By David Varno
Bolaño’s preliminary note to Monsieur Pain, a short novel was first published in 1999 and appeared last month from New Directions, alludes to the author’s early desperation and tenacity. He wrote the book in the early ’80s, and it was awarded a prize by the Toledo City Council in Spain. Bolaño claims he never saw the book in published form, and continued pursuing “awards scattered over the map of Spain: buffalo prizes I had to go hunting like a redskin whose life is on the line.” The era is described in the short story “Sensini,” which opens Last Evenings on Earth. There, an autobiographical narrator teams up with an older Chilean writer whom Borges was known to admire. The mentor’s wife calls them the gunslingers, or buccaneers, and in the end he wins all the prizes, not the young writer
Though Bolaño was a huge admirer of Borges, he drew more explicitly from Kafka for Monsieur Pain, which centers on a protagonist who is both powerless and oblivious to the greater forces that shape his fate. Set in Paris in 1938, the story follows mesmerist Pierre Pain on a failed quest to cure the Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo of his chronic hiccups. The first page features an allusion to The Trial, crisply translated by Chris Andrews
The first indication that I had just been drawn into a singular episode presented itself immediately: as I was going down the stairs I came across two men climbing up to the third floor. They were speaking Spanish, a language I did not understand, and wearing dark trench-coats and broad-brimmed hats, which, since they were below me on the stairs, obscured their faces.
Pierre doesn’t find out until the end of the book that Vallejo is a poet; he takes the case because he’s interested in the woman who refers him, the widow of a patient he failed to save. He figures that she called in hope that he can restore the faith she originally had, before her husband died. In Pierre’s world, he is the center. But he’s entirely passive. After accepting a bribe from the two Spaniards without any intention of following their demand that he stay off the case, he confesses to an old teacher that he might have done this “so as [not] to block the passage” of “something lurking nearby.” At one point, he sees the menacing Spaniards as angels of pity. He doesn’t know what his fate is, but he’ll accept it.
Later, Pierre finds that one of his former colleagues is aiding the Fascists in Spain. This matters because it gets us thinking about the political context, but it’s not vivid enough to spark our imagination. What keeps us reading are the moments of unique character development, and the spheres that transform from the shadows as they would in a dream. After being led through an “endless succession of doors”—by a grumpy sex club bouncer with whom he’d pleaded for guidance—to a dark warehouse, Pierre transfers images from his dreams onto his conscious reality:
I know I had begun to fall asleep, because I had already discerned certain faces that recur in my dreams (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the weight of those faces) when the sound woke me up. A drip of water, that was all, but right in the center of my consciousness. I opened my eyes; I wasn’t afraid; I waited.
His reliability as a narrator has already been called into question, and now we come to realize that he is seeing projections of his emotional state, usually melancholic or anxious, and struggles to keep his focus on the “real world”(emphasis Bolaño’s). But his emotions are real to us, and we accept his uncertainty over whether he wishes to be alone or in “attendence” with the world.
Bolaño has left it up to the reader to make associations about Vallejo and the war in Spain, and why a couple of sketchy Spanish doctors might want to interfere with the poet’s recovery. And that’s fine, because we’re getting the story through a lonely, out of touch WWI veteran whose lungs were scorched at Verdun, who spends his time reading Renard and Alain-Fournier, who, as we find in the epilogue, is ignored by the French Resistance, and would probably prefer to live in the 19th century if he could. Pierre decries the horrors of modern war, in a scene with a few peripheral characters who voice anxiety about German stockpiling, but for the most part the Paris that Pierre inhabits appears oblivious to the near-future. Predictions are left to the unconscious poet inside the narrator: “The sky over Paris, though clearer than the day before, seemed more sinister than ever.” Beautiful, but Bolaño never comes back to it.
Those of us who have come to know Bolaño through the bulk of his oeuvre are reading for signs of a developing voice. There are a few wonderful, subtle moments of character development. While strolling at night with the widow, Pierre is chided for stepping in a puddle, and is idiosyncratically struck with glee. “In fact I was happy. The rain, the night, Madame Reynaud’s scolding: the simplest things bring happiness.” And the last page before the epilogue contains a paragraph that could easily fit into one of his masterworks, Distant Staror 2666particularly—“I tilt my head. I feel dizzy. There were so many things I would like to know about: old Madame Reynaud, for example, why she didn’t answer the telephone, shadows gliding through the Paris nights, the future”—except that in those books such passages can be found throughout. Here, things stay pretty clean for the most part. But there is a certain pleasure in reading this one after the fully realized work, like a wave that lifts you just before it crests.
After Vallejo dies, Pierre is moved to become a poet himself. But it’s unclear how the experience of being called to the ailing, controversial Peruvian’s bedside impacted him. In Pierre’s dreams, Vallejo’s hiccups are stricken by the patient, not the other way around. The latest Jonathan Lethem novel, Chronic City, also features a death by hiccups. His first book, Gun, With Occasional Music (1994), was a futuristic detective story that Bolaño, who also admired Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick, might have read. It offers hints at the rhapsodies that would explode in Lethem's own later work, just as Monsieur Paindoes for Bolaño. In Entre parentesis, Bolaño wrote (translation mine): “[Philip K.] Dick is a species of Kafka manifested by lysergic acid and rage." There may likely have been rage operating behind the scenes of Monsieur Pain, but so much is under the surface that all we have to take are a few poetic moments.
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