08 May 2007

A detectiveless detective story

It's been amazing to see the current English-speaking world's fascination with the work of Roberto Bolaño. It makes me wonder about all of the other Spanish-language writers (past and present) who would be similarly heralded (although possibly not hailed as icons) if their work would only be translated into English. Of course, there also exists the sense that being translated into English is the goal of those who mainly seek mainstream success, not a worry of the serious writer. Nevertheless, Bolaño's novels Los detectives salvajes and 2666 wound up as numbers 3 and 4 (respectively) of Semana's list of "the 100 greatest Spanish-language novels of the past 25 years." (For the sake of comparison, Estrella distante emerged at #14, while the more well-known La sombra del viento by Carlos Ruiz Zafón came out as #88 and García Márquez's Memorias de mis putas tristes was #91.)

I recently finished one of Bolaño's earlier novels, La pista de hielo ("The Ice Rink"), because it was the only one I could find in my (tiny) local bookstore, but it also seemed like a good place to start. Three (unreliable?) narrators take turns telling their version of the events leading up to a brutal murder in Benvingut Palace, an abandoned mansion in an unnamed small coastal Spanish town near Barcelona. From the very first page's passing reference to Jack the Ripper (which turned out to be more of a tip-off than I initially realized), I knew I had to pay close attention to each of these narrative strands.

Remo Morán is a Chilean one-time writer who wound up doing odd jobs to survive and eventually began a few small businesses (hotel, shop, campsite). Gaspar Heredia, a Mexican poet-drifter and past acquaintance of Morán's, lands a job as a night watchman at Morán's tourist campsite. Enric Rosquelles is a native Catalan who holds a position in the city government and is a self-professed confidant of the mayor (always making casual references to "Pilar").

Things begin taking shape when Rosquelles falls hard for competitive ice skater, Nuria Martí. Using public funds, he converts the mansion's empty swimming pool into an ice rink, where Nuria begins to train. What follows in the "day in the life" confessions of the three men is not only information about their lives and hardships (with certain details conveniently left out), but also unsensationalized clues and observations that contribute to the overall picture. There is no "detective" in this story and nothing to intentionally "solve," but the reader is left to puzzle through these accounts, (unnecessarily?) suspicious of everything. (I felt misdirected not only in the matter of the killer's identity, but in that of the victim as well--you don't know that you really don't know.)

Certain motifs and similarities of description can be found in all three accounts: mentions of cold air, velvet voices, hell, purgatory, etc. What's interesting is how the meaning or tenor of the phrases change depending on the different contexts (and characters) in which they're mentioned. This clued me in to the nuance of what Bolaño has achieved because, ultimately, the three men remain the unsolved enigmas of the novel. The events and circumstances of the story seem to be catalysts for the exploration of their characters, because although all three have good intentions, one is left wondering if they'll ever successfully leave behind their own personal roads to hell.

Marcelo Ballvé's observations on two of Bolaño's other novels also serve as perfect descriptions for what occurs in La pista de hielo:
  • For Bolaño, Latin America is not only a geographical expanse; it is a state of mind. It is the pieces, the ghosts, exiles took with them as they scattered around the world.
  • Bolaño always dealt with the impacts of violence in the private realm.
  • Bolaño spun his characters' muddled testimonies into fiction. His usual narrative technique was to write as if his characters or narrators, typically speaking in the first person, were giving a deposition on their personal histories to an invisible stenographer, or as if they were talking to a detective taking witness statements.
  • In Bolaño's fiction the scope of the testimonial is expanded as it collects material from the unexamined corners of inner lives, from characters' experiences on the fringes, the margins of the actual "action." His characters are not generals or patriarchs, leaders or dictators. They are victims, witnesses, obscure operatives, bystanders; what they know is usually fragmentary or unreliable.
See also: Rodrigo Fresán's article in The Believer and Wendy Lesser's essay, "The Mysterious Chilean" for The Threepenny Review.

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