The Skating Rink, By Roberto Bolaño, trs Chris Andrews

There's murder afoot – but that seems to be the least of these lovelorn characters' problems

The admirers of Roberto Bolaño now have to face the problem that the author of The Savage Detectives and 2666, two of the best and strangest novels of recent years, is having all the rest of his books translated – and though they are all as strange, not all are anywhere near as good as his two masterpieces.

The Skating Rink is a murder novel that subverts the classic detective mystery. Bolaño follows the Catalan novelist Manuel Vazquez Montalban in showing no interest at all in investigation procedures or finding the killer. The murder is, in fact, solved, but in an aside. Bolaño's focus is rather on his many characters' desperate desires for love and complete inability to form any lasting relationships.

First published in 1993, The Skating Rink deals with the linked lives of several protagonists during one summer season in the Costa Brava resort of Z. It is told by three male narrators, the bumptious Catalan Enric, number two in the town council; Gaspar, a young Mexican poet who writes no poetry and works in a campsite on the town's outskirts; and Remo, Chilean novelist and now owner of the campsite and a bar. The narrators alternate in short chapters and tell their versions of what happened that summer.

The catalyst for the action is Enric's obsession with Nuria, a skating champion. He misappropriates public funds to have a skating rink built in a ruined mansion so that she can train. Despite his local power, plump, unhandsome Enric is unable to tell the beautiful Nuria of his love. Like the other two narrators, he feels inadequate. Remo does have a sexual relationship with Nuria, but he longs for his ex-wife, and Nuria in turn is obsessed with her former boyfriend. I could go on: there are at least eight failed and yearned-for loves in the short novel. At the end, the extremely troubled but persistent Gaspar manages to leave the town with the malnourished vagabond Caridad, but this impossible love is doomed, too. Waiting for a train, they hear a donkey bray in a field. Caridad, who has hardly spoken throughout the book, responds with a classic statement of existential alienation: "We're two of a kind, that donkey and me... Foreigners in our own land." One could say that the donkey's noisy mockery is the nearest Bolaño comes to authorial comment.

The writing is outstanding and ably rendered by Chris Andrews from Bolaño's difficult and varied Spanish. Bolaño takes great care with the rhythm of his sentences and chapters. His language is frequently colloquial, sometimes deliberately flat and factual, then often suddenly lyrical: if you're in a bookshop, read the long, first sentence to catch the tone and beauty of the prose. He also loves his set pieces: early on, there is a brilliant riff on the filth of campsite toilets; later, another about a sky-diving competition. The description of the plot of Remo's novel is pure farce. While laughing, Bolaño is telling us that writing is serious, perhaps all that is worthwhile in lives of so much failed love: you can write anything, be brave and let yourself go.

Another great achievement of Bolaño's book is his sense of place: the campsite and the labyrinthine dusty mansion with its ice-white heart, the skating rink; or the whole town of Z, with its tourists, residents and the vagabonds left like flotsam at the dying of the summer season. He achieves descriptions that are both extraordinarily precise and, told through the fevered consciousnesses of his narrators, of dreamlike intensity.

Over everything lies the fog of melancholy at the failures of love and friendship, as fleeting as the summer season at Z. Remo and Gaspar knew each other in Mexico, were friends in their poetic adolescence. Now Remo helps Gaspar, but they have nothing left to say to each other. The Skating Rink is gripping, easy to read, sometimes funny and extraordinarily romantic. A strange book and nearly as good as Bolaño's two masterpieces. High praise.

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