For those of you who have been interested in but wary of Roberto Bolaño, you might find a friendly meeting place (more friendly than, say, 2666, which was my meeting place) in Monsieur Pain (1999; tr. from the Spanish by Chris Andrews, 2010). This is one of Bolaño’s earliest works — that’s not to say “easy” works, but I think it is more accessible than anything else of his I’ve read. It was published as Monsieur Pain only in 1999, but it was written in 1981 or 1982 and titled The Elephant Path, an apt title that connotes both trailblazing and following, though I can’t say that is why the title was used. Under this title it won a few awards in Spain; under another, it won some more. Though it’s an early work, and one in which we can see seeds of what would sprout in his later books, I would hesitate to call this an apprentice novel. To me, that means the novel is useful primarily to the author, helping him or her develop something else that is of benefit to readers. That is not the case here, though, because in Monsieur Pain we see an already mature author. More than an apprentice novel, then, it is a fully developed point of departure. Rather than follow the elephant track created by other writers, which he shows he can do in this book, he shows he is also going to create his own elephant track through the bushes. In his later books he starts knocking down the trees.
Of the works I’ve read, this is Bolaño’s most traditional prose piece. He sets up what appears to be a fairly conventional story set in Paris in 1938. In fact, the setup (and Chris Andrews’ excellent translation) seems to come from this period in literature. It adheres to formal constructs while showing an awareness of what’s going on underneath the text. Here are the first lines in the novel; they reminded me, to my pleasure, of modern European literature:
On Wednesday the sixth of April, at dusk, as I was preparing to leave my lodgings, I received a telegram from my young friend Madame Reynaud, requesting, with a certain urgency, my presence that evening at the Café Bordeaux, on Rue de Rivoli, relatively close to where I live, which meant that if I hurried, I could still arrive punctually at the specified time.
The narrator is Monsieur Pierre Pain, a veteran of the first world war, in which, he says he might have been a deserter had he not nearly died when his lungs were burned out by gas. He doesn’t have much direction in his life, but since his convalescence he has stumbled into a profession of sorts.
From then on, supported by a modest invalid’s pension, and perhaps as a reaction agains the society that had imperturbably sent me forth to die, I gave up everything that could be considered beneficial to a young man’s career, and took up the occult sciences, which is to say that I let myself sink into poverty, in a manner that was deliberate, rigorous and not altogether devoid of elegance. At some point during that phase in my life I read An Abridged History of Animal Magnestism, by Franz Mesmer, and, within a matter of weeks, became a mesmerist.
At the beginning of the book, as is seen in the first quote above, Pain receives a telegram from the young widow of one of his ex-patients. Pain rushes out of his apartment to meet her, but on his way out he is surprised to run into two men who are speaking Spanish. When they see him, they go quiet and stop going up the stairs. They also don’t move aside to let him by easily. They seem confused by his presence or by his leaving, and do not hide the fact, even as he is walking out the door, that they are watching him. The narrative then interrupts a bit, and we go back to the short week when Pain was treating the widows husband, truly trying to save this admirable man’s life even though he knew it was too late. This interruption is one of the novel’s highlights, in my opinion — he, of course, falls in love with the widow, but he can never tell her. He and the widow have met several times in the intervening months, but this telegram is unprecedented. When he meets her, she requests his assistance:
“Pierre,” she repeated, stressing each word, “you must see my friend’s husband, professionally, it’s urgent.”
I think I ordered a glass of mint cordial before asking what illness Monsieur . . .
“Vallejo,” said Madame Reynaud, adding, with equal concision, “Hiccups.”
Throughout the remainder of the novel, Pain tries to meet with this man dying of hiccups. The first time, he is thwarted by doctors who scoff at him and his strange trade, though they can find nothing wrong with Vallejo. But even after Pain has left, thinking his assistance will not be needed, the two men speaking Spanish show up and ask him not to treat the dying man. They offer him quite a large bribe to just go away.
I can already tell that if I try to recount even just a little bit more of the novel I’m going to describe something the novel is not. Yes, Pain continues to attempt to meet and treat Vallejo, but that is not really what the story is about. Pain is an interesting character in Bolaño’s universe because, though like others he is seeking an elusive target through strange mazes, he does not have the ability to ascribe meaning to his search — he’s no poet, in other words. He tends to reflect the following description of mesmerism well:
For me, mesmerism is like a medieval painting. Beautiful and useless. Timeless. Trapped.
Still, he is an interesting character to watch as he becomes increasingly paranoid, and perhaps delusional (we’re not really sure if the horrors he believes are coming are really on their way). The book becomes surreal and dreamlike at times, and we’re sailing smoothly on Bolaño’s flowing prose. Interestingly, I wouldn’t classify the other Bolaño books I’ve read as surreal. Here, the disorientation he conveys is more akin to Kafka’s type of absurdity; his later works tend to show a disorientation brought on by an empty shock caused by violence or loss. Perhaps, because of its surrealism, it also feels more conventional. But even while this seems more like a conventional novel, within it are the fascinating rifts, subtly placed, the anti-climactic dead ends that leave his character (and his reader) wondering what the buildup was for, that show what Bolaño will be capable of when he throws convention out. If you cannot tell, I am becoming more and more a Roberto Bolaño fan.