Roberto Bolaño’s The Skating Rink tells the story of Gaspar, Remo, and Enric, three men who become enmeshed in a series of lies, betrayals, and crimes. Gaspar wants love; Remo wants wealth; and Enric wants status… and yet these simple desires lead to staggering complications. Bolaño writes with a remarkable eye for the odd and irrational apsects of human behavior. Also, he describes the physical world with an artist’s effortless touch. And yet, despite this novel’s many memorable passages, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. The Skating Rink resembles an unfinished work—a third or fourth draft, intriguing but unable to deliver a satisfying conclusion.
Gaspar Heredia longs for romantic fulfillment—a peaceful, stable relationship and an occasional chance to write a poem or two. Working in campgrounds, he meets and falls in love with a quiet, birdlike woman named El Caridad. But his love is not simple. He must pursue El Caridad through the streets and into a kind of underworld, and at the end of his pursuit he’ll discover deep sadness, vexing questions, and a dead body. Still, he is obsessed, and he cannot stop.
On the other hand, Remo Moran wants less celestial pleasures; he would simply like to amass as much material wealth as possible. He does a bit of cheating and a bit of lying to establish a small empire that includes stores and campgrounds (a site of Heredia’s employment). Moran sacrifices a marriage and a meaningful father-sun relationship to go after the things he wants. You get the sense that he is just a husk of a person, incapable of forming a meaningful bond with the men and women around him.
Still, Remo is a saint when compared to Enric Rosquelles. Enric has little sense of how he appears to others; he blathers and blathers, and wants only to bask in the glow of his own self-regard. Rosquelles sees an opportunity to have an affair with a beautiful figure skater, so he embezzles public funds and creates a skating rink. When chaos erupts on the rink, Enric seems undisturbed. He uses his period of citywide disgrace to write letters and meaningless civic proposals, and he ends his story as obliviously chatty and grating as he was at the beginning.
While narrating the lives of these three men, Bolaño shows an extraordinary talent for noticing the irrational, the mysterious, and the absurd. Two seemingly docile women deface a bathroom with their fecal matter: “Shit gathered and daubed to make animal forms (giraffes, elephants, Mickey Mouse), or the letters of soccer graffiti, or bodily organs (eyes, hearts, dicks).” At another moment, a man describes his puzzling sex life: “The problem wasn’t so much that Nuria talked while we were having sex, but that she always talked about the same things: murder and skating…The worst thing, though, was that it started to rub off on me, and soon, as our rhythm accelerated, we’d both launch into confessions and gruesome soliloquies full of groans and sheets of ice scattered with old women, and only orgasm could shut us up.” And in this reviewer’s favorite illustration of Bolaño’s interest in human eccentricity, a man observes that most of the women he knows can transform their whole selves into “lionesses, vampires, dolphins, eagles, mummies or hunchbacks of Notre Dame.” No interaction is easy in the world of Bolaño; no character is strictly sane.
Bolaño’s talent isn’t just for descriptions of weirdness and mental instability; he also has a knack for painting verbal pictures of the physical world. A bloody tissue enters a character’s field of vision “like a moribund rat.” A man reveals his “long rabbitlike teeth stained with nicotine.” A bureaucrat nods “with difficulty, as if garroted.” These apparently casual turns of phrase are sprinkled throughout the novel. Clearly, Bolaño has paid close attention to the surface of things, and to the way people dress, look, and move.
Most important: Bolaño knows how to create suspense. He ends many chapters on loud, jarring notes, so you can’t help but continue reading. For example, here a man is about to learn that a murder has occurred on his property:
United by the telephone line, Nuria’s breathing and mine mingled in a timeless marriage: the bond, the consummation and the passing of our quiet days—our secret. My teeth started grinding horribly. What’s happening? asked Nuria. I noticed that Garcia had approached me again and was grimacing incomprehensibly. The noises from outside were getting louder: chairs falling over, bodies bumping against the walls, someone shouting, Be quiet and calm down, please, we don’t want to have to charge you with obstruction of justice. Then I uttered, syllable by syllable: Nu-ri-a-I-have-to-hang-up-what-ev-er-hap-pens-re-mem-ber-I-love-you-re-mem-ber-I-love-you…
You get caught up in the man’s sense of disorientation and panic; Bolaño won’t tell you exactly what is going on, but he’ll entice you with alarming descriptions of “chairs falling over, bodies bumping against the walls.”
And yet, for all its dazzling wordplay, The Skating Rink feels incomplete. Bolaño says very little about both the victim of the novel’s central crime and the perpetrator of that crime. Thus, it’s hard to care deeply about the material that is supposed to comprise this novel’s climax. Stranger still, Bolaño seems to have left off a resolution. The story grinds to a halt, and you wonder why it ends when it ends. You wish that there were a greater sense of dramatic release in the final pages.
Bolaño’s cause is hindered by this edition of the novel. There are frequent typographical errors, and the edition lacks footnotes that might provide useful context for American readers. The product seems slapped together: Oddly, Bolaño himself is quoted among reviewers on the back of the back, as if he were offering a “blurb” for his own work. The cover photo is vague and uninteresting. A bit more effort would have made this volume more polished and appealing for an American audience.
Fans of Bolaño’s widely-praised Savage Detectives and 2666 may find that this slim novel is somewhat disappointing. Even literary titans have shortcomings. Henry James produced Guy Domville; George Eliot gave us Romola. Like those works, The Skating Rink, too, has moments of brilliance but lacks a certain propulsive spark. When you finish it, it’s likely you will feel slightly puzzled, frustrated, and dissatisfied.