“Monsieur Pain” by Roberto Bolano

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Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003) wrote “Monsieur Pain” in 1981-82, at the start of a brief but productive career as an imaginative writer of fiction. The Chilean-born Bolaño is best known for his dazzling breakthrough novel, “The Savage Detectives,” and the posthumously published “2666″. (For an excellent summary of Bolano’s main themes and motifs, see Henry Hitchings review of the “summative” novel “2666″ here.)

“Monsieur Pain” is a short (134-page) work, and two audiences may find pleasure in spending a few hours in its spell:

Happy veterans — readers who have been entranced by one or more of Bolaño’s celebrated later works and who want to trace the origin of his mature themes, his obsessions, and his methods, back to the time of their youthful first expression, will find revelations in “Monsieur Pain”.

Wary novices — new readers who are intrigued by, yet also skeptical of, the Bolaño phenomenon. A Washington Post critic, reflecting on Bolaño’s death in 2003, declared: “Bolano has joined the immortals” — and this kind of passionate celebration, echoed many times over by the mainstream critical establishment, garners attention and maybe distrust among general reader population. Some potential readers are, understandably, daunted by the weight of his final writings. They may also be confused by negative reactions to the author, as voiced in the two dozen one- and two-star complaints among the customer reviews of  ”2666″ on Amazon.com. For those wary readers I recommend this novel as good investment of your time.

Another reviewer described Bolaño’s worldview as “strange and marvelous and impossibly funny, bursting with melancholy and horror.” By Bolaño’s own reckoning, his formative literary influences were all over the map.  In the case of “Monsieur Pain” Bolaño turned to Edgar Allan Poe as the animating force for his narrative. This is not hidden. Between the Dedication Page and a Preliminary Note, on what is sometimes referred to as an Inspiration Page, Bolaño placed a dialog excerpt from Poe’s short story of 1844, “Mesmeric Revelation.” That tale is told as a conversation between a hypnotist and an invalid, a man on the cusp of death, who is placed under hypnosis in an experiment to see whether it will afford him a glimpse of the after-life.  At one point the hypnotized patient confides: “the mesmeric condition is so near death as to content me.”

“Monsieur Pain” combines elements of a mystery and a detective story, the latter a genre Poe pioneered. But it is much more than that; the novel genuinely defies categorization. It is narrated by Monsieur Pierre Pain, a veteran survivor of the battle of Verdun, where he was gassed. Two decades later, he is a pensioner living, poorly, in the Paris demimonde. He has studied mesmerism. Pain is called upon to apply his mesmeric skills to save the life of a hospitalized poet. Not long after his initial visit to the Clinic, events begin to assume a surrealist bent. Blended with a free-floating paranoia, this surreal atmosphere holds sway over the remainder of the novel. Time and space bend: time, at one point, is described as running faster than a clock; the Clinic morphs into a prison, its corridors a labyrinth.

Try as he might, Pain cannot shake off a pair of Spanish assassins, one of whom, when given the chance, attempts to escape, Oswald-like, by ducking into a movie theater. (Whether Bolaño, who would have been 10 1/2 at the time, followed the news of the JFK assassination, is unknown.) Pain is amused by an odd pair of young artists, genuine twins, ensconced in a bizarre cafe whose every fixture and surface is painted a shade of green. These brothers construct miniature disaster scenes (car crashes, train wrecks) inside fish-tanks. (The novelty of this art eerily anticipates Jeff Koons’ likewise surreal basketballs-in-a-fish-tank constructions?) Pain learns about a conspiracy that may involve radiation experiments; he’s made privy to a rumored love affair involving Madame Curie’s daughter. Pain encounters a former friend who has since become a torturer for Franco’s forces.

Which brings us to the political. The dread hanging over Paris in the year 1938 is the specter of totalitarianism. For Bolaño, who considered himself primarily a poet, the personal sorrows of a young Keats (half in love with easeful death) are distant indulgences, supplanted in the modern era by men powerfully in love with half death. Poe would not have been surprised by this turn of events. The question of the poet’s response to fascism, hinted at in “Monsieur Pain,” will take on greater urgency in Bolano’s subsequent novels.

By the mid-point of “Monsieur Pain,” the narrator has fallen sway to paranoia, he is captive to waking dreams. (Those many dreams had a real effect on me: I went to sleep immediately after finishing the book, and that night had more vivid dreams than I’d had in a long time.) Encounters with labyrinths, real and metaphorical, multiply. No matter where you are, you never really find the way out of the labyrinth. The novel ends with an Epilogue for Voices that reveals the main characters’ fates.

Some readers will find all of this a weird, indigestible brew, a fun-house ride not worth taking. If the prospect of Poe meets Borges meets Paul Auster meets Thomas Pynchon is off-putting, best stay away. But if you stick with it, you will appreciate how economically Bolaño sketches scene after scene, how he manages to maintain a fast pace throughout, disorienting the reader yet maintaining equilibrium. For me, the reading experience was similar to watching a film noir with an experimental bent. From time to time I was reminded of Hitchcock, especially in the way Bolaño “edits” a sequence for the reader’s consumption, and the way he uses physical surroundings to reveal psychological space, and vice versa. There is a cleverly unfurled scene in a movie house in which Bolaño’s piecemeal description of the plot of the film being screened serves as counterpoint to the stories exchanged by two former friends catching up in the audience. True, the book offers no big pay-off; it never soars. Instead, its rewards are modest. Yet you are sure to come away respecting how Bolaño, the poet, can access beauty through sensitive description. You will learn how touching he can be.

Despite or maybe because of the book’s incoherence I wound up liking it; another short novel of his, “By Night in Chile,” is on my near-term reading list.

[Update (01-30-2010): An abridged version of this essay is published as a book review on Amazon.com, here.]

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