Monsieur Pain Roberto Bolaño (trans. Chris Andrews). New Directions. 136 pp, $22.95
In 1936, in a poem called “Black Stone on a White Stone,” the Peruvian poet César Vallejo wrote that he would die in Paris in a downpour, perhaps on a Thursday. Two years later, at the age of 46, his health ruined by poverty, poor nutrition, and persecution by the governments of first Peru then France over his Communist politics (in addition to gnawing anxieties about the Spanish Civil War, in which he was unable to fight due to his poor health), Vallejo realized the prediction made in his poem.
Vallejo’s death-agony in a Paris hospital is the non-dramatized narrative core around which the characters of Roberto Bolaño’s Monsieur Pain circulate. The theme of a South American writer dying in obscurity in Europe in middle age, only to become famous after death, has obvious poignancy for readers of Bolaño, whose own career, particularly in languages other than Spanish, has followed exactly this pattern. As though to thwart any such symmetry, the ailing Bolaño included a brief introduction in which he states that this novel, published in Barcelona by Anagrama in 1999, was in fact written “in 1981 or 1982″ and won a minor literary prize in Toledo, Spain, where it was printed by the city council under the title La Senda de los Elefantes. (This is also the title of the book’s final section, though in Chris Andrews’s otherwise rapt, economical, and intuitive translation the phrase confusingly appears as The Elephant Path in the introduction and The Elephant Track when it recurs at the end.) The standard account of Bolaño’s life maintains that in the early 1980s he was a poet who wrote little fiction; whether the story of the novel’s early composition and the Toledo literary prize is fact, or a conceit to throw the reader hunting for parallels off the scent, it is a suitably elliptical opening to a novel that dramatizes the outer fringes of a creative community.
Monsieur Pain, precise and dramatic yet suffused with a dreamy suggestiveness, is a real discovery and a substantial addition to the growing Bolaño library in English. Many of Bolaño’s central themes appear: the hovering shadow of fascism, and its complicated relationships with art; conspiracies, cults, and secret societies; loneliness, illness, and exile; and the errant lives of men who think they are going to be artists but drift into mediocrity, eccentricity, or complicity with dictatorship.
The novel’s narrator, Pierre Pain (whose surname means “bread” in French, in addition to its obvious resonances in English), is a stuffy middle-aged bachelor surviving on a small pension from his service in the First World War. His devotion to mesmerism has led him into a life of poverty and obscurity; he reads like a benign version of Carlos Wieder, the fascist poet and pilot in Distant Star, or Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix, the priest and would-be poet who collaborates with the Pinochet dictatorship in By Night in Chile. Pain differs from these characters in that he is not one of the fascists’ henchmen: when he comes into contact with what may be a plot by Spanish fascists to prevent Vallejo from receiving proper medical treatment, it is he who is hunted. Although relatively uninterested in politics, Pain sympathizes with the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. He awakens to his own convictions over the course of the novel, even as the narrative becomes increasingly phantasmagoric.
Pain is chastely in love with Madame Reynaud, a young widow twenty years his junior whose husband he tended to in the hospital. The young man died, but Madame Reynaud remains grateful to Pain for the mesmeric treatment, learned from his master, Monsieur Rivette, with which he alleviated her husband’s suffering. She appeals to treat Vallejo, who is married to her friend Georgette. Though the poet appears only once in the novel, as an inert figure in a hospital bed—”He was dark and the sheets were white and harsh”—his comatose form precipitates the rest of the action. Sinister Spaniards stalk the corridors of his hospital and the surrounding streets, and through them Pain is drawn toward one of their leaders, a Frenchman named Aloysius Pleumuer-Boudou, who apparently returned to Paris from his exile in an area of Spain controlled by Franco in order to coordinate their movements.
As young men, Pain, Pleumeur-Boudou, and a promising scientist named Guillaume Terzeff were close friends who studied mesmerism together under the tutelage of Monsieur Rivette. Their friendship evokes Bolaño’s leitmotif of the youthful intellectual clique and its embittered dissolution. The young mesmerists in Monsieur Pain reprise the experiences of the Visceral Realists in The Savage Detectives, the academics obsessed with the writer Benno von Archimboldi in the opening section of 2666, and the Salvador Allende–era Chilean poetry workshop in Distant Star. Like the latter group, the young men’s enthusiastic collaboration belongs to a more innocent time—Paris in the 1920s—which, by 1938, has been erased by the creeping shadow of fascism. Terzeff, the most brilliant of the trio, collaborated with the scientist Pierre Curie, whose final experiments overspilled the boundaries of conventional physics to probe the energy emitted by individuals who are entering a mesmeric trance. Trezeff’s conviction that Curie’s death was not an accident—he was run over by a horse-drawn cart—propels him into madness and suicide. When Pain and Pleumeur-Boudou meet again in a cinema during Vallejo’s death-agony, their friendship is long gone and they are on opposite sides of a global ideological struggle. Andrews finds wonderfully inventive ways of rendering into seamless English a scene in which the two men dispute whether they should address each other with the informal tú or the formal usted.
Impoverished and intimidated, Pain allows the thuggish Spaniards to pay him a bribe not to treat Vallejo. He is puzzled by their insistence, having no knowledge of Vallejo’s significance either as a poet or a political symbol, and soon regrets his decision as a betrayal of his sentimental friendship with Madame Reynaud. He tries to return to the hospital but is turned away by security guards, and these vacillations cost him dearly: Madame Reynaud finds a lover. In the novel’s penultimate scene, Pain breaks into the hospital, unaware that Vallejo has died and that his body has been removed. Arriving too late and separated from the heart of the action, he spends part of the night watching from the window of an upstairs room as a group of hospital employees act out a scene of petty jealousy. The moment crystallizes the marginalization, distance, and skewed understanding to which Pain has been consigned by his single-minded quest for truth through the study of mesmerism. The final scene of the narrative section of Monsieur Pain, in which Madame Reynaud’s lover reveals Vallejo’s importance as a serious artist, appears to confirm that Pain’s life has been wasted. Art dies two deaths here: in the form of Vallejo, who is killed (perhaps) by fascism, and in the more painful—literally—death that is suffered by Pain, who fritters away his creativity and enthusiasm in a life of increasing irrelevance.
The epilogue recounts the places and dates of birth and death of each of the characters, even those who are quite minor; many, including Pierre Pain, are historical figures. The characters’ lives after 1938 are dominated by the ravages of the Second World War, yet Bolaño foils documentary expectations by not falling into the pseudo-official tone that sometimes characterizes such epilogues. Each character is memorialized by the voice of someone who knew him. The only exception is Madame Reynaud, whose later life, described by the narrator, consists of a slow forgetting of the events of the novel: “gaps that close slowly as years go by, narrowing, becoming less significant, not so much gaps as blanks.” That only art can prevent gaps from turning into blanks is a lesson that Pierre Pain learns too late.
Stephen Henighan is the author of A Grave in the Air (Thistledown Press, 2007), short stories, and A Report on the Afterlife of Culture (Biblioasis, 2008), essays. He is the general editor of the Biblioasis International Translation Series, for which he has translated Ondjaki’s Good Morning Comrades (2008) from Portuguese and Mihail Sebastian’s The Accident (forthcoming) from Romanian.
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