BY MIKE BEEMAN
Author: Roberto Bolaño, translated by Chris Andrew
2009, New Directions
Best ebook deal: Not available
The Skating Rink is the most recent contribution to Roberto Bolaño’s growing body of work in English. Unlike the recently discovered missing volume of Bolaño’s masterwork, 2666, The Skating Rink is one of Bolaño’s older works. In publishing this so soon after his latests, seminal work, New Directions has given the English-only readers an interesting opportunity to take a look at Bolaño’s career as a whole.
In his slim novel, Bolaño sets up a tight murder-mystery in the fictional Spanish city of Z, involving a beautiful figure skater, a business owner, a vagrant poet, a local bureaucrat, and an impoverished opera singer, among others. Bolaño creates a lot of suspense and tension by playing these characters off each other, and by using the shifting narratives to alternately frustrate and satisfy the reader. But the context of the novel’s publication is just as interesting as what goes on inside the book’s covers.
Although The Skating Rink is Bolaño’s most recent book in English, it was first published in 1993, making it among his oldest published fiction. The book’s publication also comes on the heels of the huge success of 2666, Bolaño’s most recently-written novel, and sequentially his last. So the English reader, grabbing his or her Bolaño as it is released here, is given a scatter-shot picture of the author, and a somewhat confusing one (imagine, for example, a foreign press publishing Vonnegut’s Slaughter House Five one year and following it immediately with Player Piano the next). But this also gives the English reader an opportunity to look at the bookends of his work, and to see how one comments on the other.
In The Skating Rink, readers find many familiar Bolaño-isms. The story is told by three first-person narrators who, although they seem unrelated at the novel’s beginning, are inexorably linked by its conclusion. This is a simpler version of the middle of The Savage Detectives, which expands on the alternating first-person narrators exponentially.
Bolaño often makes large jumps in chronology, and does not explicitly tell the reader what he might want to know. Instead, and often, he will stop to describing something seemingly irrelevant, like a particularly vivid. This can be frustrating, but it can also allow the reader to fill in the spaces in between the story-lines himself, and so Bolaño manages to make the reader an active participant in shaping a story that is unfolding in the background, as subtext, rather than leaving him a detached observer.
Readers will see this again as he uses the wildly divergent story-lines of 2666 to the same end and greater effect. Bolaño even seems to be testing out his characters: in The Skating Rink, readers will find a familiar troupe of itinerants, poets, beautiful-yet-distant women, Napoleonic and powerless beurocrats (who all may or may not be insane). Interestingly, Bolaño even tests out a typographical conceit. Like the fevered rant that makes up By Night in Chile, he eschews paragraph formatting, instead writing in solid blocks of text.
To say that The Skating Rink is not Bolaño writing in the full, later form that has earned him so much recent praise is not to say it isn’t a good book. While 2666 is his masterpiece, and The Savage Detectives is a masterwork in its own right, they are not easy to read, and not always fun. The tics particular to Bolaño mentioned above can be, when extended to the lengths he eventually takes them, not very accessible for many readers, and sometimes just plain annoying (I’m thinking of “The Part About the Crimes,” in 2666, filled with pages of graphic police reports, and the many first-person narrators of the middle of The Savage Detectives).
The Skating Rink is his most readable novel, and still contains all the traits that make Bolaño’s writing distinctly his own, making it both a good read in its own right as well as an interesting comment on his later work. But only until his next newly-discovered or freshly-translated book is released to an English audience, of course, and everything above is proven to be completely innacurate after all.