Set against the background of the Spanish Civil War, Roberto Bolaño’s suspense novel is one of those rare page turners you won’t want to put down, even after you figure out that essential pieces to the puzzle are missing.
Reviewed by Monica Szurmuk
The late Roberto Bolaño’s slim but hypnotic “Monsieur Pain” is an antithriller, a work that proffers the nervy tension of the suspense genre but not its neat resolution. Against the background of the Civil War in Spain, the rise of Nazism, and the imminent breakout of World War II, Bolaño constructs a masterfully elegant narrative with deft touches of irony, dramatic tautness, and even a slightly painful humor, a trademark of his literary project.
The story takes place in 1938 Paris when one of the foremost South American poets of the twentieth century – the Peruvian César Vallejo – lies in a hospital bed dying. The mesmerist Monsieur Pain is called to the writer’s bedside to save his life by Madame Reynaud, a young widow Pain is in love with, and who is a close friend of Vallejo’s wife. Both Vallejo and Pain are real life characters, as are Mme Curie and her daughter Irène, and Vallejo’s wife Georgette. Vallejo died mysteriously in Paris in 1938, and while this death is the excuse for the novel, the mystery is not solved, though the anguish around it defines the peculiar tone of “Monsieur Pain.”
When Madame Reynaud asks Pain to come to the hospital, for example, he inquires about the patient:
“I’m not a doctor, Pierre,” she answers. “I don’t understand these things, it’s something I deeply regret, as you know; I always wanted to be a nurse.” “Her blue eyes shone furiously,” the narrator affirms. “It was true that Madame Reynaud had not pursued advanced studies (in fact she had not pursued any studies at all), but that did not prevent me from considering her a woman of lively intelligence.”
A few lines later, she clarifies “with the intonation of someone reciting a text learned by heart” that Vallejo is suffering from the hiccups and that “in extreme cases, hiccups can be fatal.” A slew of doctors of different nationalities strive to solve the case, that of a man whose organs are working perfectly but who has a fatal case of the hiccups.Published for the first time in the 1980s as “The Elephant Path” by a small provincial press in Spain, the novel was reedited in Spanish in 1996 under the title “Monsieur Pain” with a brief introduction by Bolaño. The careful translation by Chris Andrews includes his “Preliminary Note,” which serves as a rudimentary guide to the enigmas of the novel.
One of the most celebrated recent Latin American authors, Chilean-born Roberto Bolaño died in 2003 at the age of fifty, leaving behind a massive literary production mostly undertaken in Mexico and in Spain. In this early work Bolaño’s mastery is already clear, as are some of the characteristics that were going to become his trademark such his slippery mix of irony and earnestness, and the self-consciously kaleidoscopic nature of his narrative, reminiscent of two of the major Latin American writers of the twentieth century: Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar.
In “Monsieur Pain” we follow Pain around the streets in Paris in search of a crime that probably does not exist. While he searches for clues and inches closer to the heart of the mystery, the levels of corruption, opprobrium, and heartbreak multiply. Yet despite that sense of discovery we are not any closer to the resolution of the mystery or to a better knowledge of Pain as a character.
An epilogue entitled “Epilogue for Voices: The Elephant Track” features an anonymous character reporting on the future of the characters of the novel. In true Borgean tradition the time-traveling only contributes to the story’s uncertainty, a general sense of uneasiness regarding what is true and what is false, what is real and what is fiction.
One reason to read “Monsieur Pain” is that it offers an entertaining peek at the narrative strategies that Bolaño would develop later in his major works such as “The Savage Detectives” and the monumental “2666.” The best reason to curl up with it, however, is that it is a good read – baffling, exquisite, and also a bit disturbing. It is one of those rare page turners you won’t want to put down, even after you figure out that essential pieces to Bolaño’s puzzle are missing.
Mónica Szurmuk is Professor of Literature and Cultural Studies at the Instituto Mora in Mexico City. She is the author of “Mujeres en viaje: escritos y testimonios,” “Women in Argentina, Early Travel Narratives,” “Memoria y ciudadanía,” and co-editor of the “Diccionario de estudios culturales latinoamericanos.”