The Skating Rink – Roberto Bolano

In Bolano’s characteristically terse prose this is a great short novel about love, murder and the transience of an individual’s life.

Told from the perspective of three different people, it gradually unravels a story in which a senior but pompous bureaucrat builds an ice rink in an abandoned building with public money for Nuria, a beautiful skater he’s besotted with; a subterfuge that works until a dead body is discovered and the scandal is exposed.

We get the story from the bureaucrat’s perspective (Enric Rosquelles), that of a local entrepreneur (Remo Moran) who has a brief relationship with Nuria and whose ex-wife Lola worked with the bureaucrat, and Gaspar Heredia, a Mexican poet living in a campsite in the town who knows Moran, the murder victim, and strikes up a relationship with the victim’s friend.

The ins and outs of the murder are secondary. Mostly the book is focused on the people and relationships around ice rink, the campsite and the town, known only as Z.

What comes across powerfully in the book is the randomness and transience of life. Stuff just happens. From an apparently successful political adviser, Enric finds himself stealing public money, in prison and then with a new life. Gaspar drifts to the campsite, meets countless other people who’s lives are temporarily on hold, like the murder victim, and rarely seems to have a clear sense of what’s happening around him. 

This becomes clear in part through the characters and their perspective, but more than anything it is Bolano’s style of writing, where this happens and then that and then that, a sequence of random or unexplained events that creates an atmosphere of existence’s purposelessness.   

The Colonel’s Son – Roberto Bolano

A characteristically fun, tantalising and slightly odd short story from Roberto Bolano – just fourteen pages – that describes the plot of a B movie zombie film from the perspective of an excited narrator.

The narrator begins with a page of caveats to explain that the movie is terrible yet he loves it, see it as a mirror to his life, before the rest of the story’s pages describes the plot of the film. In the film the son of a colonel falls in love with a girl who shortly after becomes a flesh eating zombie. They are pursued by gangsters, police and the army, and the girl kills most of them quite disgustingly, but despite this he maintains his love for her. The colonel himself, at the end, deserts his mission to kill the zombies in order to protect his son, who is in turn trying to protect the zombie girl.

It’s an unusual story that simply describes the film, a film which may or may not exist. It’s classic Bolano in its ‘and this happened, then that happened’, where the meaning comes from what is included in the descriptions as opposed to deeper introspection or reflection in the story itself. And it’s perhaps a strong allegory about the powerful pull of love, it’s ability to lead us to do things we would not necessarily choose – even kissing and protecting flesh eating zombies.

And, of course, it’s brilliantly written: page turning, visceral, amusing – the kind of writing that makes you want to watch this film even though we don’t even know whether it exists!

Oh, and how’s this for an opener?

You’re not going to believe this, but last night, at about 4am, I saw a movie on TV that could have been my biography or my autobiography or a summary of my days on this bitch of a planet. It scared me so fucking shitless I tell you I just about fell of my chair.

The Savage Detectives – Roberto Bolano

Read August 2015

Despite being massive and difficult in its totality, where it is often hard to know what exactly is going on – The Savage Detectives is hard to put down, is full of evocative phrases and fascinating characters, it constantly surprises with new people and perspectives, each section is immensely readable, sometimes seeming like a series of interlocking short stories, and, when you reach the last pages it all makes sense, though you then want to go back in to hone in on different parts to get the most out of all the characters and views.

The plot is fairly straightforward. In 1970s Mexico three young poets – who call themselves ‘visceral realists’ – set off on a quest to find a poet from the 1920s who has disappeared, but they are in pursuit by two thugs who want to stop them. They find the poet but it all goes wrong and subsequently two of the poets go their separate ways and travel around the world, with Bolano revealing different parts and episodes of their lives.

The structure is a standard diary (by Juan Garcia Madero, a young new comer to the scene) for the first 150 pages. The second section is 400 pages of first person accounts from various people in different times and places who have known the two poets (Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima) since the road trip, giving subjective and partial accounts of different periods of their unsettled and difficult lives. The third section, about 100 pages, takes us back to what happened when they were searching for the lost poet and led, in part, to the rest of their lives being as they were.

I’ve heard it said that Bolano has a longing for the vigour and reckless abandon of youth, a longing apparent throughout the Savage Detectives. But part of what he does in this book is make poetry and literature an elemental force of youth – a force more potent than sex or drugs, both of which are present throughout the book, but without the strength of poetry.

The book also seems to be a parody of literary circles, with Lima and Belano aggressively attacking establishment poets (Octavia Paz is the main target) whilst their visceral realist is a circle, but one where very little poetry is spoken or cited and there is some question as to whether many of them really write poetry at all.

More than just being about literature, though, the book’s runaway success is to evoke up the atmosphere and a visceral sense (I guess something intentional given the name of the poetry school which the novel circles around) of what it was like be young and heavily steeped in literary and student life in 1970s Mexico. It’s a bit like reading Jack Kerouac for an immersion in 1950s beat-era America.
I know nothing of this time but came away with the kind of feeling I have when visiting a city and, rather than learning the history, just walk and walk. I leave knowing few facts about the place, but have a sense of its streets, its daily culture and its atmosphere.

Barbara Kingsolver, The Lacuna


Read February 2014

The story of Harrison Shepard, a half US, half Mexican who lives and works as a cook with Frida Kahlo and then with Leon Trotsky. After Trotksy is killed by Stalinists he moves to the backwaters of the US, eventually becoming a successful writer. However, his past working with revolutionaries catches up with him during the Macarthy era and he is persecuted.Eventually he feigns suicide. He does it by visiting a lacuna in a bay, pretending he has drowned, but actually waiting in the lacuna until everyone has gone.

But the lacuna symbolises more than this – there’s a missing journal, and there is something missing from his life. An interesting thing is that the book gets progressively better and better written, presumably because it’s the notes of a young writer at the start, but eventually the notes of an older more experienced one.