Monsieur Pain Paperback – Feb 7 2012
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A very good read and essential for Bolaño completists. — Craig Morgan Teicher (The Plain Dealer)
John Coltrane jamming with the Sex Pistols. — John M. Richardson (Esquire)
Roberto Bolaño was an examplary literary rebel. To drag fiction toward the unknown, he had to go there himself, and there invent a method with which to represent it. Since the unknown place was reality, the results are multi-dimensional. — Sarah Kerr (The New York Review of Books)
Bolaño wrote with the high-voltage first-person braininess of a Saul Bellow and an extreme subversive vision of his own. — Francisco Goldman (The New York Times Magazine)
Delightfully noirish. — Brad Hooper (Booklist)
Monsieur Pain, an early novella, beautifully translated by Chris Andrews, joins his other works in all their aching splendour. — Carolina de Robertis (National Post)
A heightened sense of analogy aligns careless deserters, serious moviegoers and sold-out psychics to a world of labyrinthine visions…. — Roberto Ontiveros (The Dallas Morning News)
A real discovery and a substantial addition to the growing Bolaño library in English. — Stephen Henighan (The Quarterly Conversation)
About the Author
The poet Chris Andrews has translated many books by Roberto Bolaño and César Aira for New Directions.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
But I'm reluctant to recommend this short (134-page) novel to a novice reader. The reason is this: Bolaño's strength is in what one critic called his "summative" powers -- his ability to encompass a mass of subjects, to assemble a formidable mountain of prose that draws you into a relentlessly engrossing world.
There are writers who excel at shorter forms (short stories; sonnets) but who fail at more sustained efforts (novels; epic poems). Bolaño may be an example of the opposite -- an author who is most convincing when creating lengthy works of cumulative power, but who may strike you as meandering, indulgent, and unfulfilling, when he invites you on a shorter excursion. I suspect many new readers will find "Monsieur Pain" to be a fragment-like experience without much pay-off. In short, this is not the best of Bolaño.
That is not to say the book lacks felicities apt to please a new reader. If you are comfortable with unconventional fiction, tolerant of detours and ambiguity, and intrigued by what happens when Poe meets Borges meets Paul Auster meets Thomas Pynchon -- then take the plunge.
Among the pleasures of "Monsieur Pain" is how economically Bolaño sketches scene after scene, managing to disorient the reader while generally maintaining narrative equilibrium. For me, the experience of reading "Monsieur Pain" was akin to watching a film noir, one with an experimental bent. One reviewer likened it to to the style and effect of David Lynch. As for his treatment of details, some scenes reminded me of Hitchcock, especially in the way Bolaño "edits" the sights and sounds of a sequence, and the way he uses physical surroundings to echo psychological space, and vice versa. At the very least you are likely to come away impressed by how skillfully the author (who viewed himself principally as a poet) taps into the strange beauty of the world, and conveys this with a sensitive descriptive power.
Bolaño's wizardry with a pen shines through clearly in Chris Andrews' translation. Pierre Pain, the shy narrator, describes a surprise appearance of his romantic interest, Madame Reynaud, at his garret: "The light delineating her silhouette had the gray intimacy of certain Parisian mornings." Later that day, called to the bedside of a dying poet, he is struck by how "the silence in the room seemed to be full of holes." The patient's face "displayed the strange disconsolate dignity shared by all those who have been confined in a hospital for some time." Later, anger and resentment seize the narrator, which he describes as "gradually hardening me from within like a carcass being stuffed by a taxidermist." Toward the end of the book he enters the rear of a darkened movie theater, his eyes adjusting to this scene:
"An aisle divided the rows of seats, from which the heads of the viewers protruded like nocturnal flowers; they were sparsely scattered, unclassifiable, mostly alone and isolated in their places."
That neatly captures Bolaño's vision of the world.
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.
The novel is drenched in Kafka allusions of isolation, surrealism, the pall of unspecified dread everywhere. And certainly, the time in which the novel takes place...the Spanish Civil War raging, and the marching jackboots of Hitler's troops throughout Europe...is enough to inspire very REAL fearfulness.
Yet, there was never enough cohesion to instill a point of lucidity, a place to attach all of that dread. Undoubtedly, that was Bolano's point, his plan. After all, he experienced his own personal Kafkaesque period living under the dictatorship of Pinochet. I've no question that the free-floating anxiety that infuses "Monsieur Pain" was a very real way of life in Chile during those horrific years.
All in all, I can recommend this book with the qualifier that the reader may or may not know anything more by the time s/he reaches the final page. But, again, it can be read in a single sitting, so perhaps the solution is to turn back to page 1 and try again!!
None of this is actually explained by Bolaño, who concentrates instead on the obscure Monsieur Pain (though also apparently a real figure), a practitioner of mesmerism and acupuncture who, at the request of the poet's wife, attends Vallejo just once before his death. Incapacitated by gas at Verdun in 1916, Pain lives on an army pension. He is a relative mediocrity, achieving little, not even the love of the widowed Madame Reynaud, despite her obvious attraction to him at first. But the novella, a sort of cross between Kafka and Alan Furst, maintains a curious noir suspense throughout. Pain is being followed, for example, by two mysterious Spanish men, and other parallel pairs of mysterious characters crop up throughout. The Clinique Arago, where Vallejo is being held, though also a real place, is described in surreal terms with featureless spiraling corridors and doors numbered out of sequence. The surreal air is further intensified by Pain's dreams, a midnight refuge in a huge warehouse full of junk, and an art film he watches in an almost-empty cinema. It is mildly disturbing stuff, but difficult to connect together, and leaving me unclear as to its ultimate intention. I can only guess that it is an oblique response to the Spanish Civil War.
Readers will certainly find many of the characteristic Bolaño themes, quite apart from literary homage. There is his fascination with the continued menace of fascism. There is his affinity with the atmosphere and techniques of the crime novel. There is his tendency to jump cut between disparate events that nudge the central subject rather than developing it directly. There is his ability to suspend time. But nowhere else have I seen him so overtly surreal. It certainly fits the period, but it is not a genre that leaves me with much solid ground from which to write. Other readers may well fare better.
Monsieur Pain begins in 1938 as the Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo lies stricken in a Paris hospital. Vallejo is hiccupping himself to death. When the doctor's prove baffled by her husband's condition, Madame Vallejo seeks help from the eponymous Monsieur Pain, an acquaintance of her friend Madame Reynaud. Pain is a reclusive bachelor, wounded and traumatised by the First World War, whose meagre government pension allows him to live a threadbare existence while devoting his time to his twin passions of hypnotism and the occult. He is also in love with Madame Reynaud and so agrees to try and help her friend.
Unfortunately for Pain, things quickly go awry. The doctors scoff at Pain's attempts to treat Vallejo and, embarrassed in front of Madame Reynaud, he flees from the hospital. Later that same day a pair of mysterious Spaniards offer Pain an envelope full of cash in exchange for ceasing to treat Vallejo and, believing that his services have already been dispensed with, Pain accepts. Of course, he is shortly summoned back to Vallejo's bedside to try his hypnotic cure once again and so begins a surrealist investigation in to the mystery [or, indeed, absence there of] of Vallejo's illness.
Poor Monsieur Pain is a most ineffectual detective and seems doomed to wander in a dreamlike state through his inept investigations as confrontations fizzle down to nothing and ominous figures loom up at him from the streets of Paris only to disappear without a trace. The mystery that Bolano has crafted seems almost too much even for Pain as he flails about trying to make sense of everything that befalls him. Whether or not someone is out to get Vallejo there is certainly something peculiar afoot in Monsieur Pain as a host of peculiar villains [ranging from Franco himself to rival mesmerists] are certainly at large in the story and so Pain is compelled to bumble around and find where, if anywhere, he fits within the conspiracy jumble. There is certainly some ominous presence hovering over Monsieur Pain even if its exact nature never becomes clear.
Being one of his earliest works, Monsieur Pain doesn't quite live up to the brilliance of 2666 or The Savage Detectives, but it is still an excellent, innovative metaphysical thriller that outlines the directions in which Bolano's literary career would develop [The `Epilogue for Voices' featured here, for example, being clearly echoed in the superb Nazi Literature in the Americas].