'Monsieur Pain' is a novel that makes me question why it is exactly that I read novels. Depending on the answer, this particular work is either disappointing and vague, or else haunting and evocative. I suspect that most people who decide to make the plunge into Roberto Bolaño's works, and who start, as I have, with 'Monsieur Pain', will land in the first camp. Try as I might, I simply could not decipher Bolaño's point, and I even read the book again a few days after finishing it the first time, just to be sure I hadn't missed some critical revelation. Bolaño's talent as a writer is never in question, which only adds to my frustration - it feels as though there are great forces skimming just below the conscious level of the text, but which ultimately serve no linear purpose. Instead, it's as if Bolaño wanted to merely suggest these forces, the same way that complex music may suggest an awareness that is inexpressible by other means. As a literary technique, I think this can be significant and revelatory, but with 'Monsieur Pain, I thought it was self-satisfied rather than expansive.
The plot, such as it is, concerns the eponymous character, a doctor specializing in alternative medicines, who is called on to treat the Peruvian poet, César Vallejo, during his final days in 1938 Paris. Vallejo, an actual figure from history, was an outspoken anti-fascist, and decidedly on the side of the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, and the novel appears to conform to the conventions of historical intrigue when two mysterious Spaniards visit Doctor Pain and try to dissuade him from seeing the poet. Pain takes their bribe money, but sees Vallejo anyway, whom he feels as though he has a chance of curing. From this point, the story breaks up into dreamlike sequences where Pain is blocked in all his efforts to pursue either the treatment of Vallejo or the threads of his personal life. The forces aligned against him seem so monolithic and immoveable that I began to suspect that Pain really was dreaming, or that he was under some kind of hypnotic spell, or that he was a madman, and the entire episode was only in his imagination.
There are other themes at work here too - near the end of the book, Pain stumbles onto an old associate, who is now an intelligence officer for Franco's army. Between Vallejo and this man, Pleumeur-Bodou, they seem to represent the two sides of the civil war - one frail, sickly, a poet, and the other a great block of a man, versed in the power of suggestion, confident and powerful. Pain's ineffectual intellectualism in the middle could be Bolaño's indictment of all such uncommitted parties, especially in regards to the upheavals he witnessed in Latin America, of which the Spanish conflict is only a substitute. Or perhaps in my effort to shoehorn this novel into a coherent narrative, I've read too much into it. I don't know, but after going over it twice, this is the closest I've come to discovering a point to the book, though I'll admit it seems like a tenuous interpretation - and even if I did know that this was the author's intention, I'd still question its implications.
Bolaño is also very clever in this short text, which is interesting when I notice it, but which also makes me wonder what I've missed, and contributes to the feeling of frustration. An example - Pain has studied the work of Franz Mesmer, from whom we get the idea of mesmerism. In one of Pain's odd, paranoid excursions into unfamiliar sections of Paris to avoid the Spaniards, he stops in a small cafe and talks to two young men. They are conceptual artists, and show off an example of their work displayed in the cafe. They call it an underwater sculpture, and it is a miniature scene inside a fish tank of a catastrophic train wreck, complete with bodies strewn about. This scene, and the characters of the two young men, seem to exist only in order to communicate that the name of the train is the 'Meersburg Express'. Meersburg is also the town in which Franz Mesmer died. It was pure luck that I discovered this connection, and the few others that I was able to pick up only intensified the feeling that I was missing a great deal more. As I say, clever is fine, I suppose, but it also wears on me after a bit, especially if I think the author is having a laugh at the reader's expense.
Three stars may be harsh for 'Monsieur Pain' - the writing is excellent and I never felt that Bolaño lost control of his narrative. In fact, I think he said exactly what he wanted to say - I just never knew what that was.