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The skating rink, p.1
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       The Skating Rink, p.1

           Roberto Bolaño
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The Skating Rink



  Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews


  If I must live then let it be

  rudderless, in delirium

  Mario Santiago

  Remo Morán:

  The first time I saw him, it was in the Calle Bucareli

  The first time I saw him, it was in the Calle Bucareli, in Mexico City, that is, back in the vague shifty territory of our adolescence, the province of hardened poets, on a night of heavy fog, which slowed the traffic and prompted conversations about that odd phenomenon, so rare in Mexico City at night, at least as far as I can remember. Before he was introduced to me, at the door of the Café La Habana, I heard his deep velvety voice, the one thing that hasn’t changed over the years. He said: This is just the night for Jack. He was referring to Jack the Ripper, but his voice seemed to be conjuring lawless territories, where anything was possible. We were adolescents, all of us, but seasoned already, and poets, so we laughed. The stranger’s name was Gaspar Heredia, Gasparín to his casual friends and enemies. I can still remember the fog seeping in under the revolving doors and the wisecracks flying back and forth. Faces and lamps barely emerged from the gloom, and, wrapped in that cloak, everyone seemed enthusiastic and ignorant, fragmentary and innocent, as in fact we were. Now we’re thousands of miles from the Café La Habana, and the fog is thicker than it was back then, better still for Jack the Ripper. From the Calle Bucareli, in Mexico City, to murder, you must be thinking . . . But it’s not like that at all, which is why I’m telling you this story . . .

  Gaspar Heredia:

  I came to Z, from Barcelona, halfway through the spring

  I came to Z, from Barcelona, halfway through the spring. I had hardly any money left, but wasn’t too worried, because there was a job waiting for me in Z. Remo Morán, who I hadn’t seen for many years, although I was always hearing about him, except for a while there when he disappeared off the radar, had offered me a season’s work, from May to September; the offer came through a mutual friend. I should point out that I didn’t ask for the job; I hadn’t been in touch with Morán, and never intended to come and live in Z. It’s true we’d been friends, but a long time before, and I’m not the sort to ask for charity. Until then I’d been sharing an apartment with three other people in the Chinese quarter, and things weren’t going as badly as you might think. After a few months, my legal situation in Spain became, however, to put it mildly, precarious: without residency or a work permit, I was, and am, living indefinitely in a kind of purgatory until I can scrape up enough money to get out of the country or hire a lawyer to sort out my papers. And of course that’s a dream, for a foreigner like me with little or nothing to call his own. But anyway, things weren’t going too badly. I had a long series of casual jobs, from manning a newspaper stand on the Ramblas to sewing up leather bags in a sweatshop with a rickety old Singer, and that was how I earned enough to eat, go to the movies and pay for my room. One day I met Mónica, a Chilean girl who had a stall in the Ramblas; we got talking and it turned out that both of us had been friends with Remo Morán, at different times in our lives: I’d met him years before, while she’d gotten to know him more recently in Europe and seen him pretty often. She told me he was living in Z (I knew he was somewhere in Spain) and said it would be crazy, given my situation, not to visit him or at least give him a call. And ask for help? Naturally I did nothing of the sort. Remo and I had drifted too far apart, and I didn’t want to bother him. So I went on living or surviving, it depended, until one day Mónica told me that she’d seen Remo Morán in a bar in Barcelona, and when she’d explained my situation, he’d said I should go straight to Z, where he could find me a place to live and a job for the summer at least. Morán remembered me! I have to admit I didn’t have any better offers, and up until then my prospects had been as black as a bucket of motor oil. The idea of it appealed to me too. There was nothing to keep me in Barcelona; I was just getting over the worst flu of my life (I still had a fever when I got to Z), and the mere thought of spending five months by the sea made me smile like an idiot. All I had to do was jump on the train that runs up the coast. No sooner said than done: I filled my backpack with books and clothes, and cleared off. I gave away everything I couldn’t carry. As the train drew out of the Estación de Francia, I thought: I’m never living in Barcelona again. Get thee behind me! No regrets! By the time I reached Mataró I had begun to forget the faces I was leaving behind . . . But that’s just a figure of speech, of course, you never really forget . . .

  Enric Rosquelles:

  Until a few years ago I was a typical mild-mannered guy

  Until a few years ago I was a typical mild-mannered guy; ask my family, my friends, my junior colleagues, anyone who came into contact with me. They’ll all tell you I’m the last person you’d expect to be involved in a crime. My life is orderly and even rather austere. I don’t smoke or drink much; I hardly go out at night. I’m known as a hard worker: if I have to, I can work a sixteen-hour day without flagging. I was awarded my psychology degree at the age of twenty-two, and it would be false modesty not to mention that I was one of the top students in my class. At the moment I’m studying law; in fact, I should have finished the degree already, but I decided to take things easy. I’m in no hurry. To tell you the truth I often think it was a mistake to enroll in law school. Why am I putting myself through this? It’s more and more of a drag as the years go by. Which doesn’t mean I’m going to give up. I never give up. Sometimes I’m slow and sometimes I’m quick—part tortoise, part Achilles—but I never give up. It has to be admitted, however, that it’s not easy to work and study at the same time, and as I was saying, my job is generally intense and demanding. Of course it’s my own fault. I’m the one who set the pace. Which makes me wonder, if you’ll allow me a digression, why I took on so much in the first place. I don’t know. Sometimes things get away from me. Sometimes I think my behavior was inexcusable. But then, other times, I think: I was walking around in a daze, mostly. Lying awake all night, as I have done recently, hasn’t helped me find any answers. Nor have the abuse and insults to which I have, apparently, been subjected. All I know for sure is that I took on too much responsibility too soon. For a brief, happy period of my life I worked as a psychologist with a group of maladjusted children. I should have stuck to that, but there are things you can only understand years later, with the benefit of hindsight. And anyway I think it’s normal for a young man to want to improve himself, to have ambitions and goals. I did, anyway. That was what brought me to Z, not long after the socialists won the municipal elections for the first time. Pilar needed someone to manage the Social Services Department, and they chose me. My CV wasn’t monumental, but there was enough in it to qualify me for the job, which was complicated and, as in many socialist municipalities, almost experimental. Naturally, I’m a paid-up party member (unless, that is, they’ve already made an example of me by publicly revoking my membership) but that had nothing to do with their final decision: they went through my application with a fine-tooth comb, and those first six months were exhausting, not to mention turbulent. I’d like to take this opportunity to speak out against those who are trying to claim that Pilar was so
mehow implicated in this shameful affair. She didn’t give me the job as a personal favor, although in the course of her two terms in office (say what you like, the citizens of Z love their mayor!) we did, I am proud to say, become friends, companions in hardship and in hope, and, for me, that friendship extended to her husband Enric Gibert i Vilamajó, whose first name I am honored to share. The vultures with press passess can print what they like. If Pilar ever erred, it was in granting me her trust, more and more fully as time went by. If you examine the state of the various departments before my arrival and, say, two years afterward, it’s immediately clear that I was the driving force behind the Z city council, its muscles and its brain. It didn’t matter how tired I was, I always got on with my work, and often took on the work of others. I also provoked resentment and envy, even within my own team. I know that many of my junior colleagues secretly hated me. Gradually, I became irritable and bitter. I confess that I never imagined spending the rest of my life in Z: a professional should always aspire to greater things. In my case I would have been delighted to undertake a similar job in Barcelona or at least in Gerona. I’m not ashamed to admit that I often dreamed of being summoned by the mayor of a great capital to manage a bold project for the prevention of delinquency or drug abuse. I had already done all I could do in Z. Pilar wasn’t going to be mayor forever, and what would become of me when she was gone, what sort of politicians would I have to bow and scrape to? Such were the fears I tried to assuage as I drove home each night. Alone and exhausted each and every night. When I think of all the things I had to do, everything I had to swallow and stomach, all on my own! Until I met Nuria and the plan for the Palacio Benvingut came to me . . .

  Remo Morán:

  It’s true: in May I found a job for Gaspar Heredia

  It’s true: in May I found a job for Gaspar Heredia, Gasparín to his friends, a Mexican, a poet, and flat broke at the time. I’d never have admitted it, but I was in a state of nervous agitation as I anticipated his arrival. And yet when he appeared at the door of the Cartago, I hardly recognized him. The years had taken their toll. We gave each other a hug, and that was it. I often think that if we’d got talking or gone for a walk along the beach, and then drunk a bottle of cognac and broken down crying or laughed until dawn, I’d be telling a different story now. But after we hugged, a mask of ice clamped itself over my face, preventing the slightest expression of friendship. I knew he was helpless, small and alone, perched on his stool at the bar, but I did nothing. Was I ashamed? Had his presence in Z released some kind of monster? I don’t know. Maybe I thought I’d seen a ghost, and in those days I found ghosts extremely unpleasant. Not any more. Now, on the contrary, they brighten up my afternoons. It was after midnight when we left the Cartago, and I couldn’t even bring myself to try to make conversation. Still, although he was silent too, I sensed he was happy. At the campground’s office, El Carajillo (“coffee with a dash”), as he was known, had the television on and didn’t notice us. We kept on going. The tent that was to be Gaspar’s home had been pitched off to one side, next to the tool shed. It had to be in a relatively quiet place, since he would be sleeping during the day. Gasparín was perfectly content; in his deep voice he said it would be like living out in the country. As far as I know, he’s lived in cities all his life. On one side of the tent there was a tiny pine, more like a Christmas tree than the sort of pine you normally find in a campground. (Because the spot had been chosen by Alex, and he was always playing some incomprehensible mind game, I couldn’t help trying to guess at its arcane significance. Was Gasparín like a Christmas present?) After that I took him to the washrooms and showed him how the showers worked, and then we went back to reception. That was it. I didn’t see him again until a week later, or something like that. Gasparín and El Carajillo became good friends. It’s hard not to be friends with El Carajillo. Gasparín worked the standard hours for a night watchman, from ten at night till eight in the morning. Night watchmen sleep on the job, that’s par for the course. The pay was good, better than the other campgrounds, and there wasn’t too much work, although Gasparín had to do most of it. El Carajillo is very old and almost always too drunk to go out and do the rounds at four in the morning. Meals were provided by the company: that is, me. Gasparín could have breakfast, lunch and dinner at the Cartago, and he didn’t have to pay a peseta. Sometimes I checked with the waiters: Did the night watchman come for lunch? Does he usually have dinner here? How long since he’s been in? And sometimes, though less often, I would ask: Have you seen him writing? Scribbling in the margins of a book? Or staring at the moon like a wolf? I didn’t persist, though, mainly because I didn’t have time. . . . Or rather, I was busy with things that had nothing to do with the distant shrunken figure of Gaspar Heredia, who seemed to be turning his back on the world, giving nothing away, hiding who he was and what he was made of, and the courage it had taken to keep on walking (or running, more like it!) toward the darkness, toward the heights . . .

  Gaspar Heredia:

  The campground was called Stella Maris

  The campground was called Stella Maris (a name reminiscent of rooming houses) and it was a place where there weren’t too many rules, or too many fights and robberies. It was frequented by working-class families from Barcelona and young people of modest means from France, Holland, Italy and Germany. The combination was sometimes explosive and would have blown up in my face for sure if I hadn’t immediately adopted El Carajillo’s golden rule, which consisted basically of letting them kill each other. His harsh way of putting it, which struck me as funny at first, then disturbing, didn’t reflect a contemptuous attitude to the clients; on the contrary, it sprang from a profound respect for their right of self-determination. El Carajillo was popular, as I soon found out, especially with the Spaniards and various foreign families who came back to Z year after year for their summer holidays. In the course of his one, protracted round of the campground, he was continually invited into campers and tents, where he was always offered something to help him while away the night: a drink, a slice of cake or a porn magazine. As if he needed any help! By three in the morning the old man was drunk as a skunk and you could hear him snoring from the street. Round about then, calm descended on the tents, and it was pleasant to walk down the campground’s narrow graveled alleys, with my flashlight switched off and nothing to do but listen to the sound of my own footsteps. Before setting off on my round I’d sit on the wooden bench by the main gate talking with El Carajillo while the sleepless and the revelers went in and out bidding us good night. Sometimes we had to carry a drunk to his tent. El Carajillo led the way because he always knew where each person was camped, and I followed with the client on my back. Occasionally we got tips for this and other services, but usually we weren’t even thanked. At first I tried to stay awake all night. Then I followed El Carajillo’s example. We retired to the office, switched off the lights and settled down, each in a leather armchair. The office was a prefabricated box with two glass walls, one facing the entrance, the other facing the swimming pool, so it was easy to keep a more or less effective watch from inside. The power for the whole campground often failed, and I was the one who had to go into the Outer Darkness and solve the problem; not that it was really dangerous, but in the little hut where the fuses were, you had to squeeze past a whole lot of dangling wires. There were also spiders and all sorts of insects. The buzz of electricity! The campers, whose television viewing had been interrupted by the blackout,
applauded when the lights came back on. Occasionally, but not very often, the guardia civil came by. El Carajillo dealt with them; he laughed at their jokes, and invited them in, but they never got out of the car. Apparently, they could drink for free at the Stella Maris bar, but I never saw them there. Occasionally the police would put in an appearance. The national or the town police. Routine visits. They didn’t even acknowledge my presence, which was just as well. And when they turned up I often found a pretext to go and do a round of the campground. I remember one night the guardia civil came looking for two women from Zaragoza who had arrived that day. We said they weren’t there. When they had gone, El Carajillo looked at me and said: Let the poor girls sleep in peace. It was all the same to me. The next night El Carajillo warned them and they cleared out as fast as they could. I didn’t ask for explanations. Each morning, as day was breaking, I would go the beach. It’s the best time: the sand is clean, as if freshly combed, and there are no tourists, just fishing boats pulling in their nets. I’d take off my clothes, go for a swim and return to the campground, picking my way through the reeds. By the time I got back to reception, El Carajillo had usually woken up and opened the windows to air the office. We’d sit down on the bench out front, raise the entrance barrier, and talk, usually about the weather. Cloudy, sultry, mild, breezy, overcast, rainy, sunny, hot . . . For some reason that I never discovered, El Carajillo was obsessed with the weather. Not at night, though. At night his favorite topic was war, specifically the final years of the Spanish Civil War. The story was always the same, with minor variations: a group of Republican soldiers, armed with hand grenades, was advancing toward a tank formation. The tanks opened fire; the soldiers flattened themselves on the ground, and after a few moments began to advance again. Again the tanks sprayed the squad with machine-gun fire, the soldiers dropped to the ground, and then resumed their advance; after the fourth or fifth repetition there was a new and terrifying development: the tanks, which had been standing still until then, began to move toward the soldiers. Two out of three times he told the story, El Carajillo’s face went red at this point, as if he was suffocating, and he began to cry. What happened then? Some soldiers turned and ran, others kept going toward the tanks, and most of them were cut down screaming and cursing. Sometimes, if the story lasted a bit longer, I got a glimpse of one or two tanks burning amidst the dead bodies and the chaos. Shit-scared, on they went. Shit-scared, who needs legs? It was never clear which side El Carajillo had fought on, and I never asked him. Maybe it was all made up; there weren’t many tanks in the Spanish Civil War. In Barcelona I met an old butcher in the Boquería market who swore he had been in a trench less than two yards away from Marshall Tito. He wasn’t a liar, but as far as I know Tito was never in Spain. So how the hell did he turn up in the butcher’s memory? A mystery. After drying his tears, El Carajillo went on drinking as if nothing had happened, or proposed a game of three coin. With a bit of practice I became an expert. Three of yours, three with what you’re holding, two and one of yours makes three, one and what you’re holding makes three, my three, your three, and the one-eyed man has three as well; three, all done! There were always some night owls among the campers who’d come and join in, city folk from Barcelona who couldn’t sleep because of the silence, or older guys who were spending the summer months with their children’s families. El Carajillo’s friends. Sometimes, when I got tired of the office, I’d hang out in the bar. That was a different scene altogether, like a gathering of George Romero’s living dead. Between one and two in the morning the barman would lock up and switch off the lights. Before driving away, he’d ask that all the bottles and glasses be left on a designated table on the terrace. No one ever paid any attention. The last to leave were usually two women. Or rather, an old woman and a girl. One talked and laughed as if her life depended on it, while the other listened absently. Both of them seemed ill . . .

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