The Skating Rink, Roberto Bolaño (trans. Chris Andrews). New Directions. 208pp, $21.95.
In his famous (if rather ungainly titled) essay “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives,” Roland Barthes differentiated between two kinds of statements found in novels. One he called nuclei, saying that these “constitute real hinge-points of the narrative”; the other kind he called “catalyzers,” and these “merely ‘fill in’ the narrative space” around the nuclei. The Skating Rink, Roberto Bolaño’s most recently translated novel and his first published in Spanish, is a book in which it is difficult to tell which is which.
For those who are up on their Bolaño, Rink reads like a stripped-down version of The Savage Detectives’ middle section, where over fifty narrators reconstruct events that occurred over the course of decades. By contrast, rather than decades The Skating Rink concerns just one summer; rather than fifty-some narrators Bolaño here gives us three; and rather than ranging all over the world, The Skating Rink roots itself in a town known as Z, a beachside resort located close to Barcelona.
In the case of The Skating Rink, less may be more. Bolaño’s narrators are three men: one, a vagabonding poet who comes to Z from Mexico by way of Barcelona; the second a Chilean immigrant who owns a successful business in Z; and the third a nebbish, portly city bureaucrat who gets in over his head in corruption. The Chilean becomes involved with a beautiful young ice skater named Nuria, while the poet falls in with a waifish young woman named Caridad, who constantly bums around Z with an aging opera singer and always carries a sharp butcher knife against her abdomen. All of the characters, at one point or another, are drawn to an ice rink built in secret by the corrupt bureaucrat in an attempt to woo the beautiful Nuria.
The Skating Rink is a detective novel—the knife does get used—although it is one that continually shrinks from the duties of its genre. When the body is found, about two-thirds of the way through the book, it is not a climactic moment so much as a protracted, mundane affair suffused with more angst than tension. Moreover, there’s no detective in this book; the solving of the crime occurs vaguely in the background by some nameless authorities while the three men concern themselves not with justice with how being implicated in the incident affects their lives.
That is all to say The Skating Rink is detective fiction only in a very nominal sense, perhaps only insofar as it needs to be in order to subvert the genre’s conventions. The solution of the crime isn’t the thing in The Skating Rink, the novel doesn’t rationally tick off the competing explanations until only one remains. Logic and answers have nothing to do with it. Rather, The Skating Rink is concerned with the search, a search for something difficult to name and not discoverable purely by deduction. The book is, to borrow the words of one character, “a labyrinth with a frozen center.”
It’s a particular characteristic of this Boloñian mystery that none of the book’s three narrators can really be understood until the heavily foreshadowed murder is accounted for. Their statements continually exude detail that is clearly meaningful; but deprived of the context provided by full knowledge of the crime, the reader is left only with a vague sense of weightiness. And yet, though the murder certainly puts each of the three men into a new light, many of the impressions we have of the men before the murder remain true, even after we find out who did what. This makes The Skating Rink both about the murder and not about the murder. As Remo Morán, the Chilean businessman, says in the book’s opening page as he recalls his youth in Mexico City:
Faces and lamps barely emerged from the gloom, and, wrapped in that cloak, everyone seemed enthusiastic and ignorant, fragmentary and innocent, as in fact we were. Now we’re thousands of miles from the Cafe La Habana, and the fog is thicker than it was back then, better still for Jack the Ripper. From the Calle Bucareli, in Mexico City, to murder, you must be thinking . . . But it’s not like that at all, which is why I’m telling you this story . . .
Indeed, as Morán implies summer on the Costa Brava isn’t so different from the “lawless territories” of nighttime in Mexico City. The fog and the fragmentation remain thick in both. Bolaño’s narrative—constantly skipping like a broken record, siding innuendo and whimsy—feels amorphous, intangible. One begins to feel like Julio Cortázar’s so-called male-reader (discussed in his great novel Hopscotch), a reader who constantly “loses” because he struggles to take charge and escape the labyrinth, and only digs himself in deeper and deeper.
Part of the challenge is that in The Skating Rink 1 + 1 + 1 doesn’t add up to 3. As the book progresses, it becomes evident that the men are making their statements independent of one another, and occasionally they come at the same events from irreconcilable vantages. This can lead to an odd sort of double-vision, when, for instance, it gradually becomes apparent that the almost comic incident being described somewhat bemusedly by Morán is actually a deeply personal moment that Enric Rosquelles, the corrupt bureaucrat, described haltingly tens of pages earlier.
Sometimes this double-vision exists within a character’s own testimony. About halfway through, Morán explains how he discovered the novel’s dead body, and then he suddenly skips ahead to after the denouement:
I wanted to talk, pour out my soul, and reminisce, with a little help from a friend, about the golden streets we had trodden together in the old days (the good old days), but in fact that was all just a way of skirting around what was, for me, the real issue: Nuria transformed into a series of images that had nothing to do with the girl I know.
At this point it might be reasonable to assume that Morán is referring to a break-up with Nuria brought on by the discovery of the body; in reality Remo is speaking much more literally, although this would be impossible to know unless you had read the novel to the end and doubled back. Such an experience is prevalent throughout The Skating Rink. Sometimes the remark is eventually explained, as in the case of Remo’s thoughts on Nuria, but sometimes, as can be the case with Bolaño, the remarks are simply mean to be enigmatic, indicative of that void beyond the page to which so many of his characters big and small point again and again.
Just as these narratives can project into the future, they can also project into the past: Morán’s oblique discussion of how his relationship to Nuria changes post-murder is followed by a stiff recollection of the first time he saw a dead body, in Chile during the terror that followed the coup. It is a reminder that Morán’s lawless territories are found wherever there are people, a reminder that is casually found again and again throughout this book, and the prevalence of these remarks creates in The Skating Rink a world salted by inference, a place where hints of violence and corruption pop up here and there. That these remarks are only tangential to the mundane details of romance and survival, loneliness and friendship, makes the novel’s world all the more like our own.
These characters, so carefully distanced from one another by Bolaño’s narrative strategy, ironically all somehow end up in the one place in the book that is supposed to be hidden: the skating rink. Their physical presence at the rink is, in fact, the only trait that they all have in common. Each one of them is pulled there for different reasons, and in this sense the labyrinth that leads to the book’s frozen center becomes the thoughts and emotions and needs that bring each character to the skating rink. The reader’s task is not so much to identify a killer and assign a chronology as to understand what the skating rink means for each person and what, if any one thing, it means for the book as a whole.
Bolaño’s strategy in The Skating Rink works magnificently to de-center the reader and push her toward the search, but the belated nature of much of the story means that The Skating Rink can seem a little diffuse on the first reading. True, the fog is purposeful, and true again, there is something very rewarding to seeing this book take on a second skin as few books can upon re-reading, but there is something to be said for a book’s first impression, and in The Skating Rink that first impression is often one of effervescence. It’s hard to fault Bolaño, because all the information is indeed right there, and yet the book is so constructed that I cannot imagine the reader who would get it all on the first pass.
But if The Skating Rink is a novel that compels the reader to come back, then it is only all the more a labyrinth designed to entrap Cortázar’s male-reader. There is no rational solution to the crime—Bolaño has the murderer explicitly admit this—and there is no rational solution to this labyrinth of a book. The search is all. Though there are beautiful, potent moments rich with emotion, the meaning that should exist within these moments is deferred again and again, the senselessness of this one small act of violence comes to counterpoint and haunt the senselessness of life and atrocity. It is an idea that Bolaño would probe again and again throughout his career, and this is the first statement he made on it. It is well worth your time.
Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation
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