I’m as guilty as anyone for helping hype Roberto Bolaño’s two big books—“big” both in terms of reputation and size—that FSG released over the past two years. I loved both The Savage Detectives and 2666. I loved the heft, the ambition, the overreaching, and the risks he took.
But amid the Bolaño frenzy of the past couple years, his shorter books were somewhat overlooked. Which is a shame—in many ways, Bolaño is much better with these 150-200 page books than with his sprawling works.
Over the past six years, New Directions has done an amazing job of making all of these available to English readers. They brought out By Night in Chile to great reviews back in 2003. Then Distant Star came out shortly thereafter followed by Last Evenings on Earth, Nazi Literature in the Americas, Amulet, and a collection of his poetry entitled Romantic Dogs. The Skating Rink (translated by Chris Andrews, who has done all of the works of fiction New Directions has published) releases this month, and there are even more Bolaño books scheduled for the next couple years. (According to Wyatt Mason’s review in the New York Times and wikipedia there are two novels and two story collections coming out next year, and three more books in 2011.)
When The Skating Rink came out in 1993, it really put Bolaño on the literary map. And for good reason. Playing with the detective novel genre, Bolaño uses three narrators to tell a story of love, corruption, and murder in the Spanish town of Z.
The three principle players in this dance are: Remo Moran, a successful businessman in Z; Gaspar Heredia, a former poet who works at Moran’s campground; and Enric Rosquelles, an overweight psychologist working in the town’s Social Services Department.
And of course there are also a couple women: Caridad, a somewhat crazy woman that Gaspar falls in love with; and Nuria Marti, the gorgeous figure skater who’s involved with both Remo and Enric.
All of these characters revolve around the skating rink that Enric builds for Nuria at the rundown Palacio Benvingut after she is kicked off of the national figure skating team. This is the place where Caridad leads Gaspar. It’s the same location where Remo finds a dead body.
Employing a somewhat Faulknerian technique, Bolaño lets all of the connections between these characters arise from the voices of the three male protagonists. Chapters alternate among the three, with each small bit reading almost like a confession, or a response to questioning about the murder. As other reviewers have remarked, although there’s no actual detective in the novel, it’s the mystery of who dies and who killed her that really drives the novel.
Novels in voices are a personal favorite, and it’s very interesting how authors create plot tensions and anticipation through the use of different narrators. In this case, Bolaño lets you know straight off that there’s something up. The opening section, narrated by Remo, refers to Jack the Ripper, makes an elusive reference to murder, and admits that yes, he knows Gaspar Heredia.
But Enric Rosquelles’s first speech is the most interesting in its allusions and defensive tone:
Until a few years ago I was a typical mild-mannered guy; ask my family, my friends, my junior colleagues, anyone who came into contact with me. They’ll all tell you I’m the last person you’d expect to be involved in a crime. [. . .] Of course it’s my own fault. I’m the one who set the pace. Which makes me wonder, if you’ll allow me a digression, why I took on so much in the first place. I don’t know. Sometimes things get away from me. Sometimes I think my behavior was inexcusable. But then, other times, I think: I was walking around in a daze, mostly. Lying awake all night, as I have done recently, hasn’t helped me find any answers. Nor have the abuse and insults to which I have, apparently, been subjected.
For a book that leaps ahead through three different perspectives, the pacing is pretty good. There are a few bits that drag a bit, but the payoff is well, well worth it. Granted, The Skating Rink isn’t loaded with big philosophical ideas about the twentieth century or artistic movements, but it operates according to its own rules, and does so in a way that’s incredibly enjoyable. Yet another example of why Bolaño is considered one of the finest world novelists of the past twenty years.
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