Saturday, February 6, 2010

Bolano's The Skating Rink

Roberto Bolano’s The Skating Rink was written in 1993 but wasn’t translated into English until 2009. 

There was a murder in this novel, but it would be a mistake to think of The Skating Rink as a murder mystery.  A skating rink has surreptitiously been built on the premises of a deserted mansion, the Palacio Benvingut, in the town of “Z.”  Z is a dismal place with little in it that could be described as beautiful – until Nuria, an ice-skater who has through no fault of her own run afoul of the Ice-Skating bureaucracy.  She is marooned in Z, the omega, seemingly, of Spain. 

But Enric Rosquelles comes to her rescue.  He is short and fat and the casual reader may think it is because he is that he doesn’t seek a romantic relationship with Nuria, but Nuria, and the Skating Rink are Z’s striving toward something beautiful – and Rosquelles is Z’s agent.  The rink, though located in a Kafka-like Castle is beautiful in the midst of the never-to-be-completed stadium.  Rosquelles works with Nuria, becomes her trainer, and strives to enable her to make the Spain’s Olympic team. 

Second in importance after Rosquelles is Remo Moran, a self-made successful businessman.  In addition to a chain of jewelry stores and a restaurant, he owns a Camp Ground.  He too has an interest in Nuria, but his interest is physical.  Though Moran writes novels and ought to be more interested in beauty, he isn’t.  He and Nuria become lovers.  Eventually Rosquelles finds out, but the discovery doesn’t deter him from his dream of maintaining the skating rink in order to prepare Nuria to make the Olympic team.

Moran’s Camp Ground has ongoing significance.  We see it through the eyes of Gaspar Heredia, whom Moran hired to be one of the camp-ground guards.  He falls in love with Caridad who says little but follows the authoritative middle-aged opera singer, Carman, about.   Carmen is given coins as she walks about Z singing arias.  She and Caridad sometimes go to the Palacio Benvingut where they learn of the Skating Rink, something Rosquelles hoped to keep secret until Nuria made the team.  Carmen attempts to blackmail Rosquelles, and is almost immediately murdered – on the ice in the middle of the Skating Rink.

This happens late in the novel and anyone who has spent time reading detective fiction may be excused for thinking this a murder mystery, but it isn’t.  Rosquelles is arrested and Nuria loses her chance to make the team and while Rosquelles is initially accused of the murder he is not prosecuted.  We learn in the last few pages that it was “the Rookie,” one of the bums who hangs out in the camp ground, who killed Carmen, and he doesn’t even know why.  Moran hears the Rookie’s confession, but it isn’t clear that he intends to turn him in. 

We can see the probably-insane Rookie as a force of Z as Z strives toward beauty.  Had the Rookie been cleverer he would have killed Carmen elsewhere, but doing it in the center of the skating rink made a primitive statement.  Surely we see this and aren’t distracted just because the authorities arrest Rosquelles.  The dream is ended.  Nuria suffers loss of her chance to make the Olympic team, but also another loss.  She is offered the opportunity given in the West to any celebrity, to make money doing interviews but also to make money posing nude for a magazine, and she accepts.  Z’s skating rink and skating star collapse at the same time.

Rosquelles is sent to prison for the embezzlement of public funds.  Rosquelles is not presented as a corrupt man.  The skating rink would have paid for itself in seven years if Z’s bureaucracy could see it.  All they saw was that he had become overcome by an ill-defined passion when he used public funds to build the skating rink.  He didn’t steal for reasons of greed which might have told in his favor.  While in prison he makes friends with the warden and together they write a book on Prison reform.  After that, and probably because of that, Rosquelles is released.  He has lost weight, is now trim and tanned and no one in Z recognizes him. 

The novel ends with Rosquelles asking “Was I tempted to visit the Palacio Benvingut?   Well, the simplest answer would be no, or yes.  To tell the truth, I did drive out that way, but that’s all.  There’s a curve in the highway on the way to Y, from which you can see the cove and the palace.  When I got there I braked, turned around and drove back to Z.  What good would it have done me, going there?  I would only have been adding to the sum of pain.  Besides, in winter it’s a sad place.  The stones I remembered as blue were grey.  The paths I remembered as bathed in light were strewn with shadows.  So I braked, made a U-turn and drove back to Z.  I avoided looking in the rearview mirror until I was a safe distance away.  What’s gone is gone, that’s what I say, you have to keep looking ahead . . .”

I’m tempted to see Rosquelles prison experience as cathartic.  He  was willing to sacrifice himself for the Nuria and the Skating Rink.  By the time he gets out of prison Nuria has dwindled to a center-fold and the Palcio Benfingut, despite its ice rink, has once again been abandoned.  Though slimmed-down and better looking, he won’t try to find Nuria.  All that is behind him.  “What’s gone is gone.”  Remo Moran wonders if it isn’t time for him to move away from Z.  The camp-guard Heredia and his girl friend Caridad now have enough money  to leave Z and go to Mexico.  But what of Rosquelles who has “to keep looking ahead”?  Don’t worry about him, Bolano would probably tell us.  He is extremely talented and is sure to find something to do – but it won’t be another quest for beauty.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love this book. It is a murder mystery where we know who the murderer is before we even know who gets murdered. Then we find out that the character with the least to gain did the actual killing. Yet, the interesting thing is, the man we always suspected, is the man most RESPONSIBLE for the killing.