Tuesday 26 October 2010

'We are the authors of our own misfortunes'

The Skating Rink
by Roberto Bolaño

When I had my last struggle with Bolaño a few of you kindly recommended trying By Night In Chile as the acid test as to whether I was ever going to salvage anything from my tumultuous relationship with this much-admired author. I was going to leave it a while but then Picador were kind enough to send me the next title in their steady publishing of Bolaño's back catalogue. The Skating Rink has been described as a kind of Savage Detectives Lite; an earlier work using the same multiple narrator structure as that book's large middle section, but lacking the scope and ambition of it. Seeing as The Savage Detectives was the first Bolaño I read, and the only one I've really liked, I worried that The Skating Rink would be a disappointing step backward. In fact it turned out to be an opportunity to re-engage with what attracted me to his writing in the first place.

In the town of Z, near Barcelona, the events of a summer season are recounted by three men. Remo Moran is a successful businessman, Enric Rosquelles the corpulent right hand man of the local mayor and Gaspar Heredia a wandering poet. Whilst there are only three narrative voices employed here (compared to the panoply in TSD) there is still an impressive list of other characters in what remains a fairly taught tale of murder and corruption. As far as I was concerned the joy of Bolaño in TSD was the detailed digression and there's something of that here too. We sense almost immediately that something bad has happened but as the facts are slowly laid before us and we piece together the events that lead to a dead body there are also frequent digressions along the way. Whilst it might seem to be a conventional murder mystery there is little of the tight focus of that genre. I've worked out by now that Bolaño loves to subvert your expectations. So when Remo remarks,

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...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.

You could be excused for thinking that this will be story where the intrigue piles up. But if there are other bodies it is really the three narrators we should focus on. The book is their attempt to make sense of the events of that summer and the effect that they had on each of them. As you might expect with a tale involving three men, there is a woman at the centre. Nuria Martí is a celebrated ice skater with whom Enric falls in love and Remo has an affair. These two men although separated for much of the novel have an antagonistic relationship, Remo describing Enric as 'a toy-size tyrant full of fears and obsessions'. That combination of power and obsession drives Enric to construct an ice-rink within a derelict pile called the Palacio Benvingut, a project he masterminds with the use of public funding that he appropriates in a manner that can only be described as daylight robbery. Neither of these men is in control of their feelings for Nuria; Enric with his fat gut and awkward manner is like a teenage boy trying to impress a girl with gifts and attention. Even Remo who might seem like the cruel man who gets what he wants from her finds the entire tone of their relationship dominated by the feeling he had when he first met her and followed her impulsive swim out into the ocean, a feat he was not well suited to physically.

...we had our first real conversation in the sea, and the feeling I had then, the conviction that I wouldn't make it back to shore, the intimation of death by drowning under a matte-blue sky, a sky that looked like a lung in a tub of blue paint, persisted throughout all our subsequent conversations.

And what of Gaspar? He and Remo knew each other years ago and it is he, as much as Nuria, who is seen to be a catalyst to the events that unfold despite his involvement with them really only coming later. Cutting a fairly dejected figure compared to the one Remo remembers from their past he comes at first as a bit of a shock.

I knew he was helpless, small and alone, perched on his stool at the bar, but I did nothing. Was I ashamed? Had his presence in Z released some kind of monster? I don't know. Maybe I thought I'd seen a ghost, and in those days I found ghosts extremely unpleasant. Not any more. Now, on the contrary, they brighten up my afternoons.

But Remo finds work for him as the night watchman at a campsite and it is Gaspar who provides the link to the two other characters that will become crucial to the story: an old opera singer and a woman with a penchant for carrying a large kitchen knife under her shirt. There's no need to say any more about them but I'd like finally to mention the other 'character' in the novel: the ice rink of the title. In his rather brilliant review Trevor over at The Mookse And The Gripes identifies the passage 'that describes the setting, the themes, and the book’s structure all in one go'. A series of packing crates have been assembled around the rink itself to create

...what looked like a labyrinth with a frozen center . . .

The Palacio Benvingut becomes a building that has an effect on those within it. Gaspar in his obsessive following of the woman with the kitchen knife comes upon the rink eventually himself and is immediately struck by the unique power of that space.

As soon as I crossed the threshold of the mansion, the sound of the "Fire Dance" put an end to my ruminations. From then on it was like I was drugged. From then on the world was entirely transformed, and my fears and suspicions shrank away, obliterated by the brilliant alliance of desire and risk within those sturdy old walls.
Desire and risk are a potent combination and Bolaño harnesses them well in a book that refuses to be a conventional thriller but manages to grip like one. It may be that this book hasn't the desire and risk that can be found in TSD but within the confines that it sets up for itself it was a timely reminder of why so many people rate Bolaño so highly.


Anonymous,  26 October 2010 at 12:52  

I nearly picked this up yesterday but left it as I have two of his on tbr pile and have read three already ,he makes you think this one appeals with its detective element ,all then best stu

William Rycroft 27 October 2010 at 08:41  

I've had a bit of a love/hate relationship with him so far Stu and this book helped me to read him again. I'm sure it's not even close to his best but the relative simplicity and lack of rug-pulling were much appreciated. Trevor over at The Mookse and the Gripes, who has read a lot of Bolano, recommends By Night in Chile.

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