The Skating Rink

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

A murder ought to imbue a novel with mystery. In Roberto Bolaño’s 1993 novel The Skating Rink, billed as a crime novel, the murder of a homeless woman seems to tease readers rather than to provide meaningful suspense. Bolaño is justly famous for innovative narrative methods that immerse readers in seedy, corrupt, desperate, absurd, violent, but vibrant struggles among characters who haunt the fringes of mainstream society or fall from its careless grace. In the case of The Skating Rink, however, the story is so sparely told, so focused, that it ends up seeming aimless, even querulous. Still, if the novel is less successful than Bolaño’s later novels, such as Los detectivos salvages (1998; The Savage Detectives, 2007) and 2666 (2004; English translation, 2008), it nonetheless demonstrates Bolaño’s talent for powerful characterization and portrays as few other novelists can the fragility of love and ambition, the hypocrisy of power, and the quixotic temperament of literature.

The story takes place in a seaside resort city, called simply Z, on the Costa Brava north of Barcelona, in Spain’s semiautonomous Catalan region. In an unvaryingly repeated sequence, the narrative alternates among three point-of-view charactersRemo Morán, Gaspar Heredia, and Enric Rosquelles. Each tells his side of the story in short chapters. There is both a tone of intimacy and evidence of evasion to their statements, which read as if recorded from a conversation. The “you” to whom these statements are directed is never identified. It may be a policeman, a reporter, or the novel’s readers. The uncertainty is not insignificant because it leaves unclear a reader’s relation to the story. Other features of the novel are similarly ambiguous or provocative.

None of the three narrators is reliable, and each represents a different facet of society. Morán is likely to seem the most straightforward and reputable, yet the style of his characterization is such that this impression is misleading. Bolaño is sparing in details about the characters’ backgrounds. They supply such details in passing over the course of their narratives, providing bits of information that sound like reminders to someone who already knows their stories. In any case, Morán is Chilean by birth, a novelist and poet who spent a portion of his young adulthood in Mexico City. After immigrating to Spain, he moved to Z and undertook a series of successful business ventures, managing a restaurant and hotel, opening a series of jewelry stores and souvenir shops for tourists, and operating a campground. He is solidly middle class, was married briefly to a city social worker name Lola, and is a busy but essentially lonely man who has watched his youth vanish behind him.

Heredia, also a poet, is Morán’s old friend from Mexico City. An illegal immigrant to Spain without the official papers necessary to get a good job, Heredia exists in the restless shadow world of the homeless. He comes to Z in hopes of obtaining a job from Morán, who obliges by hiring him as a night watchman for the campground, Stella Maris. There, Heredia gets to know other illegal immigrants, as well as native roamers and tourists who come to Z for their summer vacations. Among them are aging street singer Carmen and her sickly teenage friend Caridad, both Spaniards living a hand-to-mouth existence.

Rosquelles is Catalan and a rising bureaucrat in the Socialist Party. He directs the social services department for the city of Z and is the mayor’s confidant. Well educated, from a close-knit family, and locally powerful, he is nonetheless an awkward man. He is shy with women, arrogant with subordinates, suspicious, calculating, self-pitying, and rationalizing. He appears to be the villain of the story, the least reliable narrator, but that too is misleading.

The three are closely involved with one another. Morán and Rosquelles are in a love triangle with Nuria Martí, a champion figure skater and the local beauty of Z. Only Morán is her actual lover, but Rosquelles, physically ugly and sexually repressed, acts as her sugar daddy. Besotted, he embezzles money from the...

(The entire section is 1712 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Booklist 105, no. 22 (August 1, 2009): 34.

Chronicle of Higher Education 55 (December 19, 2008): B20.

The New York Times, March 11, 2009, p. 2.

The New York Times Book Review, August 30, 2009, p. 8.

San Francisco Chronicle, August 10, 2009, p. E2.