Signs of great­ness

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - BOOKS - Re­view by PhiliP hen­sheR The skat­ing Rink

Author: Roberto Bolano, trans­lated by Chris An­drews Pub­lisher: Pi­cador, 181 pages

OF­TEN, we find our­selves read­ing nov­el­ists back­wards. An author comes to our at­ten­tion with a novel which may be his fifth, and, lik­ing a pop­u­lar suc­cess, we work our way hap­haz­ardly back­wards. The en­gage­ment with an author which be­gins with his first novel and goes for­ward, one novel af­ter the other, fol­low­ing a devel­op­ment sys­tem­at­i­cally, is a very rare one.

The re­sult is, al­most al­ways, that when we as read­ers come back to a nov­el­ist’s first, per­haps un­suc­cess­ful pro­duc­tions, we are al­ways read­ing them with a sort of fore­sight which is also a kind of hind­sight. The first read­ers of The Pick­wick Pa­pers didn’t im­bue Sam Weller with the same pathos and brav­ery that a reader who knows all about Joe Gargery and Mark Tap­ley will. Er­rors and awk­ward­nesses tend to be for­given, be­cause we know what the author is strug­gling to­wards bet­ter than they do. For me, Gen­eral Til­ney in Northanger Abbey has more depth and hu­man­ity than he re­ally pos­sesses, be­cause one feels that he is a first sketch of Sir Wal­ter El­liot. And of course one reads Per­sua­sion first.

Roberto Bolano had, to an al­most ex­em­plary ex­tent, this sort of ca­reer. The vast ma­jor­ity of his read­ers came to him through two mag­nif­i­cent nov­els he wrote at the very end of his short life. The Sav­age De­tec­tives is a rum­bus­tious ac­count of ide­al­ist an­ar­chist po­ets which drew an in­ter­na­tional au­di­ence. Still more suc­cess­ful is 2666, a five-part mon­ster cir­cling around the sys­tem­atic murder of women in a small Mex­i­can town, pub­lished af­ter the nov­el­ist’s death.

Af­ter the suc­cess and ac­claim of these two nov­els, es­pe­cially 2666, pub­lish­ers have rooted through the Bolano back cat­a­logue, much of which has drawn a read­er­ship hugely in ex­cess of any­thing Bolano knew in his life­time. In many ways, it is im­pos­si­ble to read these nov­els in­no­cently, as their very small first read­er­ship did. There is re­ally no way of read­ing these of­ten rather cos­tive and puz­zling early books with­out won­der­ing on ev­ery page what, in them, is lead­ing to­wards the im­mense achieve­ments of those two big last nov­els.

Bolano’s pub­lish­ers have now thought it worth­while to bring out Bolano’s very first pub­lished novel, The Skat­ing Rink, hop­ing for a read­er­ship quite dif­fer­ent from the tiny claque which greeted its first pub­li­ca­tion in 1993. Read­ing it, I won­dered what one would think of it as one of those first read­ers. The an­swer is prob­a­bly “not much”. It has con­spic­u­ous, clas­si­cal flaws in tech­nique and is un­de­ni­ably frus­trat­ing on its own terms. The in­ter­est­ing thing is that many of those flaws are ex­actly the things which Bolano ex­panded, de­vel­oped, and turned into virtues of the high­est orig­i­nal­ity.

The novel is struc­tured in a rigid and rudi­men­tary way, as the suc­ces­sive nar­ra­tives of three male char­ac­ters – one a poet, an­other a low-level en­tre­pre­neur, the third a cor­rupt of­fi­cial in a so­cial­ist Span­ish ad­min­is­tra­tion. The plot cir­cles around a beau­ti­ful pro­fes­sional fig­ure skater, Nuria. The civil ser­vant di­verts of­fi­cial funds, and in an aban­doned villa by the sea con­structs a se­cret skat­ing rink where he can sit and watch her lovely arabesques. Mean­while, two other women, one an opera singer, an­other a knife-wield­ing ob­server, cir­cle the strange set­ting, and the fas­ci­nat­ing beauty gives of her­self gen­er­ously as ten­sion mounts.

The flaws are im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent, and rather over­whelm­ing. Bolano was just not the sort of nov­el­ist who should have un­der­taken a novel con­sist­ing of three sep­a­rate voices. His own voice, in ev­ery­thing he wrote, was sin­gu­lar and di­rect, and the three nar­ra­tors here can­not be dis­tin­guished at any point. They all sound nervy, ram­bling and rather ag­gres­sive, and at least one of them never came to life as a char­ac­ter from be­gin­ning to end.

In his best work, how­ever, Bolano builds on ex­actly that lack of va­ri­ety. If the clas­si­cal novel re­lies on and makes a virtue of va­ri­ety of tex­ture and voice, Bolano gains his most pow­er­ful ef­fects from a sin­gle, di­rect tone which never gives way – in the ac­counts of the mur­ders in the third book of 2666, or the su­perb first sec­tion of The Sav­age De­tec­tives. The nov­el­ist he be­came would not have ben­e­fited from vary­ing the voices in this first at­tempt.

And one of the most in­fu­ri­at­ing, in­ept as­pects of this novel is ex­actly the thing which makes his best work so in­ter­est­ing. Most nov­el­ists take steps to bring their char­ac­ters to­gether in plau­si­ble and sub­stan­tive ways. Here, a char­ac­ter forms a bond with an­other in ways which un­der­mine any­thing in the way of mo­ti­va­tion. Nuria, who is the cen­tre of the novel, takes for­ever to be­come any kind of char­ac­ter – one nar­ra­tor tells us that she is “the most beau­ti­ful woman I had ever seen ... a sub­lime ap­pari­tion” and an­other talks about her “in­cred­i­ble body”, but she never comes to life. Her re­la­tion­ship with the cor­rupt civil ser­vant is ca­su­ally em­barked upon, and does not be­come cred­i­ble. An­other char­ac­ter meets a chap on a train, and im­me­di­ately agrees to go into busi­ness with him, for no jus­ti­fi­able rea­son. And yet these ca­sual en­coun­ters be­come, in The Sav­age De­tec­tives, pro­found med­i­ta­tions on the ran­dom qual­ity of so­cial struc­tures.

There are beau­ti­ful things here – the first ac­count of the dis­cov­ery of the skat­ing rink in the depths of a ru­ined villa is un­for­get­table. But the only mo­ti­va­tion that keeps us read­ing is that strange hind­sight/fore­sight. Bolano be­came a great nov­el­ist, and the found­ing el­e­ments of that great­ness were there from the start. Whether any­one read­ing The Skat­ing Rink in ig­no­rance would have recog­nised the el­e­ments of that great­ness is doubt­ful. The next time I read an in­ept first novel, my pa­tience will be much greater. – Guardian News & Me­dia 2010

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