Skewed Compasses, Hardened Hearts

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Few novelists’ works have a higher body count than Roberto Bolaño’s. His latest book to be translated into English, The Skating Rink, deals with a small-town murder, the long-term effects of political violence, and the ways death informs people’s attitudes toward life.

Enric Rosquelles, a pudgy bureaucrat, falls in love with a championship ice-skater recently cut from the national team. Nuria Martí is out of his league, but desperate to pursue her Olympic dream. So when he builds her a secret skating rink and makes himself her coach, she plays along. Never mind that he embezzles public money to finance his dream and knows nothing about the sport. Or that she fails to recognize his love and takes up with another man. None of this ends well. As Rosquelles reflects: “It could have been an amusing variation on the love triangle, if death hadn’t butted in.”

Beneath the surface, this is an existential story of exiles. The characters’ artistic, romantic and economic dreams fall short of reality. Several are Latin Americans who have fled the violence of their homelands for the relative peace of Europe. Bolaño is deft at rendering the despair and alienation of rootless, homeless people. He writes from experience.  As a young man he fled his native Chile, where thousands were executed, jailed and tortured under the dictatorship of Augosto Pinochet, who assumed power in 1973 in the military coup that toppled President Salvador Allende.

The Skating Rink was published in Spain in 1993, but translated only after Bolaño’s death and posthumous international fame. In this early work, he already employs the themes, narrative techniques and autobiographical material that mark his later novels. He juxtaposes the quiet, dreamy lives of bohemians and writers with violence and terror.

Rosquelles is one of three narrators who tell the story in short, interior monologues. The other two are a novelist and a poet, though both work day jobs, as a night watchman and a jewelry store owner, respectively. The structure lets Bolaño capture the intimate thoughts of his characters, while telling the story from many angles. He can also withhold information and escalate the tension.

The story takes place in the fictional seaside town of Z, on the Costa Brava, the far northeastern corner of Spain, where Bolaño lived the last decade of his life until his 2003 death. For working class tourists, the town is a summer vacation spot. For the characters, Z is less a resort than a last resort, the last letter in the alphabet. The marginalized setting underscores their marginalized lives. Even within Z, Bolaño focuses on two isolated locations: a campsite that attracts vagrants and the abandoned palace where Rosquelles builds his skating rink.

As in many immigrant stories, the characters struggle to adapt to their new homes. They come across as melancholy loners or voyeurs, fatalists, or, as Rosquelles observes, “scruffy, damaged individuals; resentful, taciturn misfits, the sort you’d rather not encounter on a deserted street.” References to tensions between Spaniards and Latin Americans, and Castilians and Catalans, underscore larger tensions.

From the first sentence, the novel simmers with a sense of trepidation, always delivered in a tone of detached coolness.

The first time I saw him, it was in the Calle Bucareli, in Mexico City, that is, back in the vague shifty territory of our adolescence, the province of hardened poets, on a night of heavy fog, which slowed the traffic and prompted conversation about that phenomenon, so rare in Mexico City at night, at least as far as I can remember.

This is pure Bolaño: the noir, the nostalgia, the displacement, the juxtaposition between innocence and experience, the quasi-comedy of a phrase like “hardened poets,” and the struggle of memory to capture and celebrate life in the face of death.

Amid the atmosphere of quiet dread, the characters in The Skating Rink are desperate for love and companionship. But their emotional compasses are skewed, their hearts hardened from experience and disappointment and lowered expectations. Men put women on pedestals and worship them as angels and idols, not people. Meanwhile, the women guard their hearts and withhold affection, which fuels their admirers’ madness and sadness. As one character says:

Actually, come to think of it, most of the women I’ve known could turn certain parts of their body (hands, feet, knees, navels etc.) into frogs, or elephants, or chickens that went cluck cluck and then pecked, know-it-all snakes, white crows, spiders, wayward kangaroos, when they weren’t transforming their whole selves into lionesses, vampires, dolphins, eagles, mummies or hunchbacks of Notre Dame.

As the novel progresses toward the central murder, a parallel story emerges, hinging on the characters’ pasts.  Halfway through the book, one character recalls his history of violence. First he remembers a series of rapes and murders that occurred when he first arrived in Z. Then he remembers when, imprisoned in Chile after the coup, he witnessed a policeman beat a man to death. Finally he remembers a moment when he and a friend saw a body with a bullet in its head on the roadside in Mexico and muses:

Sometimes in the mornings, when I’m having breakfast on my own, I think I would have loved to be a detective. I’m pretty observant, and I can reason deductively, and I’m a keen reader of crime fiction. If that’s any use … which it isn’t.

Bolaño revisited this fascination with writers and violence and detectives for the rest of his career. In Distant Star, an avant-garde poet becomes a murderer. In The Savage Detectives, rebellious, young, hipster writers bump up against the criminal subculture. And 2666, his last novel, Bolaño tackles hundreds of unsolved rapes and murders along the Mexican border with the United States.

In his role as literary detective, Bolaño joins a distinguished company of novelists, especially Haruki Murakami, whose oeuvre resembles Bolaño’s in its muted coolness. In Latin American literature, he owes a nod to Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine master who moved with similar ease between high and low culture, the ivory tower and the seedy underworld of knife fights and barroom brawls. The Skating Rink bears some similarity to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, another compact tale about small-town murder, told from multiple points of view, that addresses the challenges of memory and the resonance of violence.

Despite his fascination, Bolaño never makes a fetish of violence. He takes it as a given, a starting point for his explorations of the human condition. It’s a safe bet to expect more of the same in his next novel slated for translation: Monsieur Pain.

Keith Meatto is a New York-based writer who spent the summer in Austin working on a collection of short stories.