Monday, October 01, 2012

A hard, harsh sigh, alive in every hair

Roberto Bolaño can be wildly exuberant, and thus exhausting, and I have learned my lesson with him, as with some other authors — not to read too much of him at a go. But, it is deeply satisfying to return to Bolaño after a lengthy hiatus.

The Skating Rink is Bolaño's first novel, but I didn't find it noticeably more flawed or less mature than his other books. According to a review in the Guardian:

It has conspicuous, classical flaws in technique and is undeniably frustrating on its own terms. The interesting thing is that many of those flaws are exactly the things which Bolaño expanded, developed, and turned into virtues of the highest originality.

It's set near Barcelona and concerns an Olympic figure skater and how she touches on the lives of our three narrators: a small businessman whose only immediate concern seems to be his own satisfaction; a Mexican poet working as a campground night watchman; a fat, corrupt city official.

The jacket copy tells you it's a crime novel, and the crime is heavily foreshadowed. Page one hints at murder, in fact; it's laden in fog and talk of Jack the Ripper. Which is entirely beside the point. It's one of Bolaño's tricks.

For example, this passage struck me as excessively creepy:

After faltering repeatedly, the second match went out, but this time there was no interval of darkness; she lit another straight away and, as if succumbing to an attack of vertigo, stepped back suddenly, away from the edge of the rink. The third match soon went out, and its death was accompanied by a sigh. Only once have I ever heard anyone sigh like that: a hard, harsh sigh, alive in every hair, and the mere memory of it made me feel ill.

Bolaño never tells us about that other time, and it's not relevant, yet he borrows the mood of that other, distant event and transfers it to the present.

It's no surprise that a body will eventually show up. And one does, but not till two-thirds of the way through the book. However, it's not the body I was expecting at all.

The review at the Quarterly Conversation nicely sums up the nature of the mystery in this novel:

That is all to say The Skating Rink is detective fiction only in a very nominal sense, perhaps only insofar as it needs to be in order to subvert the genre’s conventions. The solution of the crime isn't the thing in The Skating Rink, the novel doesn't rationally tick off the competing explanations until only one remains. Logic and answers have nothing to do with it. Rather, The Skating Rink is concerned with the search, a search for something difficult to name and not discoverable purely by deduction. The book is, to borrow the words of one character, "a labyrinth with a frozen center."

It's a short book, and well-paced. The prose is not poetically breathless (the way I think of much of Bolaño's work) — it's even relatively affectless. But it excels in creating a mood that's sinister, an aura of nefariousness. Typical of Bolaño, not all the story strands are pulled together, or followed through (for example, the incident of fecal desecration); in this way his work sprawls, or creeps. One can draw a straight line between this early novel and Bolaño's masterpiece, 2666.
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