The story behind The Skating Rink

Although Roberto Bolaño spent more than half of his life in Spain, he saw himself as a 'Latin American writer', having started writing poetry there while truanting from high school. Born in Santiago de Chile in 1953, he spent time in Mexico before settling in Spain in 1977, living on the Costa Brava from 1985. During the span of almost twenty years before he was taken on by a major publisher, he had a series of casual jobs, working as a nightwatchman in a camping ground (like Gaspar in The Skating Rink) and a jewellery salesman (like Remo, Gaspar's employer). 

In 1992, Bolaño won the City of Alcalá de Henares Prize for Fiction with La pista de hielo (The Skating Rink). It was a year of good and bad news: as well as a number of windfall prizes, it brought the diagnosis of a degenerative liver disease. From that point on, Bolaño knew he was living and writing on borrowed time. In a little over ten years, he produced a body of fiction that is remarkable for its inventiveness as well as its sheer abundance. 

The Skating Rink belongs to the beginning of this phase, but a number of Bolaño's trademarks are already apparent: the bursts of wild figurative language interrupting more straightforward narrative prose; the choral alternation of voices; and the structuring role played by a crime and the subsequent investigation. In The Skating Rink, the crime serves as a clasp to fasten three contrasting love stories, each intertwined with disgrace, danger and death. 

The Skating Rink is metaphorically operatic in a number of ways, juxtaposing voices as well as points of view. Bolaño also imagines theatrical scenes in which spectators watch a performance and each other, like the key comic episode in which figure skater Nuria tries to entice bumptious bureaucrat Enric onto the ice, while Mexican immigrant Gaspar, hidden among the packing cases that surround the skating rink and observing the ill-assorted pair, notices Caridad, also hidden and watching, armed with her trusty knife. 

Treating Bolaño's novel with a strong combination of loyalty and freedom, librettist Rory Mullarkey draws from it an apocalyptic strain. Bolaño himself was adept at treatments of this kind and had little time for the idea of a definitive version. He was anything but precious about the fate of his work in the world, and I think he would have been intrigued and delighted to know that, thanks to David Sawer, Rory Mullarkey and Garsington Opera, the characters that he imagined for The Skating Rink will take the stage at Wormsley and live a new and different life in the dimensions of bodily movement and song. His voracious narrative imagination would have set to work immediately on the performances and the intricate preparations leading up to them. 

Chris Andrews, translator of The Skating Rink
Full article to be published in the Garsington Opera 2018 Programme