I’m late to the party on this one: Roberto Bolaño’s The Skating Rink has sat unread on a shelf for many years. While the story centres on a crime that occurs in Z, a small Spanish resort town, the plot essentially concerns a handful of local individuals who are locked into various relationships. Obsession rules more than one character, and conflicting desires send them on a collision course. The plot unfolds through three alternating narratives: writer turned businessman Remo Morán, itinerant Mexican poet Gaspar Heredia, and Enrique Rosquelles, a lonely, unattractive civil servant. We know almost immediately that a murder has occurred, but, tantalizingly it takes almost the entire book for the identity of the victim to be revealed.
The alternating narratives are short–almost as if each of the men is being interviewed about the events that took place. Businessman Remo Morán has his fingers in several pies: he owns the local bar with its very heavy tourist trade, and he also owns a campground. Due to their old friendship, Remo gives the destitute Gaspar a loosely- defined job at the campground where he performs various tasks as a handyman/manager/night watchman of sorts.
While Gaspar becomes attached to one of the transient, damaged women at the campground, civil servant Enrique worships the beautiful, talented and devoted athlete: Nuria, the town’s skating star. According to Enrique: “all the world’s adjectives fell short of Nuria’s luminous form.” In his role as a civil servant, Enrique is able to approach Nuria and gradually build a relationship with her. When her grant from the Spanish Olympic Committee is cut, Enrique begins embezzling money from government funds, and he arranges for an ice skating rink to be built at the deserted Palacio Beningut mansion on the outskirts of town. So night after night, Enrique watches Nuria as she practices endlessly on the ice rink, nourishing his unrequited love, as he watches the woman he adores circling the ice:
Then it struck me that the Palacio Benvingut was an island of a sort, and I took Nuria there. I took her to my island. A large part of the facade is covered with blue tiles and so are the two towers that rise from the annexes. Navy blue at the bottom and sky blue at the top of both towers. When the sun shines on them, people driving by glimpse a blue flash, a blue staircase climbing the hills. First we observed the shining palace from the car, on a bend in the road, then I invited her in. How did I come to have the keys? Simple: the palace belonged to the Z city council for years. Nervously, I asked Nuria what she thought. She thought it was fabulous, all of it, fabulous. As pretty as Brooke Shields’ island? Much, much prettier! I thought I was going to faint. Nuria danced up and down the salon, saluted the statues and couldn’t stop laughing. We extended our tour of the building and soon discovered in the gigantic shed housing Joan Benvingut’s legendary swimming pool. Covered with filth like a tramp, the legendary swimming pool, which had once been white, seemed to recognize and greet me. Struck dumb, unable to break the spell, I stood there while Nuria ran off through other rooms. I couldn’t breathe. The project was born, I would say, there and then, at least in essence, although I always knew I would be found out in the end.
However, unbeknownst to Enrique, while he may think he’s created an isolated private world for just him and Nuria, they’re not as alone as they think….
There were two elements to The Skating Rink that I really enjoyed: 1) Bolaño shows readers one again how much can be done with the subject of crime (and more than one crime occurs here). 2) Enrique is seen as a rather unattractive character–especially through the eyes of Remo, and yet.. when we read Enrique’s narrative, we see a much more sympathetic view of a lonely man who lives with his mother. He asks nothing of Nuria except to be in her presence. Ultimately he was my favourite character in the book. The obsessed are imprisoned by their single minded drive, and that’s made very clear by this novel.
And what of the elusive, intriguing Nuria? She’s the candle that two moths circle; men want to be around her and yet she’s single-minded in her devotion to her sport. There’s a lot to admire there: determination, dedication, willpower, and yet there’s also something missing or at least very deeply buried. Perhaps she’s spent too long twirling on the ice. Is she using Enrique or doesn’t she even notice his devotion?