As readers of translated fiction would testify, it’s pretty hard to have a Spanish Literature Month without the name Roberto Bolano featuring heavily. Of course, after the critical success of “The Savage Detectives” and “2666” his other works now litter the shelves of bookstores as they make their way through the translators hands and into English.
A quick, however surreal, read is the 134 page “Monsieur Pain” originally written in 1981 or 1982 according to the “preliminary note” by Bolano, and it’s fate “has been haphazard and erratic”. And what better setting than Paris in the 1930’s to set a surrealist novel?
Our “hero” is Pierre Pain, a first person narrator who fought in World War One but is now the recipient of a pension due to his lung damage during the war. Pain is a proponent of mesmerism, the practice where the natural magnetic force exerted by animals is used as an alternative medicine and healing. Pierre Pain is asked by a female friend to treat Cesar Vallejo, a Peruvian poet (in Paris), who is dying of hiccups, in a hospital with spiral staircases and camouflaged doorways. Two shady Spaniards are tailing Pain, but why? They eventually drop him a note asking him to meet them.
At precisely ten o’clock at night, having taken my leave of Madame Reynaud at the entrance to a metro station, I arrived at the Cafe Victor, on Boulevard Saint Michel. My name was written in the headwaiter’s notebook, and I was guided without delay to one of the private rooms where the Spaniards awaited me. Although the restaurant’s lighting was in no way deficient or abnormal, I had the impression, on stepping inside, that I was entering a dark movie theatre after the beginning of the show, preceded by the waiter, who for the occasion had been transformed into an usher guiding me to my seat. The bat, I thought. The path that links the man who serves and the man who sees in the dark.
As a shady noir thriller feel envelopes the novel, we learn that Pain is to be paid to not treat the Peruvian poet? But why?
“Perhaps it’s because I’m drunk, but the night smells of something strange.”
“Every night has a different smell, my friend; it would be unbearable otherwise. I think you should go to bed.”
“But tonight’s smell is special, as if something were moving in the streets, something vague and familiar, but I can’t quite remember what it is.”
“Go to bed. Sleep. Calm your spirit.”
“The smell will follow me there too.”
Yes something is rotten in the state of Pain, the smells of night time are they a prelude to something going awry?
Suddenly, like the waning moon peeping through a gap in the clouds, the scene appeared before me stripped of all semblances: two women determined to save a poor wretch from dying turn to another poor wretch when science and medicine have failed or refused to help. It was depply sad, almost worthy of a late 19th-century naturalist melodrama; and yet, behind what might be called the stage or the foreground, hidden by the scenery, I thought I could glimpse – it was just a hunch, and meanwhile I remained steadily attentive to Madame Reynaud’s words – the silhouette of a stranger, smoking in the wings, as it were, and I knew without a doubt that he was the South American mentioned in the dream.
Are you lost yet? In summary Pierre Pain also becomes lost, he visits a cafe with totally green decor, called “The Forest” where he meets a pair of brothers (are they twins?) who specialise in underwater cemeteries in fish tanks, “the underwater forest”. He stumbles across guests decked out in fancy dress, mysteriously silent teenage girls, neighbours drunk on Absynthe with a black eye. We have long discussions about mesmerism and the occult in a bar with a fan of Edgar Allan Poe (who coincidentally is quoted at the novel’s preface).
It gets better. As Pain is barred from the hospital he gets drunk and falls asleep in a bath in a deserted warehouse (after refusing to participate in a pornographic show which contained dead animals), he is then trapped in the bath, in the dark, whilst somebody imitating his hiccupping patient pursues him. As things become more surreal Pain calls an old friend and has a lngthy conversation….with himself…
“It’s Pierre Pain; this business is getting complicated.”
“I don’t know what to do…I’m losing my grip…my grip on reality…”
Pain decides he wants to find out what why he can’t treat the Peruvian poet’s hiccups and follows one of the Spaniards to a cinema, where he meets an old school friend (another mesmerist), all the time we receive a detailed description of the film being show…”Actualite”…is it fiction?
We find out that Pierre Curie (Marie Curie’s husband, who also received the Nobel Prize, along with Henri Becquerel for their work in radioactivity) died in a Paris accident, at the time he was “investigating the psychic forces manifested in mediumistic trances”, was it really an accident or was he killed? Does this link Pierre Pain to Pierre Curie?
We learn that Pain’s old school friend uses his mesmerism skills to interrogate political prisoners and spies in Spain.
We then hear from Pain that the end to the story (“or what I took to be its end”) was less than convincing. Is our ending similar?
If you fancy a flight into the world of Roberto Bolano, who here is mixing late 1930’s Parisian settings with Spanish and South American characters, blending film noir with surrealism and animal magnetism, mystery with absurdity, reality with oneiric tales – this is a novel for you.