TFT Review: The Skating Rink by Roberto Bolaño
Roberto Bolaño‘s The Skating Rink is, according to the jacket cover, “among other things, a crime novel.” But what are those other things?
The Skating Rink is the first of seven (!) Bolaño translations slated for publication over the next two years. Given such timing, it might be easy to lose The Skating Rink within the sea of recently published and soon-to-be published Bolaño (which includes the widely acclaimed novels The Savage Detectives and 2666 and the forthcoming six works which consist of two novels, two story collections, book of essays and a posthumous collection of fragments and journal entries). However, The Skating Rink is not to be overlooked: it’s a highly engaging novel of lyricism, menace and beauty.
This book, Bolaño’s first-published in the original Spanish as La pista de hielo, in 1993-contains many of the same subjects (poets and ex-poets; crimes, corruption, murder) and techniques (multiple narrators; a journalistic, expository prose style punctuated by occasional bursts of lyricism) he would explore in later works such as The Savage Detectives. Indeed, The Skating Rink could be seen as a more tightly concentrated and accessible version of that book: Rather than the forty-plus narrators who populate The Savage Detectives, The Skating Rink utilizes just three; rather than twenty years, it’s a span of several months; rather than a sprawling international picaresque, it’s about a single event-a murder-and the series of events that lead up to it. If The Savage Detectives is, as described by the author himself, a “love letter to his generation,” then The Skating Rink may be considered something like a flirtatiously obsessive text message, equal parts ode and cause for alarm.
Set in the fictional Spanish seaside town of “Z” and told from the points-of-view of an alternating trio of narrators-Remo Morán, former poet-turned-businessman; Enric Rosquelles, corrupt civil servant; and Gaspar Heredia, illegal immigrant, campground nightwatchman and our authorial stand-in-the novel revolves around Nuria Martí, an aspiring Olympic skater whose beauty will compel Morán and Rosquelles in ways neither had previously imagined. To help Martí in her training, Rosquelles embezzles city funds to transform a dilapidated mansion on the outskirts of the city into a fully operational regulation-sized skating rink. Meanwhile, Martí begins a casual romance with Morán, the more physically attractive (and apparently well-endowed) of the two rivals. And here, the initial pieces are set. Add in Heredia’s fixation with two of the campground’s residents, Carmen, a former opera singer, and Caridad, a mysterious, taciturn girl, and it seems inevitable that these actions will culminate in disaster.
If The Savage Detectives is, as described by the author himself, a “love letter to his generation,” then The Skating Rink may be considered something like a flirtatiously obsessive text message, equal parts ode and cause for alarm.
Such disaster is foreshadowed early, and often. Each individual narrator’s section concludes in ellipsis, with the voice of each narrator trailing off, as though drifting away into a kind of hopeless and perpetual night, that place frequently referenced in the novel as “the void.” Examples such as: “[...] Although I always knew I would be found out in the end…” Or: “If you find a murder victim, better brace yourself, because the bodies will soon be coming thick and fast…” There’s a kind of resignation and inevitability contained within these grammatical constructs, the implication that there is no need for the narrator to continue, as what is to be said can be deduced by the reader. And yet there is also a kind of authorial withholding going on as well. Momentum is generated through the author’s control of information that is leaked to the reader; the way Bolaño balances foreshadowing with mystery.
As in all of Bolaño’s work, the use of dreams and dreamlike moments also figures highly, in establishing character and mood, but also in creating an environment of uncertainty, a “Bolaño-esque Haze,” which could be defined as a narrative borderland between reality and unreality, present and past. What is relayed is the unreliability of the narrator, sure, but also the unreliability of human memory-the unreliability of the world as a whole.
The novel traverses territories of escalating and unstable passion, but not without occasional comedy. The passage about the campground’s “filthy delinquent” is a high mark of literary shit-humor, rivaled only, in this reviewer’s experience, by Don DeLillo’s definitive dung diatribe in the novel End Zone. Another of the pleasures of the book, which are many.
Scott Esposito writes in the Quarterly Conversation that “part of the challenge in The Skating Rink is that 1+1+1 doesn’t add up to 3.” It’s this idea of a thing beyond the page, something unwritten and that perhaps cannot be written, which fuels much of this book. Indeed, the essence of much of Bolaño’s work, in The Skating Rink and elsewhere, lies in an inexhaustible search for something definite and the incidental discovery of something else, of something indefinable and, ultimately, elusive.
The weapon, the suspects, the victim, even the killer: all these become known, are insinuated or made obvious, even from the beginning. And while the discovery of these tangibles is in itself satisfying, what one is ultimately left with-and what matters in the end-is the sense of something larger and, though nebulous, more richly textured. Bolaño’s The Skating Rink is as much about facts, as it is about feeling, urgent and elusive.
At the novel’s conclusion, what remains with the reader is less evidence than evocation, intimation. Intimations of what could lead one to murder, of what could lead one to acts of great feeling, period, murder-related or non-murder related, feelings that linger, distend and haunt: “I imagined Caridad kneeling naked on the sand, waiting for a cough that seemed to be rising from the sea. I never managed to make her smile, although I tried everything I could think of.”
DeLillo writes: “It was overwhelming, a terminal act, nullity in the very word, shit, as of dogs squatting nearly partly eaten bodies, rot repeating itself; defecation, as of old women in nursing homes fouling their beds; feces, as of specimen, sample, analysis, diagnosis [...] dung, as of dry straw, erupting with microscopic eggs; excrement [...] offal [...] shit as earth as food as shit [...] everywhere this whisper of inexistence.”
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