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Review: Roberto Bolaño’s The Skating Rink

Following the career of late Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño has become almost a full-time endeavor for the Anglophone literary world. Two of his greatest novels, 2666 and The Savage Detectives, were published in just the last two years, and the schedule his publishers have for the remaining volumes — including the unfinished coda for 2666 — will last well into 2011. The Skating Rink, the author’s first novel, and the latest to be published in English, is a fantastic, hazy tale of murder and paranoia in the fictional Spanish seaside town of Z.

At first glance, The Skating Rink appears to be nothing more than a relatively slim detective yarn and a playful genre exercise. The book follows Nuria Martí — a young figure skater – a pair of shifty women, and the events surrounding a murder. The narrative alternates between the confessions of three witnesses and would-be suspects: Gasper Heredia, a young poet turned night watchmen at a camp owned by his once friend Remo Morán, a mid-list writer and Nuria’s sometime lover; and an often pompous, socialist government administrator, Enric Rosquelles. In a fury of misplaced affection, Rosquelles builds the titular skating rink for Nuria in an ancient and abandoned seaside palace using bureaucratic trickery and embezzled public funds.

Yet everything strains against the genre fiction framework, right down the details: there’s a sky that turns “from blue to pink, the pink of an enlightened butcher,” to a shadowy woman who, in Heredia’s love-struck eyes, has a face that works “like an eraser.” As in many of Bolaño’s novels, the primary storyline wavers in and out of focus. Each character’s confessions spiral into moments of human fracturing, both from love and spite. An entry from Morán, the former novelist, is perhaps the best picture of this fragmentary existence. After searching for Heredia for a few days, just wanting to talk “and reminisce, with a little help from a friend” he dejectedly realizes that Nuria had turned into a “series of images that had nothing to do with the girl” he knew. All three men suffer from a similar condition: in Z, everyone is witness to a life constantly fading out of sight.

- Jeff Larson

Related post: Exclusive: Natasha Wimmer Tells Us About Translating the Next Great Latin American Author

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