Signs of greatness
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