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0 BOLA NO REVIEW Skewed Compasses, Hardened Hearts BY KEITH MEATTO Few novelists’ works have a higher body count than Roberto Bolafio’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 Marti 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. Bolafio 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 Bolafio’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 The Skating Rink By Roberto Bolario Translated by Chris Matthews New Directions 182 pages, $21.95 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 Bolafio 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 Bolatio 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, Bolafio 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 Bolafio: 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, or chickens that went cluck cluck and then pecked, know-it-all snakes, white SEPTEMBER 4, 2009 TEXASOBSERVER.ORG 25