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Daily Norm Book Club: The Skating Rink by Roberto Bolaño

In the murky world of Roberto Bolaño, the sadly deceased Mexican author, many of whose masterpieces are only now, posthumously, seeing the light of day, a new storm is brewing. In the noncommittally named Costa Brava seaside resort of “Z”, the catalogue of shady locals, from El Quemado to the elusive German hotelier, Frau Else introduced to us in Bolaño’s recently published The Third Reich, is expanded further, as a second “Z”-based novel, The Skating Rink, delves into the layers of denigration, frustration and prejudice subsisting, never far from reach, beneath the soft sands of this beachside society in post civil-war Spain.

The novel is a short, punchy exploration of a Spain pressing forwards but continuing to struggle against Catalan discrimination, a flagging economy post summer-season (sound familiar?) and the progressive rise of a bureaucratically managed insular society. These frustrations are played out by the few principal characters around whom the story circulates. There is Nuria Marti, the beautiful ice skater, previously an Olympian skater representing Spain, but recently thrown off the national team because of her Catalan heritage. Obsessed with her is Enric Rosquelles, a pompous civil servant, who, in a desperate attempt to capture the attention and then the affection of this starlet skater, abuses his power and embezzles pesetas by the thousand to build Nuria her very own skating rink in the grounds of a deserted seaside villa.

Nuria’s affections are elsewhere however, in part with a local entrepreneur, Remo Moran – the poor boy done good – who has become owner of the hotel which formed the backdrop of The Third Reach, and who is now sleeping with the skater. He would love there to be more than sex between them, but he cannot crack the icy glaze which so often falls over Nuria, protecting her from the prying attentions of those who get too close. Working for Remo is Gaspar Heredia, a solitary, beleaguered romantic and old friend of Remo from their native Mexico. He too is in love, with an equally elusive, silent and cold societal outcast, Caridad, who has found the ice rink and lives amongst the ruins of the villa beyond. That is until tragedy strikes and all concerned are forced to abandon the ice rink which has sealed their fate forever.

We know there will be a murder. We’re told at the start, and in short captivating chapters, the three narrators, Enric, Remo and Gaspar, successively take the story gradually closer and closer to the murder which was forewarned, circling progressively nearer to the tragic event, like a skater encircles an ice rink before arabesquing into a pirouetted climax at its bloody cold centre. In this way, Bolaño’s brilliant structure ensnares the audience and drags them into the tale, captivating like a dancing routine, enriching the reader with a tale told on ice.

Yet within a speedy narrative hoisting in the reader with its intrigue and drama, the sombre mood, typical of Bolaño’s work, prevails, as surreal and disquieting descriptions create a deeper profile of his often troubled characters: the toilet cleaners who agonise after the faeces sculptor whose daily offerings torment them, the old singer, who moves from bar to bar in a pitiful attempt to busk for drink-money, the poet, taken to insomnia and dizzily distracted by his love for a girl who won’t even speak to him. It is these characters who make the story, who create a mood which is as distant from the sunshine and sangria costa setting as a seagull from the Sahara. This is the same unsettling irony which characterised The Third Reach – holiday makers playing war games, away from the sun, in the darkness of a hotel bedroom, a paddleboat seller, who builds a home on dry land from boats, and whose skin is burnt by fire, yet exposed all day to the continuing damage of the sun, and the tourists who were drunk with joy, and then distressed when one disappeared forever. These dark undertones are what makes Bolaño’s summer time so enticing; a hot Spanish resort with an ice-cold undertone, a wintery chill traversed by the pointed blade of a skater’s boots, the razor sharp kitchen knife carried in the waistband of a silent night-walker, the inscrutable personality of the leading skating star. 

This is my third Bolaño read and I’m eager to read more. Bolaño gives us crime, but not crime fiction, he gives us Mediterranean sun, with none of its warmth. He gives us speechless characters, full of detail. In other words, his books are atypical, original and inescapably captivating. I’m off to buy the next one…

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