The Real Bolaño: "The Skating Rink"

Bolano Skating Rink

I will admit that I am not a reader of crime fiction or detective novels. They’re intriguing, but it was just never my scene. Not to say The Skating Rink is that much of a detective novel in the first place. As suggested by Giles Harvey of the New York Review of Books (in an excellent piece in The National), the short novel leaves the reader with more questions than answers. But that’s to be expected by now, right?

The story revolves around a mysterious Spanish seaside town Z (close to Y and just a drive away from Z, as it turns out). It is told through the eyes of three men – Remo Morán, an artist and business owner; Enric Rosquelles, a fat, wary and arrogant employee of the town’s first socialist mayor Pilar; and Gaspar Heredia, a vagabond and poet who gets a job at a campground thanks to his old friend, Remo Morán – and culminates with, what else?, murder! That it is also a love story and one of the first pieces of prose from Bolaño (published in 1993 as La piesta de hielo) adds layers to an already fascinating character study and mystery.

Like anyone who had fallen (or been tricked) to love Roberto Bolaño over the years (I myself discovered him in translation, in 2006, three years after his death, reading By Night In Chile, Distant Star and Last Evenings on Earth back to back) will recognize the early contributions that he would perfect in his two masterpieces, The Savage Detectives and 2666. His mixture of the innane and mercurial and violent is mesmerizing. The way Z unfolds as Gaspar chased Caridad, his descriptions of the Palacio Benvingut (“labyrintine, chaotic, indecisive…”) where the murder takes places, or his creation of the beautiful figure skater, Nuria Martí.

While others will talk about the plot, the motifs (the dense, rolling fog…), I was intrigued because I couldn’t pinpoint Bolaño himself in the story. This may seem odd, but even without his doppleganger Arturo Belano (of Savage Detective fame), Roberto is always present in his often deeply personal stories based upon reflections on his own life. Most will compare Bolaño immediately to Heredia. Both came from Mexico to Spain and Bolaño spent years working the overnight shift at a campground. The case is also strong in Remo Morán’s favor. Rosquelles, when musing about Remo’s ex-wife, comments that she named their son some god awful Indian name (his name was Iñaki in the novel, but Bolaño’s real son’s name is Lautaro). Bolaño (just read 2666) also had a desire to be a detective, which he echoes through Moran:

“Sometimes in the mornings, when I’m having breakfast on my own, I think I would have loved to be a detective. I’m pretty observant, and I can reason deductively, and I’m a keen reader of crime fiction. If that’s any use… which it isn’t… Anyway, as Hans Henny Jahn, I think, once wrote: if you find a murder victim, better brace yourself, because the bodies will soon be coming thick and fast…”

Also, when thinking about the first time he’d seen a corpse, he responded:

“The first time was in Chile, in Concepción, the capital of the south. I was looking out the big window of the gymnasium where I was imprisoned along with about a hundred other people: it was a November night in 1973, the moon was full, and in the courtyard I saw a fat guy surrounded by a ring of police detectives…

We know, from Bolaño and his characters in multiple stories, that he was there in 1973 when Salvador Allende was overthrow by General Augusto Pinochet. Bolaño was among those arrested and escaped torture and a certain death when he met soldiers he’d gone to school with who helped him escape.

For Harvey:

“In any case, the real strength of the book isn’t to be found in its plot. The problem with most mystery novels is that there aren’t any mysteries in them, only secrets…Just as the novel is about to enter its final phase, and the shotguns brandished in the first act seem poised to go off, Morán knowingly echoes Borges’s knowing remark about the detective story as a genre based on the fictitious notion that “a crime is solved by abstract reasoning and not by informants or by carelessness on the part of the criminals”

Bolaño seems to have split himself into multiple forms for The Skating Rink, which bristles with self-confidence and an honesty shrouded by the machinations of life. What Bolaño may have put of himself in the detestable, but intriguing Enric Rosquelles, will remain open for debate. That the novel continues to enhance his stature in the English speaking world is not. “The more you read him,” writes Harvey one last time, “however, the more you come to savour the welts and infelicities, the gaping narrative holes and peculiar detours: you realise that Bolaño is turning you into a new kind of reader. Or, as Moran puts it on the opening page of The Skating Rink, describing his first encounter with Heredia, back in the distant Mexico City of their youth: ‘his voice seemed to be conjuring lawless territories, where anything was possible’.”

And having read Monsieur Pain (to be released in January) and Between Parantheses (next year) in Spanish, anything is still possible.

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~ by Daniel on August 14, 2009.

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