The average detectives

Books By invoking the conventions of crime fiction, Roberto Bolaño's The Skating Rink prompts us to expect a neat conclusion. But his characters are far too human for that.

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By invoking the conventions of crime fiction, Roberto Bolaño's The Skating Rink prompts us to expect a neat conclusion. But, Giles Harvey writes, his characters are far too human for that. The Skating Rink Roberto Bolaño (translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews) New Directions Dh80 Jorge Luis Borges, the incorrigible idealist, once remarked that when Edgar Allan Poe wrote The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841 he invented not simply a new genre (the detective story) but a new kind of reader. Through the example of Auguste Dupin, the story's irresistibly urbane protagonist, Poe taught this new reader to do a number of things: to regard a story not so much as a work of art but as a kind of game, like a chess problem or a card trick; to doubt the veracity of all statements and to view every character with suspicion; to reject the obvious in favour of the elegant or ingenious; and to trust in the power of the rational intellect to untangle the knotty intrigues of reality. As Borges put it, the detective story is "a genre based on something entirely fictitious: the idea that a crime is solved by abstract reasoning and not by informants or by carelessness on the part of the criminals".

An avid reader of detective stories - and thus, in part, an invention of Poe - Borges would himself go on to invent a new subcategory of reader. In Death and the Compass, published 100 years after The Murders in the Rue Morgue, Borges draws a parallel between detective fiction and the self-blinding hubris of western metaphysical speculation. Called in to investigate the murder of a Judaic scholar, the story's detective-protagonist, one Erik Lönnrot, a man who thinks of himself as "a pure reasoner, an Auguste Dupin", prefers to ignore a colleague's likely but mundane hypothesis in favour of an altogether more rarefied solution: "Possible, but not interesting," he says. "Here we have a dead rabbi; I would prefer a purely rabbinical explanation."

Neglecting the official police investigation Lönnrot embarks on a fervent study of Jewish mystical texts, and when two more murders occur, becomes convinced they are following a cabbalistic pattern. Confident he has discovered where the fourth, and final, murder will take place he journeys to the remote villa of Triste-le-Roy, a mysterious building whose architecture abounds "in pointless symmetries and maniacal repetitions". When he arrives, however, he is accosted by his nemesis, the renowned dandy and crime lord Red Scharlach, who explains in a voice of "fatigued triumph" that Lönnrot has walked into an elaborate trap: "I have premeditated everything, Erik Lönnrot, in order to attract you to the solitudes of Triste-le-Roy." Only after it is too late does Lönnrot realise that he himself is the fourth, and final, victim. Borges thus suggests how man's desire to uncover meaning and order in the universe can blind him to the actual nature of his circumstances. Lönnrot is undone by his eager belief in the power of his own mind to interpret and master the world.

So Poe invented the reader of detective fiction, and Borges, the reader of Borgesian detective fiction. Both men therefore played more than a little part in the creation of Roberto Bolaño, the nomadic Chilean novelist, poet and short story writer whom the anglophone literary world has lately been pressing to its bosom with particular fervour. Like Death and the Compass, Bolaño's latest novel to be translated into English (and his first to be published in the Spanish-speaking world, back in 1993), The Skating Rink is, at least in part, a parody of detective fiction - or, strictly speaking, of crime fiction, the meaner, sexier, more violent love child of the detective story and 20th-century America. The Skating Rink lavishes on the reader many of the pleasures typically associated with that genre - suspense, intrigue, the exhilarating spectacle of moral decay - while making it quite clear that such pleasures are by no means the full extent of what it has to offer; it fondles and flaunts its own artifice, using it to explore chaos, reality, experience.

There has been a murder in the small resort town of Z on the Costa Brava. Three men - all ardent, wayward, headstrong, although in other respects quite dissimilar - appear to be implicated in the crime. These men share between themselves the task of telling the book's story, each narrating brief chapters in turn. Remo Morán is a Chilean émigré and littérateur who has built a modest business empire of local shops, bars and hotels. His age is never made entirely clear; the impression we get is that he is drifting inexorably toward the brink of middle age and away from the dreams of his virile youth.

Gasper Heredia, an old friend of Morán's from Mexico City, "the vague shifty territory of our adolescence", is similarly adrift: after Morán gets wind that Heredia has been down on his luck, the latter comes to Z from Barcelona to work for the summer as a night watchman in one of Morán's camping grounds. One of the most poignant, and expertly handled, aspects of the book is the conversation between Morán and Heredia about their youth - "about the golden streets we had trodden together in the old days," as Morán puts it - that is constantly deferred and then ends up never taking place. Both of them are clearly dying to reminisce, but they are too bashful, or too insecure, or just never in the right place at the right time. This reticence, this evasion of what seems most significant, is entirely typical of Bolaño.

Left to its own devices this friendship would probably have made for a touching little novel about the muted longing and nostalgia of Latin Americans exiled in Europe. It is the book's third narrator, the obese and lovelorn civil servant Enric Rosquelles, whose rash temperament serves as the engine of plot. Rosquelles is horrible: vain, petty, domineering, sententious, always inflicting his insecurities on others. He says things like: "I'm known as a hard worker: if I have to, I can work a 16-hour day without flagging" and: "I'm a socialist and I believe in the future."

One day, Rosquelles meets Nuria Martí, an international figure-skating champion and local celebrity, with whom he promptly falls in love. When Nuria is dropped from the national team Rosquelles, seeing a way to win her favour (and to spend time alone with her), embezzles public money in order to construct a skating rink in a derelict seafront mansion built years ago by one of Z's wealthiest residents. The Palacio Benvingut is a clear nod to Borges's Triste-le-Roy: "The palace was partly designed by a famous architect of the time, López i Porta, one of Gaudi's epigones, and partly by Benvingut himself, which explains the labyrinthine, chaotic, indecisive layout of every floor in the building." Naturally, it is there that the body is discovered.

The Skating Rink plays the expected games. There is frequent allusion to the discovery of "the body", without any mention as to whose body it is, or was. (Nuria's, we anxiously wonder?) Similarly, each of the narrators opens himself up to suspicion at different points in the story, as more information is disclosed and possible means and motives come into focus. Morán has an affair with Nuria. Heredia falls in love with a homeless woman, Caridad, who is squatting in the Palacio Benvingut. One of Caridad's vagrant friends, Carmen, learns of Rosquelles's scheme and attempts to blackmail him. To say more than this would probably be unwise.

In any case, the real strength of the book isn't to be found in its plot. The problem with most mystery novels is that there aren't any mysteries in them, only secrets. In Death and the Compass Borges deftly makes this generic limitation stand for a human limitation: that is, he shows how our hermeneutic zeal causes us to mistake the world for something it isn't, something reliably coherent and readily comprehensible. Bolaño is up to something similar in The Skating Rink. Just as the novel is about to enter its final phase, and the shotguns brandished in the first act seem poised to go off, Morán knowingly echoes Borges's knowing remark about the detective story as a genre based on the fictitious notion that "a crime is solved by abstract reasoning and not by informants or by carelessness on the part of the criminals": "Sometimes in the mornings, when I'm having breakfast on my own, I think I would have loved to be a detective. I'm pretty observant, and I can reason deductively, and I'm a keen reader of crime fiction. If that's any use... which it isn't… Anyway, as Hans Henny Jahn, I think, once wrote: if you find a murder victim, better brace yourself, because the bodies will soon be coming thick and fast…"

The dithering, the qualification, the asleep-at-the-wheel prose: these are qualities that the patrician Borges would never countenance in one of his books. They also suggest broader differences between the two writers. Lönnrot thinks with the rigour and the ingenuity of a Dupin, and his story's denouement - he is himself the victim of the crime he is attempting to solve - while certainly a new departure so far as the detective story is concerned, still smacks of Poe-like cunning. In Bolaño there is no such poise, burnish or masterful cerebration. Instead people are always flubbing their lines and missing their cues. In fact, there aren't even any actual detectives in The Skating Rink. Morán, the reader of crime fiction, gets to play at detection: it's he who finds the body and then, rather inadvertently, discovers who's responsible. But the revelation reveals hardly anything. It just inaugurates another mystery. And then the book ends, less crime novel than shaggy dog story.

Bolaño lets into his fiction more of the messiness and inscrutability of life than Borges, whose terse fables can sometimes feel a little too airtight. Indeed, Bolaño lets in more of life's mess than just about any novelist. Henry James says in his preface to Roderick Hudson: "Really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so." The intense strangeness of Bolaño's fiction lies in the erratic geometry of the circle he draws around life: it is never quite clear where the boundary of his art lies.

Like the Palacio Benvingut, with its "labyrinthine, chaotic, indecisive layout", Bolaño's fiction abounds in peculiar outgrowths and excrescences, tangents that lead nowhere, capricious dead ends. One chapter consists of a summary of a novel by Morán, Saint Bernard, which "recounts the deeds of a dog of that breed, or a man named Bernard, later canonised, or a delinquent who goes by that alias". This is the only time the novel is mentioned and we hear almost nothing else of Morán's literary output. In another chapter Heredia is charged with finding out who is responsible for the human faeces that has been appearing all over the camping ground: "S*** gathered and daubed to make animal forms (giraffes, elephants, Mickey Mouse), or the letters of soccer graffiti, or bodily organs." Heredia makes some inquires but they prove inconclusive. The affair is dropped and never mentioned again.

By invoking and, to a degree, making real use of the conventions of crime fiction, Bolaño holds out to us the possibility of a neat conclusion but ends up leaving us with more questions than answers. We are left with the mysterious feeling that the events at the centre of the narrative are somehow less important than everything we haven't been told. What about Morán and Heredia's shared past? What about their apparently unrealised literary ambitions? What about the murderer, whose identity we learn but whose motive remains totally opaque?

Bolaño's humble fiction doesn't pretend to know all, or any, of the answers. His elliptical modus operandi can be tantalising, and at times almost unbearable. The more you read him, however, the more you come to savour the welts and infelicities, the gaping narrative holes and peculiar detours: you realise that Bolaño is turning you into a new kind of reader. Or, as Moran puts it on the opening page of The Skating Rink, describing his first encounter with Heredia, back in the distant Mexico City of their youth: "his voice seemed to be conjuring lawless territories, where anything was possible".

Giles Harvey is on the editorial staff of the New York Review of Books. He has a short story forthcoming in AGNI.