The Skating Rink
by Roberto Bolaño (La Pista de Hielo, 1993)
translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (2009)
New Directions (2009)
After experiencing a wonderful connection with Bolaño in By Night in Chile I was excited to receive a copy of his next book to be translated into English: The Skating Rink. And now that I’ve finished that, though it wasn’t as impressive as others, I can’t wait to read more. Perhaps I’m turning into — or simply uncovering the fact that I am — a visceral realist. Whatever the case, I’m definitely enjoying what happens to me when I read Bolaño. First, I welcome the disorientation as I try to figure out just what is going on, who is speaking, and what is important in the details. Then, as all of that becomes clear — well, not necessarily clear, but the pages do turn — I enjoy the satisfying feeling of putting pieces together. And then, and this is strangely the best part, I enjoy the nameless feeling I experience when I realize that all of the pieces fit together to form yet another puzzle; or rather, that the pieces I put together don’t quite get to a solution but fit together in countless other ways, and I’m not sure any of those ways of piecing together will get me to a clear and final resolution either.
Scott Esposito, in a fantastic review of this book, said it reads like “a stripped-down version of The Savage Detectives.” I have not read The Savage Detectives yet, and I’m thinking that The Skating Rink might be a good gateway to that much larger, much more complex work. For those who’ve read and loved The Savage Detectives, this book might be a disappointing step backwards — of course that makes sense because it was written before The Savage Detectives. However, for those who’ve determined to be a Bolaño nut, this early work shows the seeds of what was to come. All of this comparison to The Savage Detectives might muddle the independent merits of The Skating Rink. It’s a great, complex story in its own right.
In this book, three narrators (not dozens as in The Savage Detectives) recount the events of a summer season in Z, a resort town close to Barcelona. Remo Morán is a Chilean businessman, successful and rich. He has an affair with the beautiful ice skating star Nuria Martí. Gaspar Heredia is a roaming poet whom Morán knew when they were both young (The novel’s fist lines: “The first time I saw him, it was in the Calle Bucareli, in Mexico City, that is, back in the vague shifty territory of our adolescence, the province of hardened poets, on a night of heavy fog, which slowed traffic and prompted conversations about that odd phenomenon, so rare in Mexico City at night, at least as far as I can remember.”). Heredia’s wanderings and needs have brought him to Morán who, despite Heredia’s illegal status, offers him a job as a watchman at a campground. The third narrator is Enric Rosquelles, a corrupt municipal bureaucrat in charge of the Social Services Department. He’s fat and whiny and in love with Nuria. In the abandoned Palacio Benvingut, he constructs for Nuria the skating rink of the title, from public funds (“Or, no, they did care about the money, of course they did, but not enough to work overtime trying to find out where it had gone.”).
From page one we know something bad has happened, a murder most likely, though none of the narrators addresses it straight-on until two-thirds of the way through the book. Or rather they are addressing it straight-on; we just don’t have enough of the important details to put it all together and know what they’re talking about (it almost certainly requires a second reading, which in my case was even more pleasureful than the first). Nevertheless, the murder is, in the words of Morán, the reason they are telling this story. As a reader with certain expectations, I thought the book would introduce a cast of characters, any of whom could be the murderer or the victim (we don’t know who’s killed until that two-thirds point) and then the clues would start to come together until — ta-da — the murderer is found, his or her motives are cleared up, and the narrators drift away, glad that their confession has lightened the burden of that summer. Or, and perhaps even better, the narrators never get that sense of closure they hoped for, and that, in itself, is a form of closure for the book. But who’s concerned about closure here? Not only that — who’s concerned about the truth? Especially when it’s primarily made up of dry facts, like who killed whom (both of those questions are cleared up with little fanfare).
The men are telling this story independent of one another, so often the accounts differ in tone and even in facts. They add up only to a certain degree, and the rest remains inexplicable. But that’s part of the puzzle — and the puzzle is the point. The men are telling this story to figure out how that summer affected them, and they can grasp it no better than the reader can. One might suspect a book like this would be highly frustrating. Indeed, I was frustrated at the end of 2666 for some of these reasons (though there it felt as if even the puzzle were missing). However, The Skating Rink is a complete book. The puzzle and its pieces are there.
A central part of the puzzle is a character named Caridad, a vagabond who wanders around Z with an old opera singer and carries a kitchen knife around under her shirt. Heredia is infatuated with Caridad and “got into the habit of walking around town in the vague hope of running into Caridad.” One night he follows her to the place where she has been camping out — the Palacio Benvingut. While wandering around the maze of passages, Heredia finds the cold wind that directs him to the skating rink. Nuria is there skating and Rosquellessits on the side watching. It’s a haunting passage, and important, though on a first reading one might not understand the depth of emotion — it’s almost terror — Heredia felt at the time.
Each of the three narrators eventually finds his way to the skating rink. One comments on the walk through the palace where “the passage formed concentric circles around the skating rink.” This leads to one of the principal passages in the book — a passage that describes the setting, the themes, and the book’s structure all in one go:
From that vantage point I had a panoramic view of what looked like a labyrinth with a frozen center . . .
For those interested in venturing into the world of Bolaño for the first time, this might be the best place to start. It’s short and fairly direct in its abstractions, and it just might open the door to Bolaño. For those who’ve been reading Bolaño, this book is another piece in the larger puzzle and design and, therefore, indispensable.