Not since Gabriel García Márquez has a Latin American writer made such a great impact on the anglophone literary world as the late Chilean novelist Roberto Bolano (1953-2003). Bolano’s sizeable oeuvre, including at least eight novels, is all the more remarkable for the fact that he considered himself chiefly a poet, and only began publishing fiction in his 40s. The posthumous publication of translations of two massive works, The Savage Detectives and 2666, have consecrated his reputation, and many of his shorter early books are now appearing one by one in English.
The latest, The Skating Rink, was Bolano’s first novel, and it usefully foregrounds the recurrent themes of itinerancy, sexual obsession and political corruption and nightmare vision in his work.
The Skating Rink is set in a fictional Spanish seaside resort called Z, and describes the events of one summer through the eyes of three male narrators. Remo Moran is a lapsed poet from Chile who now runs a set of businesses in Z. Gaspar Heredia, an old acquaintance of Moran’s and also once a poet (there are always plenty of poets in Bolano’s novels), appears in Z for the summer to work as a security guard in a campground run by Moran. And Enric Rosquelles is a pompous but enterprising bureaucrat in the Z municipal administration, his head full of schemes and projects.
The Skating Rink: 182 pages, $21.95 (around Rs1,000).
Heredia, one of the many vagabonds in Bolano’s fiction, tells us that he came to Z because he didn’t have any other prospects, and “up until then my prospects had been as black as a bucket of motor oil”. This image of dark and murky ooze is emblematic of the story, which is that of a mystery at the heart of human dealings that is glimpsed but never quite resolved. In the hands of male writers, the locus of this mystery is often a beautiful woman, and so it is in Bolano. Both Remo and Enric find themselves obsessed with a beautiful young figure-skater from Z called Nuria.
Soon after meeting Nuria, Enric feels sure that he loves her, and does not care that his feeling may never be requited, as long as he himself can do something for her. On hearing that Nuria has been dropped from the national team, he decides to turn the swimming pool of an abandoned mansion in Z into a plush skating rink for her, using public funds. Enric’s stories are always falling away into irrelevance and his intense devotion is often comic. Moran and Heredia are much more laconic and elliptical. Out of the patchwork of their respective narrations, Bolano fashions a very competently told tale of murder, intrigue, longing and world-weariness.
Like a number of other prominent South American writers, Bolano describes a world that seems to glimmer on the porous border between reality and dream, and that insidiously takes root in the reader’s mind. At one point in the story, Enric’s embezzlement is discovered while he is at a party, and he begins to dread what is to come. He tries, vainly, to distract himself by focusing on the conversation around him, but hears only “a chaos of laughter, half-empty mixed-up glasses, and grunts and squawks unfit for human ears”—his mind is distorting the world. Bolano likes to observe the skating rink of the human mind precisely where the ice seems to be cracking.
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