Another good yarn from Bolaño. It’s not a rip-roaring, earth-shattering classic a la Savage Dectives or 2666 or even By Night in Chile, but it’s still a tauntly told, involving mystery. I’m heisitant to call it a “detective story,” mainly because I can’t figure out who the detective figures are supposed to be. While the rotating cast of narrators in Savage Detectives seemed to always be constantly, desperately searching for something–truth, art, fufillment, revolution, alcohol, cheese sandwiches–anything, the three male narrators in The Skating Rink by contrast seem a little more uncertain and passive, a little more willing to be carried along by the random winds of fate.
A lot of classic Bolaño themes are once again present here: death, disease (most memorably depicted by a character’s mysterious nose bleeds, as well as her refusal to eat anything other than donuts, madeleines and liquid strawberry yogurt), decay, ice/glass/windows/reflection imagery, the corrupt use of power, the questionable relationship between art and authority figures, exile, immigrants, mysteries, murder, dreams as the sources of secret, hidden meanings, unattainable answers. I refrained from reading the plot summary on the inner falp of the book jacket when I began reading this, preferring to instead let the words and plot twists wash over me withut any prior knowledge on my part. I would highly recommend reading it this way, which is why I’m not going to go into too much plot summary here.
Needless to say, at its heart the book is a “mystery” story, even though the answer to the mystery is provided promptly enough by the end (albeit somewhat ambiguously–who will ever really know, right?), and indeed before that point no one even seems to be that interested in solving it.
To me, the book is more about ART than anything else, or more specifically: how do you find a way to make art and express yourself in this troubled, troubled world? There are three “artist” figures that feature prominently throughout the book: Gasparin, one of the narrators, an exiled Mexican poet working as a security guard on the beach of the anonymous Spanish city Z (well, we’re told he’s a poet, but there’s no scene I can remember of him writing or even talking about his poetry throughout the book) ; Carmen, the homeless woman opera singer; and Nuria the ice skater, who works as a sort of “Rosebud,” catalyst character that links the three male narrators.
Out of these three, Nuria is the one who gets the best chance to express or work on her art. Even so, when the Spanish government withdraws its grant from the Skating Federation in the opening chapters, she’s left completely out to sea, with no other outlet or way to continue her ice skating. She finds a way around this with help from one of the narrators, “a besotted pompous civil [who] servant secretly builds her a skating rink in a ruined mansion on the outskirts of town, using public funds” (quoted from the book jacket summary… guess I’m doing plot summary after all!) So basically Nuria only finds a way to support herself by taking advantage of a) a man’s crush on her and b) of the corrupt use of public funds. In contrast, the other two artist characters–the homeless opera singer woman and the exiled Mexican poet–are basically just screwed in terms of being Artists. This in turn makes me think about the larger theme of dependency of art on public institutional support, how artists can be left helpless without it: without a patron to buy your works, or a spouse with a high-paying job, how can you expect to sustain yourself as a writer or musician?
Capitalism… there’s no escape. Like someone says at the end, “You can’t have a pact with God and the Devil at the same time.” (162) This one sentence feels like a summary of the main themes of the books to me… how do you do good in the world and create beautiful things and contribute beauty, without resorting to evil or corruption in order to do so? Because even if ice skating isn’t the first thing you think of when you think of “art,” it certainly seems to inspire the other characters. There’s definitely a lot of creepy dream scenes involving ice skating, so it sure does seem to be a source of inspiration for metaphysical reflection…
The history and future of Spain is also intriguingly touched upon throughout the book. The other old nightwatchman, El Carajillo, is constantly talking about his final days in the Spanish Civil War, retelling a story about a tank attack that leaves him in tears. One of the male narrators, after watching an impassioned discussion between his ex-wife social worker and a female local judge, feels the contrast between what he calls the “new” optimistic Spain, and the old (which he considers himself and the opera singer woman: “Watching the two of them argue, both so young and energetic, I thought, This is the new Spain, striding boldly towards the future. By contrast, the old woman and I, nostalgic or passive or maybe just patient, were like two arrows flying back into the past, one quickly, the other in very slow motion.” (142) The immigrant homeless characters also express a confidence about the future that feels sadly out of touch with reality:
“They were confident about the future: Spain is on the path to glory, they used to say. And about their personal futures. Everything was going to work out; when autumn came, they wouldn’t have to leave Z, not even when winter came. On the contrary, they would have a good house with a fireplace or an electric heater to keep them warm and a television to keep them entertained… he’d find work, not some boring or backbreaking job–their days of slave labor were over–no, somethng stable, like cleaning the windows of offices and restaurants.” (91)
Immigrants and exiles are the target are much suspicion by the Spaniards throughout this book; they’re suspected of being “Colombians” (LOL), murderers, drug runners. I definitely sense some underlying social commentary here on Bolaño’s part.
Some other quotes I thought were interesting:
“All we really knew was that we were hanging in a void. But we weren’t afraid.” (158)
“I sensed that something was going to happen… that with each step I took toward the gesticulating pair I was taking half a step toward myself.” (165) (This takes place during a VERY interesting scene in which the nightwatchman narrator is about to break up a fight between two drunk German tourists and begins to fear for his lfie. Man, what is with Bolano and the Germans?! Anyway, I thought this sentence was interesting; it made me wonder about how we can consider violence as a way to approach the truth of things, as a way to know the truth about our selves…)
I also like the chapter summarizing the two books one of the characters is given to read in prison; it’s a very nice Borgesian touch. One of the books (appropriately enough) is about an ice skater, who has an epiphany that none of the other characters come close to achieving: “In the book we are told that she is going back and forth between two bridges, about five hundred yards apart. Suddenly, the expression on her face changes; her eyes light up and she thinks she understands the ultimate meaning of what she is doing. Just at that point she falls and (“deservedly”) breaks a rib. The book ends there…” (168)
What is Bolaño trying to say here? That understanding the “ultimate meaning” of what we are doing is a fantasy, a fiction? Can truth only be depicted through fiction, because real life is just too messy and complicated? What does that imply about truth, if the only way to depict it is through telling lies, creating stories? Like one character says, “It kils me to see people leaving like this… while I hang on her hoping for a miracle. The elemental miracle or the miracle of understanding.” (170) “Miracle” is probably the best word to use in reference to understanding.
One of the narrators has a dream in the end (dreams are always the most accurate source of truth in Bolaño), in which he is rummaging through “a vast dusty newspaper archive” in the deserted mansion, searching for nude photos of Nuria the ice skater. “I rummaged on shelves and in boxes, with the dim certitude that if I could find the photos, I would understand the significance, the cause, the true and hidden meaning of what had happened to me. But the photos never turned up…” (176) Man, what a killer metaphorical image! First of all, the image of a newspaper archive is very Borgesian, very reminiscent of his infinite libraries and so on (I like how it’s a newspaper archive rather than a library though, as newspapers feel a lot more connected to detective stories and mystery headlines and so on). Second of all, I like how the search for meaning is represented by nude photos of Nuria ice skater. The only other naked bodies to appear throughout the book are those of the corpses, particularly in the grisly memories that the Mexican poet has of the Nogales roadside. (99) These naked bodies are stripped down, exposed, like that long horrible list of murdered women in the fourth book of 2666. Maybe this can connect back to the German fight scene, about the potential that violence has for revealing truth, in contrast to art…
All in all a good read.