Monsieur Pain

Roberto Bolaño

Paris, 1938: a Peruvian poet named Vallejo is dying of the hiccups in a hospital bed. Monsieur Pain is a mesmerist, a man living on a meager war pension; his lungs were scorched in Verdun. Two Spaniards are following him; General Franco has sacked España; the middle-aged war veteran is in love with a Madame Reynaud, a widow half his age. She asks him to help a friend. Pain is Vallejo’s final hope … so he thinks.

The beauty of Roberto Bolaño’s 133-page “surrealistic attic of unlikely juxtapositions” (The New York Times) is that the novel’s layout is a plexus full of intrigue, mystery, and trapdoors that simultaneously coexist within the mind of Pain and on the shadow-eaten streets of pre-war Paris. Pain reacts to his environment like a pincushion with nerves.

He leaves his visit with Vallejo embarrassed, dismissed by Vallejo’s GP as a “charlatan”. He meets with the two Spaniards. They bribe him not to treat Vallejo and he takes the money. He gets drunk with them. Whenever Monsieur Pain drinks, Paris becomes a sordid continuum characterized by strained faces and slanted perception. The reader begins to wonder what came first: Pain’s anxiety or Vallejo’s hiccups.

The next day Pain ignores the bribe and sees Vallejo. His hypnosis calms the dying poet and the hiccups stop. Or did he send the invalid to sleep? Pain leaves the room and it is never made clear if Madames Vallejo and Reynaud are happy with his work or have lost all faith in him. Madame Raynaud vanishes from Paris. Pain is barred from the hospital. Paris folds in on itself. Like a prison, Pain is trapped in between his perception of what he thinks is happening, and the ambiguity of what actually is.

The subsequent pages unleash a dream in which characters come and go, in which pubs get sucked through their own backdoors and into alleyways that melt into cemeteries. Pain’s friends become his enemies; a fellow mesmerist has become a torturer for General Franco. The dream becomes a nightmare; the poets are dying as war approaches. Bolaño’s penchant for the fantastic, his refusal to close any question with an answer, leaves Monsieur Pain a desperate man who wants to save what is good from those who use their power to prevent him from trying.

Bolaño’s Monsieur Pain is the perfect blend between poetry and prose. The world he can’t grasp is the prosaic nature of protocol. The reader witnesses a mystery that widens as the case itself bottlenecks. Pain is a labyrinth.
This article first appeared in Issue 2, 2012.
Posted 4:53pm Sunday 4th March 2012 by Josef Alton.