Bolaño’s Quiet Terror

'The Skating Rink' by Roberto Bolaño (New Directions)

A new era of literature began and was buried before the English-speaking world could blink. Roberto Bolaño was the last great visionary of the twentieth century, a scion who fulfilled his destiny in a way that no other writer possibly could. Or at least that’s what the world wants to believe. After Bolaño received the Rómulo Gallegos Prize (Latin American fiction’s most coveted award) for his first major novel, “The Savage Detectives,” in 1999, the Spanish-speaking literary world had already canonized him. It took that book’s release in English in 2007 (translated by Natasha Wimmer for Farrar, Straus & Giroux, four years after Bolaño’s death due to liver failure) and the rumor of his posthumous final masterpiece, “2666,” to do as much in the rest of the world. Those two novels, massive in their respective scope and ambition, are dazzling and formidable to be sure. His was a new language in fiction; a language of the possible, of poetry vibrating in an uncertainty more readily comparable to that of Franz Kafka than Jorge Luis Borges or Gabriel García Márquez. A revolutionary and a giant to be sure; but beneath the earth of the legend there was once a man. The latest in a series of impeccable translations by Chris Andrews from New Directions Press, his haunting first book, the crime novel “The Skating Rink,” in turns acknowledges the legend’s humble beginnings and prefigures the heights that he would eventually attain.

His career began in earnest in the Mexico City of the early 70s, where he fashioned a small cabal of radical leftist poets called the “infrarealismo,” more memorable for their wild and futile gestures against the popular Latin and South American poets they detested than any of the poetry they actually produced. Among the many enigmas surrounding his life (including penchants for violence and hard drugs, neither encouraged nor disavowed by Bolaño in his lifetime), it was his participation in and imprisonment during the resistance against Generalissimo Augusto Pinochet’s military putsch in the author’s native Chile that attracted a cult-like following. That experience, perhaps more than any other single one in his life, would resonate throughout his fiction. After disbanding the infrarealists, Bolaño drifted into further obscurity in Europe, working odd jobs and writing poetry sporadically into his early 40s. This early period would become the subject matter for “The Savage Detectives,” his first long novel. More sensitive to the need for a more substantial living through literature after the birth of his first son, Bolaño began writing fiction full-time.

“The Skating Rink” is only a crime novel in the loosest sense. Like all of his novels, with the exception of “2666,” it begins under the pretense of a conventional plot whose conventions, either totally diminish or, like in Beckett, become so absurd as to be rendered superfluous. The narrative perspective alternates fluidly between its three protagonists: Gaspar Heredia, a Mexican night watchman at a camp ground in the Spanish coastal town of Z; Remo Morán, a Chilean novelist running several businesses in the town; and Enric Rosquelles, a deputy to the mayor of Z. The seemingly tenuous connections between the three men wind progressively tighter around a pair of vagrant women and a beautiful Spanish figure skater. A voracious reader in general and an avid fan of popular cinema and genre fiction, Bolaño punctuates the beginning of a long penchant for the referential with an invocation of detective novels: “Anyway, as Hans Henny Jahn, I think, once wrote: if you find a murder victim, better brace yourself, because the bodies will soon becoming thick and fast…”

The centerpiece of “The Skating Rink,” Bolaño’s first novel, is an idiosyncratic narrative structure and style that the novelist would expand upon and perfect in “The Savage Detectives.” Each narrative point of view takes the tone of a one-sided interview, or a stream-of-consciousness deposition. The men in question fill their winding explanation of the events during that summer in Z leading up to the murder (the novel’s supposed central event that, in actuality, is a sort of narrative telos) with a sort of chaotic abandon more befitting of a soliloquy in a surrealist play: “I felt trapped; I should have been at work by then, and Remo’s gaze reared up like ectoplasm and hit me between the eyes, or that’s how it felt, but in fact it was a sleeper’s or a dreamer’s gaze—he didn’t seem to be listening to the suntanned guys, and at the time I thought, Either he’s critically ill or he’s very happy.” It is this obsession with digression that will become Bolaño’s signature, but at this early stage in his career it isn’t yet totally effective; it never transcends its context (as it will as early as his next novel, the highly experimental “Nazi Literature in the Americas”), so much as justifies it. “2666” will comprise context that itself is transcendent, but that masterpiece is still over a decade away.

The novel excels in other, albeit minor places. There are moments of startling insight, however distracted it may be—“We all have to die a bit every now and then and usually it’s so gradual that we end up more alive than ever. Infinitely old and infinitely alive.” There are also moments of humor— “It was simply that he didn’t fool me with that world-weary, seen-it-all manner of his. So he’d been through a war. So he’d been on TV a couple times. So his dick was a foot long. God almighty! I’m surrounded by a pack of rabid dogs!” But what makes the novel so exciting in hindsight is its overture—the first and perhaps the only significant one—to “2666.” That overture is its brush with the stuff of the latter’s dark invisible center: namely, terror.

Bolaño’s vision of a small Spanish tourist town still firmly in the grip of Francisco Franco’s guardia civil is political in its subtlety; “The Skating Rink” never pushes up against the brutal reality of fascism except in the most banal ways, and only when it serves the perfunctory plot. Bolaño raises his most intense and deeply esoteric criticism, not against the contemptible and defrauding bureaucrat Rosquelles, but against a more sinister and radical system, both bound up in and other from the political: “I remember during my second year in Z, the body of a teenage girl, almost a child, was found in a vacant lot; she’d been killed and raped. The killer was never found. Around that time there was a series of murders, all fitting the same pattern; they began in Tarragona and moved up the coast, leaving a trail of bodies (girls killed and raped, in that order) all the way to Port Bou, as if the killed was a tourist on the way home, but a very leisurely tourist, because a whole summer season elapsed between the first and the last of the crimes.” It’s in murders like these, indiscriminate and sexual crimes against women, magnified a hundredfold and transplanted to a fictionalized Ciudad Juárez, that constitute the heart of “2666.”

But “The Skating Rink” falls short—dramatically, unequivocally short—of locking eyes with that heart. In truth, it mirrors more faithfully a story by Guillermo Martínez called “Vast Hell”; a beach community scours the dunes for the bodies of an adulterous couple supposedly murdered by a jealous couple. When body parts discovered in a sequestered part of the dune are revealed to be the traces of a mass grave authored by the region’s secret police, the townspeople quickly and mechanically rebury the remains. “The Skating Rink,” with its project still so modest, can only be that reburial.

—Staff writer Ryan J. Meehan can be reached at rmeehan@fas.harvard.edu.