The Skating Rink was the first novel Roberto Bolaño published, a murder mystery in Spanish, all the way back in 1993. It’s a short novel, but full of devices and ideas that readers will recognize from the late Chilean master’s later and better-known works. Characters who populate the novel recount events as if speaking extemporaneously to a reporter or a detective and discuss ideas and themes that the author would return to again and again: obsession, alienation, lack of national identity, underappreciated poets, homelessness, and homicide. The Skating Rink is a brief novel at 179 sharp and engaging pages. It wouldn’t be incorrect to call it a minor novel, but it would be a mistake to consider it merely a warm-up for the more intricate routines that the writer would perfect in the future.
The novel is about the construction and existence of a clandestine ice rink built in a deserted mansion on the cliffs of a seaside resort town in Catalonia, Spain. Erected to please Nuria Marti, a beautiful figure skater cut from the Spanish Olympic team, the rink and its inspiration are reserved and glacial while the locals who populate the seasonally bustling city are, with varying degrees of success, just trying to hold everything together. When the body of an itinerant singer is discovered in the middle of the ice deep within the labyrinthine halls of the decaying house, everything the characters have strained to preserve begins to fall apart.
The book is narrated by three men who represent different strata of Spanish society. Enric Rosquelle is an outwardly arrogant bureaucrat in charge of the city’s various social service agencies whose desperate need for love leads him to embezzle the funds in order to build the skating facility for the athlete he knows will never return his feelings. Gaspar Heredia is an illegal Chilean immigrant who works in a campground for tourists and falls for a homeless woman who never relinquishes the kitchen knife she keeps tucked in her jeans. Remo Moran, a legal arrival from Chile, has enjoyed success as a businessman and as a poet and is anxious about his own precarious sexual relationship with Nuria. Each man is more or less aware of his shortcomings and they utilize similar Bolañesque (Bolañan?) digressions to explain their motivations and feelings. They come to know and discuss each other in their retelling of events and so become interesting, sympathetic, and full characters. Enric is jealous of Remo and suspicious that South Americans in general trade in filth and drugs. Gaspar relies on his old friend Remo for his job and secretly watches Enric coaching Nuria.
The sense of loneliness and the failure to take advantage of fleeting opportunities are palpable. In a number of places, the narrative and the novel’s setting evoke a Wong Kar-wai movie. In slow motion, men follow women through cobblestone streets, not quite able to grasp that thing they desire. Hang-gliders dance in the sky and while everyone else is watching the fliers against the cool blue sky, we’re being told about how she’s just disappeared through a door down a side street. Solitary women stroll up cliff-side highways while our narrators limp behind. I almost expect Gaspar to sit down next to Tony Leung while cellos or Chinese versions of well-known pop tunes play from a nearby jukebox. Unlike Wong Kar-wai though, Bolaño sees the single-minded pursuit of unrequited love as pathological and often a precursor to violence. The men in The Skating Rink, like any number of other men who populate Bolaño’s novels, are unable to resist the wills of the women they love or submit to personally or professionally. Two men here are willing to sublimate their own wishes for those of Nuria, whose choice of profession illustrates her own desire to overcome the normal limitations of geography, climate, and national history. As they seek her favor, they find themselves acting in unfamiliar ways, on uncertain paths and unconcerned with appearance or ethics.
Like most of Bolaño’s work, endings (and beginnings and middles) are ambiguous. Readers are left unsure as to what has actually happened and the murder remains (I think) unsolved. The Skating Rink could serve as an easy introduction to the writer’s more complex creations because it deals with time and plot in a relatively conventional manner. The characters get to say proper good-byes and reflect on the things that have happened to them. Like a standard mystery, most of the knots have been untangled. But because real understanding sits just outside of consciousness, this reader is still waiting for the feeling that my task is complete. There are occasional missteps, like when Bolaño compares an elderly woman’s voice to a locker room, but passages lodge in your head like slow songs on repeat in dark comfortable places. Like those jams, The Skating Rink might be a masterpiece or something to be forgotten when something better comes along. It’s short, so listen to it a couple times and decide for yourself.