Roberto Bolano’s The Skating Rink

Matthew Derby


The Skating Rink
Roberto Bolaño
208 pages
New Directions
(September 28, 2009)

Roberto Bolaño has become a sensation among English-speaking readers in the past few years due in large part to the release of his two longest, most fragmented novels, The Savage Detectives in 2007 and 2666 in 2008.  These sweeping works, suffuse with big ideas and myriad narrative threads, feel genuinely timeless in one’s hand, in no small part because it might take a lifetime just to properly wrap one’s head around them.  In any era, books like these would be celebrated and passed around among the ever-tightening circle of people who care about narrative innovation.  But in the current conservative literary landscape of confessional memoir and middle class domestic issue fiction, Bolaño’s work seems that much more transgressive and vital. This might help explain why the recent posthumous spate of Bolaño translations has garnered such an impressive amount of attention from critics and readers alike.  Jonathan Lethem, in a New York Times review of 2666, suggested that Bolaño had, before his untimely death in 2003, ‘hit the reset button’ on Latin American Literature, “standing in relation to the generation of García Márquez, Vargas Llosa and Fuentes as, say, David Foster Wallace does to Mailer, Updike and Roth.”  James Woods wrote in an uncharacteristically charitable review of The Savage Detectives that Bolaño’s prose “could so easily be too much, and somehow isn’t.”

I am not suggesting that Bolaño’s work is undeserving of praise, or that the above reviewers are insincere in their heartfelt appreciation.  The power of Bolaño’s prose is palpable and undeniable.  But even in his most successful works, he’s often a victim of his own exuberance, and his status as a savior is at least as much the product of a dry, desolate period in literature as it is due to his talent.  His first novel, The Skating Rink, out on August 28th from New Directions press, is a work that trembles with ambition and energy, and in its structure one can see a sort of prototype for the expansive themes and strategies Bolaño later employs on a grander scale.  But its power is diluted by excessive language, ragged characterization, and awkward narrative experiments that might have been better left in the author’s notebook.  The result is a bold and deeply flawed book that will likely disappoint the curious newcomer who is not ready to commit to one of the longer works.  And this is a shame because when Bolaño is able to reign in his enthusiasm with judicious restraint, he is capable of great things.

The Skating Rink is composed of three male narrators who tell their stories in short, measured bursts, no longer than a few pages each. Their lives are linked in ways they are incapable of understanding, even as they fall into each other like dominoes.  Remo Morán is a former novelist from Chile who runs several small business ventures in the seaside town of Z, a fictional location somewhere near Barcelona.  Among Morán’s establishments is a campground for summer tourists, and it is here that he hires an old acquaintance; a drifter poet named Gaspar Heredia, also the novel’s second narrator.  Herida is Spanish for ‘wound’, and Morán’s description of Heredia emerging from an ethereal fog reminiscent of Jack the Ripper’s London strikes a tone of subtle unease that ripples throughout the book.

The third narrator is an overweight public administrator named Enric Rosquelles.  He manages the Social Services Department of the municipality of Z, and he fears that he has done all he can do in the role.  The course of his life changes dramatically when he meets an arresting young figure skater named Nuria Martí at an otherwise mundane civic ceremony acknowledging the town’s athletes.  Rosquelles becomes obsessed with Nuria, eventually contriving, with embezzled public funds, an Olympic regulation skating rink in the cavernous center of a rotting mansion on the outskirts of town so that she can continue training when her grant money suddenly runs out.  Rosquelles becomes Nuria’s de facto coach, instructing her from the sidelines as she glides silently across the ice, lit from above by four solitary spotlights hung from the rafters.  Nuria is kept at arm’s length from the reader for the duration of the novel, so it’s difficult to tell whether the attention she gives Rosquelles is genuine or not, but for him, she is the embodiment of his every desire, and he finds himself helplessly adrift in his obsession.  “Love has no time for reasoning or limits,” he says at one point, contemplating his predicament, “and it pushed me on.”

Soon enough it is revealed that there has been a murder, and the second two thirds of the novel advance based on the series of events leading up to and just after the crime, but to call The Skating Rink a murder mystery, or even a play on the detective novel, would be a drastic mistake.  Although Bolaño has displayed an affection for the genre elsewhere, he is not particularly interested in the language of forensics here.  And neither, for the most part, are the narrators.  They receive the news of the murder with a sense of inevitability, as if each of them sensed it coming in their bones, and as though it is their solemn duty to weather the consequences.  Each of them is so overcome with desire for the spectral, figurative women they pursue, that the murder is just another obstacle to be endured on their impossible pilgrimage to the altar of their fantasies.  Because the book is, ultimately, about the frustrating caprices of desire and what it drives men (specifically men – the women in The Skating Rink are merely targets for the narrators’ fascination) to do.

The titular rink is an elaborately wrought centerpiece toward which all three narrators are drawn over the course of the novel, like shipwrecked sailors caught in a whirlpool.  The dark, frost-encrusted corridors, like chambers of a frozen heart, are rendered with a fanatical grace that shows Bolaño working at top form.  Other memorable sequences, like a breathtaking, tightly orchestrated set piece involving a hang-gliding competition on the beach, will not disappoint.  But Bolaño’s lyrical excesses are a constant distraction, and they compromise the integrity of what is otherwise a strong and focused work.  Take the following passage, for example, which is a description of the night air, spoken by Remo Morán.  Granted, Morán is a novelist, and not a particularly good one, by all accounts, but it’s nearly impossible to tell whether Bolaño wants us to laugh at or take seriously the following:

“The air was so dense that when I raised my arm I felt as if I was plunging it into a living, semi-solid mass, as if it was bound in hundreds of damp leather bracelets charged with electricity.  Raising both arms, like a signaler on an aircraft carrier, felt like anally and vaginally penetrating some atmospheric hallucination or extraterrestrial creature.”

Maybe I’m just not the intended audience for this description, as I have (full disclosure) never anally and vaginally penetrated either an atmospheric hallucination or an extraterrestrial creature.  But fuck if I have the slightest clue what Bolaño is talking about here.  These erratic digressions pervade all three monologues (although Bolaño seems most on-target when writing the character of Rosquelles, an anxious, tubby mess of a bureaucrat who he renders with an impressive dignity) and because there doesn’t seem to be any pattern behind these moments of excess, I’m tempted to think of Bolaño feverishly churning out a first draft that went straight to print, warts and all.  I can’t help feeling, while reading his work, that Bolaño is often a victim to his own exuberance.  The fire he sets on his words can quickly spread out of control, and he does little, if anything, to rein it in.  The slips and random riffs are arguably more easily absorbed in the massive sprawl of Bolaño’s later work, but in a focused exercise like The Skating Rink, they stick out like the mysterious woman who runs through the streets of Z with a knife tucked in her belt.  Fans of Bolaño will find much in this book to relish, despite its flaws.  But those readers looking for a more satisfying introduction to his work might want to start with By Night in Chile or the taut novella A Distant Star.

From the Fanzine archives: Andy Beta’s review of Bolano’s 2666.