Roberto Bolaño, Monsieur Pain, trans. Chris Andrews. New Directions, 2010, 134pp. Cloth: $22.95
reviewed by Lily Hoang
Monsieur Pain is an early Bolaño, written in 1981 or 82, when he was desperate for prize money, which, sure, he won. What is important about this slender novel’s composition date is that it shows Bolaño’s progression as a writer. Here, in this traditional historical novel, there are murmurs of The Savage Detectives, nascent urges towards what would develop into 2666, and yet it is its own book, and like all Bolaño, it is bold and extravagant in its simplicity and entirely “mesmerizing.”
Set in Paris 1938, the eponymous Monsieur Pain, Pierre Pain, is a mesmerist, a follower of Franz Mesmer, a believer that supposed magnetic fluids flowing through animate beings could be used as a method of healing. Out of complete desperation, Madame Reynaud calls Monsieur Pain on behalf of Madame Vallejo, whose husband—no less than the Peruvian poet César Vallejo, though “who” he is hardly relevant, just a little bonus for the reader, ultimately—is dying, of hiccups, among other things. Nor should it be seen as anything less than a final act of desperation, because not long before, Monsieur Reynaud died while under Pain’s care, leaving Madame Reynaud a widow, despite which, they became friends, superficial but close, or at least as close as a widow could be with the man who killed, unintentionally, of course, her recently deceased husband. Pain desired Madame Reynaud, and it was this desire—or perhaps simply a desire to prove himself “legitimate”—that urged him to take on the Vallejo case.
And all this is the most superficial of introductions to these characters and their serpentine world: As soon as Pain agrees to treat Vallejo, two foreign men, Spanish, he assumes, begin following him, threats ensue, then a lot of wine, a bribe, perpetual following, watching from up close and afar. More mesmerists appear, almost arbitrarily, one of whom committed suicide because of a supposed affair with Madame Curie’s daughter, though it had nothing to do with her at all, an assassination, film splicing, hospitals corridors without signs or sense, this little novel is nothing short of a constantly shifting and nightmarish labyrinth.
After Pain is denied entrance into the mysterious hospital where Vallejo is being treated, he sneaks in:
The galleries stretched on and on as the minutes went by. I felt increasingly cold; my steps seemed to resonate through all the wings. I knew I would never find Vallejo’s room.
It was then, as I was trying to find my way out of a section of the building in which my search had proved fruitless, that I saw it at the end of the corridor, as if it had been there waiting for me all along. It was barely more than a blurred silhouette, an armless body, a nightmare catapulted straight from infancy. It was more pitiful than frightening, but its presence was unbearable. Embrace it, I told myself, but did not entertain that thought for long. My hands were trembling. I sensed that the silhouette was trembling too. I turned and ran.
The labyrinth, the fascination of the labyrinth possessed me: each new hallway that appeared as I walked in a daze along those unevenly illuminated galleries, each stairway and elevator baited my febrile hesitation. I realized I was dripping with sweat; I leaned against a door; it opened. (109-10)
Passages like these haunt the pages of Monsieur Pain. They grab, confuse, spin you around, only to release you and watch you attempt to re-center yourself, and this is Bolaño’s magic. In the almost familiar world of pre-World War II France, everything is shifted just one inch in conflicting directions, the frame tilted slightly askew. We know these characters. They’re real, and yet, Bolaño makes them foreign and frightening, titillating.
In 2008, almost out of nowhere, I started hearing the name Roberto Bolaño everywhere. Intrigued, I began reading, fully knowing all the “hype” surrounding him. I started with 2666 but couldn’t finish it because I didn’t want it to end, ever. Then, I read Savage Detectives in a whirlwind that couldn’t have been more than a day or two and have since become a devotee. I mention the “hype” because whereas 2666 or Savage Detectives can be critiqued for any number of reasons—being too erudite, too “experimental,” not “experimental” enough, and with both those, I could easily exchange “experimental” with “challenging”—Monsieur Pain defies these critiques. There is a linear narrative, no tricks, until the Epilogue, where the narrative and the narrator simultaneously fork into fragments to reveal various characters’ futures. In the text proper, however, there is nothing but development, both plot and character. Bolaño dazzles and entrances effortlessly. I wander through this book because I’m compelled to. I turn the pages to read on because I need to know what happens. All fireworks aside, this is a simple melancholic love story, a story about a man who loves a woman, a man who wants to impress a woman, and fails.
Lily Hoang is the author of the novels: THE EVOLUTIONARY REVOLUTION, CHANGING (recipient of a 2009 PEN/Beyond Margins Award), and PARABOLA (winner of the 2006 Chiasmus Press Un-Doing the Novel Contest)