The Skating Rink begins as one kind of book, an awkwardly plotted ‘crime’ novel with a self-consciously literary narrative structure. The three narrators are plausible enough as characters but their narrative voices are not natural, not recognizably ‘themselves.’ This is especially so in the English translation, in which they have no syntactical fingerprints. I found myself wondering, as I read, how I would have reacted to the first half of The Skating Rink if I hadn’t already read some of Bolaño’s later novels. I might well have tossed it aside. In short, the first half – make that the first two-thirds – isn’t very good. I doubt that I’d have recognized the ‘promise’ in it.
Those three narrators are all men, writing about their involvement with women. The women remain phantom obsessions in the men’s minds. Two of the narrators are what Bolaño calls “hardened poets,” a sub-species unknown in most northern climates but endemic to Bolaño’s later writings as well. The third is a self-important obnoxious bureaucrat; Bolaño struggles, I think, to make this character psychologically credible. Someone will get murdered, readers are told early in the story, and all three narrators will be involved, but there isn’t precisely a mystery. The murder occurs late in the book, and the victim isn’t who one has been led to expect. The main action takes place in a sleazy beach town on the Catalan Costa Brava, where decomposition rules.
Social and individual decomposition would become Bolaño’s overriding theme in his later books, along with despair and depravity. Don’t expect beauty, joy, or lyricism in this or any other novel by Roberto Bolaño! Somewhere around two-thirds of the way through The Skating Rink a seismic shift occurs in Bolaño’s style, and the characteristics of his mature writing begin to emerge: his sinister cynicism, his queasy indirectness, his nightmarish sense of impending horror, above all his terrifying moral ambiguity. Nothing is ever not subjective, not merely one mind’s partial perception; every thought skates on the edge of madness. Even the eventual ‘murderer’s confession’ seems doubtful, possibly only one illusion in one debauched and damaged mind.
On the other hand, and as a solid recommendation, The Skating Rink is a much ‘easier’ book than Bolaño’s later novels. It’s short, the plot exposition is forthright, the syntax is uncomplicated, and there are few of the obscure allusions to Latin American literature and history that make his work challenging for anglophone readers. Bolaño was a major talent, the most interesting Latin American writer since Julio Cortázar, and his premiere novel might well serve to teach Americans how to read him as effectively as it taught him how to write.
The Skating Rink; Bolaño, Roberto; Picador; £14.99