Ktismatics

3 August 2012

The Skating Rink by Bolaño, 1993

Filed under: Fiction — ktismatics @ 10:41 am

In a passage near the end, one of the novel’s three narrators, imprisoned near Barcelona under suspicion of murder and embezzlement, is reading a novel written by one of the other narrators, a Chilean émigré:

Remo Morán’s novel is entitled Saint Bernard, and recounts the deeds of a dog of that breed, or a man named Bernard, later canonized, or a delinquent who goes by that name. The dog, or the saint, or delinquent, lives in the foothills of a great icy mountain and every Sunday (although in some places it says “every day”) he goes around mountain villages challenging other dogs or men to duels. Gradually, his opponents begin to lose heart, and in the end no one dares to address him. They all apply “the law of ice,” to cite the text… Then, at the end of the novel, something strange occurs: after shaking off his pursuers, while sheltering in a cave, Bernard undergoes a metamorphosis: his old body splits into two parts, each identical to the original whole. One part rushes down into the valley, shouting with joy. the other climbs laboriously toward the summit of the great mountain, and is never heard of again…

The end of this fictional novel-within-a-novel is of particular interest to me as a fiction writer. My books feature a charismatic figure (also of Chilean ancestry, as it happens) and his acolytes who cultivate a praxis of splitting themselves in two: the sanctified part climbs laboriously to its death, while the unchosen part rushes free and joyful into the wilderness. I wonder if Bolaño ever actually wrote a novel about this Bernard character, or if it was an idea that was adequately captured as a passing reference here.

The Skating Rink was Bolaño’s first published novel, rereleased and translated posthumously after he became famous for his last long novels. The reviews I’ve read are enthusiastic except for this one from Philip Hensher in The Guardian. Hensher writes:

“His publishers have now thought it worthwhile to bring out Bolaño’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 Bolaño expanded, developed, and turned into virtues of the highest originality.”

This observation too grabs me as a fiction writer. Some of the purported flaws that readers have identified in my fiction I regard as integral to how I experience the fictional world I describe. Presumably like Bolaño, I too have intentionally exaggerated some of these features of my writing, drawing even more attention to them. In so doing have I transformed my flaws into “virtues of the highest originality”? Sure, why not?

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