Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Plot: Set in a small seaside town to the north of Barcelona, Roberto Bolaño’s first novel, The Skating Rink, revolves around the beautiful figure skater Nuria Martí, a secret skating rink built with misappropriated public funds for her, and a shocking murder committed there. Narrated by three unreliable voices – of Remo Móran (a local businessman), Gaspar Heredia (an itinerant poet from South America), and Enric Rosquelles (a senior civil servant) – the novel charts the small-time political corruption and petty jealousies that lead to tragic consequences.
Verdict: An enjoyable, readable introduction to one of the great writers of South America. It introduces many of the common themes, and even some of the recurring characters, that appear in Bolaño’s later, larger, and masterful works.
Review: Many may not be familiar with the unusual work of Roberto Bolaño, but for me he is firmly placed in my personal pantheon of great writers. It is impossible to say for certain what is so beguiling about Bolaño’s writing, apart from a certain post-modern style and a deft ability to confront the more gruesome atrocities of the last few decades. He stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from one of my other favourite writers, Javier Marias – where Marias is romantic and contemplative, Bolaño is sharp and visceral; where Marias is abstract and philosophical, Bolaño channels the tough wisdom of the streets; while Marias doubles back and meditates again from a different angle, Bolaño cuts quickly to the core. Yet the two share a lot in common – breathtaking imagery, startling realisations, a prose born of bloody conflicts (the Spanish Civil war for Marias; the wars, dictators, and disappearances of South America for Bolaño), and a will to confront our uniquely modern forms of horror on a personal, individual level. I’ve recommended Marias strongly here before; and Bolaño is an equally rich and rewarding writer for readers to explore, coming as he does at similar problems from a dramatically different angle.
The difference between the two figures is also reflected in their respective biographies. Marias is the son of a philosopher, and has worked variously as a translator, journalist, academic, and author among other cultural pursuits. Bolaño seems to have been raised on the streets, the son of a truck driver meets amateur boxer and a teacher. He was a perpetual outsider, but a lover of literature and poetry – quitting school early to become active in left-wing political and literary endeavours. This lead to a turning point in his biography, as he grew up in Mexico but returned briefly to his birthplace of Chile to support the socialist party of Salvador Allende. Bolaño was arrested during Pinochet’s subsequent coup and spent time in custody before being released; seeing several of his friends and colleagues disappear along with thousands of others, and lucky to escape that fate himself. It is an event that Bolaño returns to frequently in his writing; most prominently in the closing chapter of his Nazi Literature in the Americas, and in its expanded form within his next novel Distant Star. Even later works, such as The Savage Detectives and 2666 develop their narratives alongside the ever-present threat of extinction or falling away into tragedy that marks Bolaño’s work.
In Marias’ work death is a surprise, shocking, and the occasion of ghosts who haunt the contemplation of the rest of the narrative. In Bolaño’s work, violence and death are an implicit condition of existence and are always threatening to come to fruition within the precarious existences of his characters on the very next page. He shares this with another member of my literary pantheon, Cormac McCarthy, and both seem to document the visceral reality of unfathomable violence that accompanies human affairs. Within The Savage Detectives, the lead characters pause their road trip to contemplate the tombstone of a young girl, near Bolaño’s fictionalised portrait of Ciudad Juárez, where the killing of women is rampant. They search for a female poet who has herself gone missing, leaving behind the cryptic remark:
Cesárea said something about days to come... and the teacher, to change the subject, asked her what times she meant and when they would be. And Cesárea named a date, sometime around the year 2600. Two thousand six hundred and something.
Bolaño’s magnum opus is entitled 2666; and the absent, hollow core of the novel is the inhuman femicidal machine that exists within Santa Teresa (the fictionalised Ciudad Juárez). But 2666 is also referenced in Amulet, and another feature of Bolaño’s novels is they frequently feature a fictionalised account or figure of Bolaño himself and several of his former friends, and that the same figures wander in and out of Bolaño’s various novels under the same names, different names, or ambiguous references – giving a feeling that all of his work belongs to the same world, repeating, reinforcing, or extending itself.
Within this network of densely packed texts it is hard to know where to start, and while the translation of The Savage Detectives brought Bolaño international acclaim, its experimental style, scope, and proliferation of voices can be alienating for a first time reader. I’m also a firm believer in the pleasures of observing how an author’s voice develops and matures; once I find a book I love, it is a joy to go back to their first work and see how it all comes together. In Bolaño’s case it is a slightly different pleasure, as his voice and his obsessions seem to arrive fully formed; his characters walk into frame with as yet unwritten histories, and wait at the fringes of Bolaño’s words to reappear again – perhaps several narratives later. This is partially due to the seemingly autobiographical nature of Bolaño’s writing (although it would be a mistake to completely assume this, and Bolaño seems to write of a version of himself he no longer recognises, is critical of, or who seems to come from another world entirely – which is perhaps the most truthful way to tackle those younger selves we no longer recognise; that we would perhaps find boorish or misguided were we to bump into them at a friend’s party); but it is also due to Bolaño’s prior development as a poet and reluctant transition into prose. He remarks, in the short story collection Last Evenings on Earth, that this might have been out of financial necessity – as short story competitions are more lucrative and plentiful than continuing to pursue poetry (and Bolaño did indeed win many of these competitions). It is one of the great ironies of literature that Bolaño’s poems – collected and published recently within The Unknown University – live in the shadow of his prose, in many cases justifiably.
So there is great pleasure to be had for Bolaño’s first prose appearance, The Skating Rink, which has the further advantage of introducing us to several of his obsessions and stylistic tics while remaining a readable thriller. Narrated from three perspectives the novel traces an obsession with a beautiful Spanish figure skater named Nuria Martí. The three men who narrate the tale are filled with differing levels of desire for her, and differing opportunities to act upon that desire. Complicating this is that the three narrators are known to each other, and spend time within the narrative explaining or questioning that acquaintance. The Bolaño stand-in here is Gaspar Heredia, an itinerant poet who arrives in town on the invitation of fellow narrator Remo Móran, who himself owns a set of business interests within the town. The two were previously friends and writers-in-arms, although Remo has turned his hand to more lucrative work. Gaspar begins work in a local jewellery store and as a night security guard for a camping ground; experiences which also seem to have been drawn from Bolaño’s own itinerant wanderings in Mexico and abroad. Rounding out the narration is Enric Rosquelles, a local council bureaucrat who is enraptured by Nuria and misappropriates funds to build a skating rink in an old mansion for her to practice on. He tries desperately to keep this scandal secret; while seemingly hoping for a closer relationship with Nuria.
The narration of the novel is the key here; with the respective narrators catching glimpses of each other and of Nuria, recollecting to the best of their abilities the circumstances or meetings that have brought them to this point. The novel contains the fascination of unbridled witness testimony or a police report; which is appropriate, as a crime and the mystery of its commission slowly become the focal point of the narrative. Each narrator is attempting to puzzle the circumstances out; but the reader is left to determine which of them (if any) is trying to interrogate the truth of their memory, and which are simply fabricating to cover over something else. One narrator encounters another and recounts:
He said: This is just the night for Jack. He was referring to Jack the Ripper, but his voice seemed to be conjuring lawless territories, where anything was possible.
Along the way, Bolaño mounts colourful anecdote upon anecdote and manages to build his unique brand of universe – where the characters are immensely ordinary, comprehensible but the incidents within Bolaño’s narration begin to take on the character of the extraordinary. There’s violence, corruption, police – and as always, Bolaño’s hilariously macho swagger when it comes to sex and sexual performance (a charming obsession in Bolaño’s case; although sometimes prone to tipping over into hilarity, as in the last part of his 2666 – you’ll know it when you get to it).
To say any more would be to dispel the mystery, which would ruin the narrative. In Marias, solving the crime or the mystery is not important – what remains essential are the ruminations on the way there. In Bolaño’s work, the mystery is central, even if it is often backgrounded in favour of other incidents. Within The Skating Rink, the mystery is slowly unravelled and something of a tentative answer is reached. However, within later books this need to unravel the mystery presses on Bolaño’s writing less and less until it is epitomised within his masterpiece 2666, where the central mystery is quite simply and purely insoluble – just a hollow point around which the narrative circles. It becomes a slow, simple virtue in Bolaño’s work and reunites him with the intention, if not the technique, of Marias or McCarthy – as the truly great novels are not machines of plot, but spaces of contemplation. Just as an unknown girl’s tombstone can cause one to think of that far year in the future when we will finally understand our own inhuman times. Just like Marias or McCarthy, I can’t recommend Bolaño’s writing enough.