Thursday, October 22, 2009

Roberto Bolano's Skating Rink

Roberto Bolano (1953-2003), due to the circumstances surrounding translations, has been introduced to the English speaking world largely through the publication of The Savage Detectives and 2666. Although they weren't the first to be translated (several shorter books had already been published by New Directions), they are his most in depth and labyrinthine novels. While in Spanish, their original publication dates were 1998 and 2004, allowing for some time to assimilate their contents, The Savage Detectives (at almost 600 pages) and 2666 (nearly 900) appeared in English in 2007 and 2008 respectively. Add to this the fact that they keep discovering more of his work, including a previously unknown sixth section to 2666, and we have a literary myth in the making, (the posthumous genius) along with the necessary backlash ('he's only popular because...he's only the latest fad...').

Certainly, the all-encompassing character of the two larger novels lend themselves to this situation. Both are ambitious works. The Savage Detectives follows Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano (who are only themselves recounted by other people) as they travel around North America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, sometimes searching for an obscure poet named Cesarea Tinajero, and other times drifting and writing; 2666 revolves around a mysterious German author named Benno von Archimboldi, and his whereabouts in Europe and possibly Mexico, with some connection to a city named Santa Teresa, which is a fictional representation of Ciudad Juarez, the border town where hundreds of women have disappeared with very little police interference.

Those who are familiar with these two novels may be surprised by The Skating Rink. It is marketed as a crime novel, but I doubt that it comfortably fits in that genre. True, the first page mentions the murder that orients the narrative, but instead of creating suspense through plot twists and tricks, Bolano tells a tale of small town intrigue, surrounding Remo Moran, Gaspar Heredia, and Enric Rosquelles. The story takes place in a town near Barcelona called Z, whose rhythm corresponds to the tourist season, and is told, alternately by these three, the first a businessman, the second a writer and drifter (whose story is modeled somewhat on Bolano's life) and the third a civil servant. The story converges on their interest in a young woman named Nuria Marti, who is an ice skater.

Both Remo and Enric develop affections for Nuria, who aspires to regain her place on the Spanish Olympic team, and these affections, and the rivalry that they create, drive the story. Gaspar is, in this regard, the odd man out, but the chapters he narrates are no less important. While Remo and Enric go about their respective business and interests, Gaspar whiles away time working the night shift at a campground owned by Remo. It is through Gaspar's wanderings that the story converges on its central location, the Palace Bengivut, a 'heritage building' as Canadians might call it, now owned by the town of Z. In the Palace, Enric has built, illegally with city money, a skating rink for Nuria so that she can practice for her qualifications.

Enric might have gotten away with it, except that the Palace has drawn a few itinerant residents, who used to live on the campground where Gaspar worked. With so much spare time at the camp, Gaspar has struck up friendships with the two women, Carmen and Caridad, who are eventually forced to leave the camp, and when they go, he begins to wander the town of Z to find them. Which leads, eventually, everybody to the rink. But in the meanwhile, Bolano develops suspenseful and humorous web of intrigue as the reader discovers the relationships and petty quarrels between the characters. At one such point, he has some fun at the expense of his other passion, poetry. Searching for Gaspar, Remo goes to the campground and discovers through the secretary that the guard has been mostly absent:
She had only seen him about three times since he started work, and that wasn't normal. I tried to reassure her by explaining that he was a poet; she replied that her boyfriend, the Peruvian, was a poet too, but he didn't behave like that. Like a zombie. I didn't feel like arguing with her. Especially when, examining her fingernails, she remarked that poetry was a waste of time. She was right; on the planet of happy eunuchs and zombies, poetry is a waste of time.
Of course, Bolano knows better; in our times, poetry and fiction, when done right, are all the more important. Bolano's work is no exception.

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