The Skating Rink

Roberto Bolaño's labyrinthine, multilayered epic 2666, published in 2004, a year after his death, stands as one of the great achievements of 21st-century literature. Across its 900 pages, we follow a cast of investigators - detectives, literary critics, journalists and policemen - as they attempt to unravel two very different mysteries. Who is killing the young women of Santa Teresa in northern Mexico? And who is the inscrutable author Benno von Archimboldi? The pages drip with violence - even the erudite critics kick a taxi driver half to death - and these violent episodes knit together in the reader's mind, creating a constellation within which we perceive the hidden workings of the world. Everything is linked by violence, the author is telling us, from Aztec sacrifices through the Holocaust and on to the drug-gang killings in Mexico. Now that more of Bolaño's early work is coming to light, we can trace this vision of a world shaped by violence back through his literary legacy.

Last year Picador bought up Bolaño's backlist - work written while he was still a struggling author scraping a living as a holiday camp superintendent in the Spanish seaside resort of Blanes. After the global success of 2666, Picador is attempting to satisfy public hunger for the work of this enigmatic exile (Bolaño fled Chile for Spain following Augusto Pinochet's 1973 coup). But, as might be expected of books written in the years of hedonism that ended with Bolaño's death from liver failure in 2003, the end product is of mixed quality. Some of the works feel like mere stretching exercises before the joyous marathon of 2666.

Bolaño's oeuvre builds towards 2666. Indeed, the earlier novels and stories can be seen as rehearsals of form and content for the great, long, last novel. Characters and themes are auditioned in earlier stories: those that make the cut find their way into 2666. Some novels - the bizarre Antwerp, or the derivative Monsieur Pain (to be published in English next year) - are dead ends. Others, such as The Skating Rink, offer a fascinating insight into this extraordinary writer's creative process.

The Skating Rink - Bolaño's first novel - was published in Spanish in 1993. It tells the story of the murder of a vagrant busker and one-time opera star, Carmen, in the Costa Bravan town of Z. As in The Savage Detectives (1998), the events are observed from several viewpoints: a local bureaucrat, a Mexican drifter and a Chilean poet-turned-businessman. The narrators are all suspects in the murder and the reader becomes a detective, sifting through each account for evidence. However, Bolaño denies us the usual satisfactions of the detective novel - suspense, evidence withheld and revealed, resolution - and the narrative drifts into shadowy uncertainty, so that even when the killer is revealed we feel no sense of finality.

Carmen is killed in the Palacio Benvingut, an abandoned mansion that the bureaucrat, Enric Rosquelles, has turned into a skating rink with embezzled state funds. He is obsessed with Nuria Martí, a professional ice skater, and the rink is part of his doomed attempt to win her love. As the three narrative strands circle towards the final, grisly revelation, the rink becomes a symbol of malfeasance and an image of Spain's fascist past (Rosquelles bases his rink on one Mussolini built in Rome).

Halfway through the novel, there is a passage that could have come straight from 2666: "I remember during my second year in Z, the body of a teenage girl, almost a child, was found in a vacant lot; she'd been killed and raped. The killer was never found. Around that time there was a series of murders, all fitting the same pattern . . ." Bolaño suggests that Carmen's death is linked to these serial killings. We begin to see a grand conspiracy whose details are never quite fleshed out. It is a rehearsal for the later novel, where a character says of the murders of Santa Teresa girls: "No one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them."

The typical Bolaño influences are all here - Perec and Calvino, Kafka and Borges - but already there is the uniquely arresting voice that we find in the later novels, as well as the densely suggestive imagery and titillating genre-leaping. With its cast of vagabonds and exiles, its interwoven narrative voices and revelation of the currents of violence that run through society, The Skating Rink contains much of what makes late Bolaño great.

The Skating Rink
Roberto Bolaño
Picador, 192pp, £14.99