Bolaño’s La Pista de Hielo (The Skating Rink)

by FR

A few days ago I finished reading one of Roberto Bolaño early novels, La Pista de Hielo (Anagrama, 2012) (The Skating Rink) from 1993, a somewhat appropriate read given that the Winter Olympics are currently underway. Although I should say that there are few parallels between the novel and the Olympics. (As far as Bolaño’s novels go, 2666 would probably the closest literary equivalent to the sporting event… But then again, what is 2666 not about? But I digress.) In fact, the only significant parallel or connection between the two would have to be the sport of figure skating, which one of the novel’s main characters practices. Although, on second thought, one could argue that there is another–if much more speculative and loose–thread that connects the novel and the Sochi games: like the Olympics and like much of Bolaño’s writing, La Pista de Hielo is not just read but also… viewed, witnessed, in a way not unlike spectators to this Winter Olympics might sit and watch the figure skating event.

And there is much in the structure of La Pista de Hielo that helps support the proposition that we, as readers, are placed in the position of being onlookers, of witnessing the novel’s action from the sidelines. The story of a murder and the events leading up to it, La Pista de Hielo is delivered to us through the voices of three characters, all central to its action: Remo Morán, a recently divorced poet turned novelist who owns and runs a campground for tourists in the coastal city of Z in Spain, far away from his native Chile; Gaspar Heredia, a bohemian Mexican poet and old friend of Morán who moved to Z to work at Morán’s campground during the tourist season (unlike Los Detectives Salvajes‘s Alberto Belano, no single character here takes on the identity and biography of Bolaño, though the case could be made that there is some of the writer in both Morán and Heredia); and, lastly, Enric Rosquelles, a corrupt bureaucrat who runs Z’s social services department, and who funnels city funds to build a skating rink in the abandoned Benvingut Palace. 

In Bolaño’s typical polyvocal fashion, Morán, Heredia and Rosquelles take turns recounting the series of events that led up to the murder of Carmen, a vagabond singer who had recently moved to Z. And while all this should make for a detective novel of the rather generic kind–there are suspects, a murder, a crime scene–that, it does not. Frustrating the genre’s expectations, La Pista de Hielo does not take the reader through a series of mysteries and puzzles that ultimately reveal in climactic fashion the murderer’s identity and intentions. If anything, Carmen’s slaying and the eventual disclosure of who committed the murder turn out to be some of the most anticlimactic parts of the novel. And that is saying something, as Bolaño’s writing is characterized by, it hinges on a lack of climax. In Discurso de Caracas (The Caracas Speech) the writer described great writing as, “To run along the edge of the precipice: on one side the bottomless abyss and on the other the faces one loves, the smiling faces one loves, and books, and friends, and food”/“Correr por el borde del precipicio: a un lado el abismo sin fondo y al otro lado las caras que uno quiere, las sonrientes caras que uno quiere, y los libros, y los amigos, y la comida” (pp. 36-37, Entre Paréntesis, Anagrama, 2012). In Bolaño’s universe, his characters never fall into the bottomless abyss, but they walk, as close as they can, along the edge of its precipice. And La Pista de Hielo isn’t the exception.

For the novel’s lack of climax and its unusual structure for a detective novel make room here for Bolaño’s writing, which, as usual, manages at once to be both descriptive and ridden with mystery, and for a polyvocality, multiple vantages and subjective delivery that make fixed, stable meanings impossible. Regarding this last point I would argue that, in the end, the form La Pista de Hielo takes is less that of (as Morán describes the skating rink upon finding Carmen’s dead body) “a labyrinth with a frozen center”/”un laberinto… con un centro de cristal” (p. 147), than that of a dynamic planetary system in which the novel’s celestials bodies, its characters, orbit around a frozen sun. On his way to find the woman’s slain body, Morán notes that the Palace’s passages, “formed concentric circles around the skating rink”/”corrían formando círculos. En el centro estaba la pista de hielo” (p. 146). In other words, relativism is central to La Pista de Hielo. Other planets and moons: we, who, as readers, take in and reconstruct the action from the outside through the (male) gazes of the three men; Rosquelles, who, also from an outside–the physical outer edge of the rink–acts as both audience and coach to Nadia, the figure skater for whom he built the rink; Nadia, who glides in circles around an ever-shifting center; Heredia, whose storyline and concerns revolve not around the murder, but around Caridad, Carmen’s mysterious protégé; the rink and its concentric passages; and, of course, Carmen and the city of Z that fateful summer.

And, while it should be said that La Pista de Hielo is not always as successful at maintaining that uncanny balance between sublimity and banality that would come to characterize Bolaño’s later writing, structurally, this early effort contains all the elements later found in, say, Los Detectives Salvajes. To borrow Bolaño’s own words, La Pista de Hielo doesn’t get quite close enough to the edge of the precipice, but, at the same time, this not-quite-close-enough vantage is still close enough for us readers to peek into the abyss.