Tag Archives: Chilean crime fiction

A Little Lumpen Novelita: Roberto Bolaño

“I knew in the kingdom of crime there were many stages and levels and no matter how hard I tried, I would never reach the top.”

“Now I’m a mother and a married woman, but not long ago I led a life of crime,” and so begins Roberto Bolaño’s book, A Little Lumpen Novelita. It’s an intriguing beginning to an intriguing story. Bianca and her younger brother are orphaned after their parents are killed in a car accident. They remain living in the family flat in Rome, but there’s not enough money to survive. The brother takes a job at a gym, while Bianca starts working at a salon. I’ll rephrase that: Bianca starts working at a salon while her brother says “it was stupid to work, that we could live happily on the pension we got from the government, on the income from our orphanhood.” But the budget is too tight, and so the brother who thinks he can go to eating just one meal a day, finally acknowledges they need money and gets the job at a gym.The brother dreams of being Mr. Universe.

The siblings drift into a life of apathy. It’s an existence; they “killed time watching TV, first the talk shows, then cartoons” They drift along until one day the brother comes home with two men he’s met at the gym. “One was from Bologna, the other from Libya or Morocco.” As the story progresses, these two men become interchangeable in more ways than one.

My brother had met them at the gym, where they did some kind of work that was never clear to me. Sometimes I got the impression that they were trainers, a job with a certain prestige, and other times that they were just sweepers and errand boys, like my brother. Either way, they were always talking about the gym–and so did my brother, with a fervor new to me–and about protein diets and meals with names that had the ring of science fiction, like Fuel tank 3000 or Weider energy bars (all the nutrients you need for the body of a champion!).

But soon Bianca is supporting herself, her brother and his two friends. The atmosphere and situation at the flat are bizarre. Everyone avoids confrontation, and yet there’s a definite silent chain of power combined with the threat of violence. Bianca’s brother is clearly afraid of these two men who have long overstayed their welcome. Then the three males hatch a plan to get rich, and of course, Bianca is the pivotal figure in this grubby scheme:

It’s best not to think about these things. They’re here, they touch us, they’re gone, or they’re here, they touch us, they swallow us up, and it’s best–always–not to think about them. But I kept thinking, waiting for the coffee to be done, and I asked myself what my brother’s friends meant by saying that their luck would change, how exactly they planned to change their luck (their luck, not mine or my brother’s, though in a sense their luck would have an effect–any idiot could see that–on my brother’s luck and maybe even mine), what they were ready to try, how far they were expected to go to get their luck and ours to turn around. 

Bianca is our narrator and she’s somewhat unreliable. She acknowledges that when she embarks on this life of crime her story gets “fuzzier.” Her tale is told in retrospect so how much is due to hazy memory, how much she’d just not rather think about, and how much is due to the inexperience (at the time) of youth, well it’s up for grabs. In some ways this story reminds me of Modiano, but it’s sharper than Modiano in its focus. But I liked this tale, and how Bianca crossed so easily into criminality. Bianca and her brother are both passive by nature, and once they find themselves involved in crime, swept along by forces more malignant than themselves, it seems up to Bianca to either pull the crime together or else make some decisive move to escape. This is beautifully written. Bolaño doesn’t fill in all the gaps for us; instead this is Bianca remembering a murky, desperate point–a crossroads in her life.  The tale illustrates how impossible it is capture a certain state of mind from an earlier point in life, why we made the decisions we did, and that impossibility goes a long way to explaining the tale’s murkier points.

Translated by Natasha Wimmer


Filed under Bolano Roberto, Fiction

The Skating Rink: Roberto Bolaño

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.

Skating rink

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?


Filed under Bolano Roberto, Fiction