themselves at the expense of the British and their sense of decorum. Yet if a museum and the streets of London offer the possibilities of freedom and games, inside their room of the Gresham Hotel Marrast and Nicole live their last days together. Nicole is in love with Juan, and Marrast becomes the frustrated witness of her melancholy. Their exasperating state of mind is portrayed carefully by the use of dialogue, inner reflections, or letters.
At the same time, Juan is translating for an international conference in Vienna, accompanied by Tell. Tell, the crazy Dane, as Juan calls her, makes him forget the treachery of language, and her sense of humor relieves him from the pain of his unrequited love for Hélène. In their pursuit of play, they decide to follow the steps of Frau Marta—a gray, repulsive old lady—whom they have watched develop a bizarre friendship with a young English female tourist. Tell and Juan couple their wish of adventure with the historical background of a legend and become detectives in a modern story of vampirism.
In Paris, the attention is focused on Hélène, an anesthetist, and the teenage Celia. The same day that Celia runs away from home, Hélène has lost a young man—who reminds her of Juan—at the operating table. The anesthetist invites Celia to her apartment; the prose switches back and forth between Celia’s surprisingly mature and thoughtful analysis of Hélène and Hélène’s memories and her actual displacement to the streets of the imaginary city. In the city she searches for a certain hotel and for a certain room where she is to deliver a package. Dialogue and interior monologue cut into each other constantly, and any attempt to establish a rational continuity is doubly frustrated by the tale of Juan and Tell in Vienna, which alternates with the episode in Paris. That night, Hélène seduces Celia in a scene which is presented both in a lyric and a violent fashion. The broken doll in the morning, and Celia’s horrified scream at its sight, stress the dark and mysterious aspect of the plot.
Shortly before the final gathering of the group, the various tensions produced by desire and adventure and play come to their conclusion. Nicole attempts suicide; Celia falls in love with Austin, the young English lutenist adopted in fun by Calac and Polanco in London, and Hélène and Juan finally confront each other and see themselves reliving the myth of Diana and Acteon. Nearing the end of the novel, all of the friends, including Feuille Morte and Osvaldo, a pet snail, converge in France. The occasion is the unveiling of the statue of Vercingetorix, sculpted by Marrast and commissioned by the city of Arcueil. The sculpture turns out to be quite scandalous, for it appears that the hero of Gaulle has its backside pointing heavenward. On their return to Paris, Hélène and Juan keep repeating the same words, their language and themselves unable to advance anywhere except toward the city, the imaginary city which has haunted them from the start. It is in the room of a hotel where Hélène had a date, where she was to make a delivery, that Juan finds her, Austin’s dagger in her chest, her body crushing the package, which contains a doll. As the train approaches Paris, Calac, Tell, and Polanco wait anxiously at the gate for Feuille Morte, who appears to have been forgotten. Feuille Morte, delighted at being rescued, ends the book with a joyful “Bisbis bisbis.” Echoes of the initial fragments of the book come to mind as in déjà vu. To find out if all the parts of the model kit are really there, at this point in the novel, the reader is unavoidably tempted to return with Juan to a gloomy Parisian restaurant on Christmas Eve.