The Skating Rink is beginner’s Roberto Bolaño: there are no six-page sentences here, byzantine plots or jeremiads against Octavio Paz. It doesn’t even have a Facebook reading group. In the quiet Mediterranean town of “Z,” Enric, a a public servant, steals government funds to build a skating rink for a beautiful figure skater named Nuria. His scheme sets in motion a series of events that culminate in a woman being bludgeoned to death at the ice rink. Over the course of the novel, three alternating narrators, Enric included, reflect on the bizarre summer, obliterating in the meantime distinctions between myth and fact, guilt and innocence.
A murder mystery only in spirit, the novel is a double-cross of a thriller. Bolaño is more interested in pushing the boundaries of genre fiction than solving the crime. The character who’ll eventually be killed isn’t even introduced until halfway through the novel. Blink and you’ll miss the murderer’s confession. Instead, the cryptic first chapters hint, tease, and stoke the reader’s imagination with grisly possibilities.
“I’m fat, five foot eight, and Catalan… [my friends] will tell you I’m the last person you’d expect to be involved in a crime,” Enric explains. Remo Morán, a Chilean expat and lapsed writer who slept with Nuria, remembers how a thick fog perfect for “Jack the Ripper” invaded the small town that summer. Gaspar Heredia, a Mexican poet Remo recruited to work in a local campground, recalls walking among “George Romero’s living dead.”
There’s so much pulpy foreboding before the actual murder at the ice rink that you can practically hear the Bernard Herrmann score; The Shining is even name-checked.
Bolaño’s plots are like Olafur Eliasson installations. The building blocks of the story may be exposed, but the scope of the structure takes a while to reveal itself. He is the master of the slow potboiler. His modus operandi here is to withhold information until the seams of the story cannot hold, creating confusion, anxiety, and the arrival of that moment in every one of his novels when it becomes inevitable to skip ahead.
That his novels are all more or less detective stories is in part generational. It’s easy to forget that in the 1970s, the authors that followed Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, “that duo of ancient machos,” as Bolaño derisively called them, turned to genre fiction – sci-fi, police thrillers – as an affront to the serious literature of the writers of the Latin American literary boom, and because only lurid fiction was suitable for portraying the despotic dictatorships and culture of violence of the decade.
But this novel is set in Costa Brava, and was written in 1993, and he won’t tackle those themes until at least Nazi Literature in the Americas. The Skating Rink is instead a daguerreotype of the meta-detective novels that will follow; Remo and Gaspar, two South American writers trying to solve a mystery, are the proto-Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano.
In one of his last interviews he explained his predilection for genre in another way. “There’s no better literary reward than to have a murderer or a missing person to chase,” he said. Connecting “the four or five threads of the story becomes irresistible because as a reader I also get lost.” [Ed Note: Translated by the author, from Edmund Paz Soldán’s Roberto Bolaño: Literatura y Apocalipsis.]
When reading The Skating Rink, the idea is: relent to the intrigue. It’s no coincidence that he kicks off the book with an invitation to live “in delirium,” “rudderless.” It’s that appeal to get lost in the text that makes him so compulsively readable. Like in all his novels, the digressions accumulate, the back-stories grow, the avalanche of information casts its spell, and the prose slowly does its voodoo.