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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Monsieur Pain

Roberto Bolaño

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To purchase Monsieur Pain

Title: Monsieur Pain
Author: Roberto Bolaño
Genre: Novel
Written: (1982) (Eng. 2010)
Length: 136 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Monsieur Pain - US
Monsieur Pain - US (Spanish)
Monsieur Pain - UK
Monsieur Pain - Canada
Monsieur Pain - India
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Monsieur Pain - España
  • Originally published as La senda de los elefantes (1982, 1994) and then as Monsieur Pain (1999)
  • Translated by Chris Andrews

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fine and assured small novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 29/1/2011 Ursula K. LeGuin
Lire . 11/2008 Fabrice Gaignault
The LA Times . 10/1/2010 Adam Mansbach
The NY Times Book Rev. . 7/2/2010 Will Blythe
San Francisco Chronicle . 12/2/2010 Carolina De Robertis
TLS . 4/2/2011 Adam O'Riordan

  From the Reviews:
  • "Readers open to the autodestructive element of modern art may find the surrealist devices in Monsieur Pain more deeply engaging than coherent narrative. I find them curiously old-fashioned, overly cinematic, and all too close to self-parody. But this early Bolaño novel has a moral and political urgency that obliges me to accept its noir banalities. Its tortuous method of approaching the unspeakable reveals the face of evil without glamorising it, as popular literature and film so often do. By indirection it avoids collusion." - Ursula K. LeGuin

  • "Bolaño offre une galerie de personnages entre chiens et loups comme sortis d'un roman de Modiano, conspirant et plongeant le lecteur dans un labyrinthe de mots où la réalité s'efface peu à peu au profit d'une sorte de rêve éveillé agité de cauchemars." - Fabrice Gaignault, Lire

  • "Monsieur Pain is by no means among Bolaño's major novels, but it offers considerable pleasures. Like his later works, it plays with genre the way a cat plays with a mouse -- batting around the conventions of noir and toying with thriller-structure, then turning away in search of the next amusement. That amusement is often another of Bolaño's trademarks: an out-of-the-blue story-within-a-story, a scene-stealing speech by a secondary character or a door that opens onto a nocturnal world of intrigue. Such moments offer hints of the writer Bolaño would become, but it is equally interesting to note the ways in which his style and worldview are present only in embryonic form." - Adam Mansbach, The Los Angeles Times

  • "At what may or may not be a climactic moment, Pain observes a courtyard drama from a hospital window, then finds a bed and falls asleep. He can’t decipher anything. The world stuns him with its illegibility. This is the novel as Max Ernst or de Chirico might have written it." - Will Blythe, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Vallejo himself becomes a metaphor for resistance, for poetry and for the ailments that maw at its unfathomable heart." - Carolina De Robertis, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Monsieur Pain is a mystery in which the mystery remains unsolved. The novel strikes a compelling balance of lucidity and strangeness" - Adam O'Riordan, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Written in 1981 or 1982, with a "haphazard and erratic" fate (and publishing history) after that (as Bolaño mentions in a Preliminary Note added to a later edition, included here), Monsieur Pain is, down the to very last lines of the novel proper, impossible to dissociate from the Bolaño-myth and -mania that has since risen around the author, and from his later works, which most readers who pick it up are likely to already be familiar with.
       Set in Paris in 1938, the plot of Monsieur Pain revolves around the hospitalized Peruvian poet, César Vallejo; at the end of the novel the narrator, Pierre Pain, learns that Vallejo has died, and that Louis Aragon made a speech at the funeral:

     "Aragon ?" I murmur.
     "Yes," says Madame Reynaud. "Monsieur Vallejo was a poet."
     "I had no idea. You never mentioned it to me."
     "Well, he was," affirms Madame Reynaud. "He was a poet, although not at all well known, and very poor," she adds.
     "Now he'll become famous," says Monsieur Blockman with a knowing smile, looking at his watch.
       The poet's fate described here is much like Bolaño's would be, two decades after he wrote this: a death in relative obscurity, though with the writer's genius already recognized by some, and then posthumous fame.
       Blockman's glance at his watch -- a brilliant last image, a reminder that, for most, poetry and artistic renown are matters that are only of limited interest -- is the closing scene of Pain's account, but the novel also has an: 'Epilogue for Voices: The Elephant Track', brief (one page or so, for the most part) biographical vignettes of the significant characters from the novel, including descriptions of what became of them, and when they died, a precursor of what Bolaño does in works from Nazi Literature in the Americas to The Savage Detectives.
       So: much of Monsieur Pain seems familiar, and so Bolañoesque -- a shame, almost, because it is now difficult to read the work without fitting it in, as an apprentice-piece, in Bolaño's œuvre as a whole, while, in fact, it is an interesting and appealing work even without all this unavoidable baggage.
       Pierre Pain is in his forties. He fought in the Great War and was gassed, barely surviving. Returning to civilian life, he lived off his invalid's pension:
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 Magnetism, by Franz Mesmer, and, within a matter of weeks, became a mesmerist.
       He acknowledges: "I am a utopian, in fact, but a static utopian", and:
For me, mesmerism is like a medieval painting. Beautiful and useless. Timeless. Trapped.
       Nevertheless, he continues to practice his art -- or deception -- though, at best, half-heartedly. Madame Reynaud, a widow who is one of his few friends (and in whom he takes some romantic interest), asks him to come to the aid of one of her friends, the wife of the poet César Vallejo. Pain had been unable to save Madame Reynaud's husband when he was on his deathbed, but Vallejo has been in hospital for over a week and is apparently dying and in their desperation they turn even to Pain:
"No one knows why; it's no joke. You have to save his life."
       The doctors aren't helpful -- "All his organs are in perfect working order ! I can't see what's wrong with the man", one complains -- but beyond whatever ails him he has now also come down with the hiccups. Pain eventually finds:
Vallejo's hiccups, however, seemed to be quite autonomous, foreign to his body, as if they were afflicted with him rather than the other way around.
       The situation is complicated by those that seem to take an interest in seeing to it that Vallejo is not helped; Pain is even bribed to stay away from him -- "for the common good".
       Eventually, Pain shares his fears -- in a telephone call, typically well choreographed by Bolaño:
     "Forgive me ... I think Vallejo ... my patient ... is going to be assassinated ... Don't ask me how I know ... I don't have any rational explanation ..."
     "All of us are implicated in this hell ..."
     "Good-bye, you never did me any harm ... or any good, either ..."
       Pain remains largely uncomprehending. He is often confused, or feels or even gets lost (as he does when he sneaks back into the hospital). Reality and surreality merge -- marvelously in one scene in a cinema, into which he follows someone, only to find more than he bargained for, both on screen and in the audience. Typically, also, he only finds out about Vallejo's death after the poet has already been buried.
       Early on he already complains:
     I was going to object that I didn't understand a word of this gibberish, but on second thought I felt that it would be best to remain silent.
       He is not solely a passive observer, but his actions are largely fruitless; his reality seems to move separately from the world around him -- down to his would-be love-interest, Madame Reynaud, engaged to another before he even realizes it. He remains: "Timeless. Trapped."
       Where Pain differs most from the characters in Bolaño's later books is that he lacks the poetic sense Bolaño imbues them with. His fundamental flaw is repeatedly made obvious:
     "I have very little to lose, really," I said, excusing myself. "You can't even imagine how little."
     "Don't worry," said the dark one, smiling. "We have a lot of money, it's not an issue."
     "And besides, don't underestimate the imagination."
     "The imagination can imagine anything."
     "Anything," said the thin one.
     "Leave Vallejo to us, we'll take care of him; he's a friend, a soul mate."
     A soul mate ? The imagination can imagine anything ? I had a sharpening sense that I didn't understand what they meant.
       Monsieur Pain is, in many ways, a more conventional novel than most of Bolaño's work, kept down to earth by a protagonist who is unable to make those leaps of the imagination (and live by them) that his later characters will. Amusingly, however, Bolaño can't quite contain himself, and slips in other characters who are more inspired. Among the most appealing in Monsieur Pain are two brothers who build miniature tableaux in fish-tanks -- without great success: "We manage to sell one from time to time, mainly around Christmas, but the buyers have ideas of their own and we only do underwater cemeteries". Here, too, there are more shades of the later, more ambitious Bolaño, as he has one of the brothers sum up the political situation and circumstances (the story is set, after all, in the spring of 1938):
There's no future here for two young men like us. We're not partial to the Surrealists or to men in uniform. And sooner or later one camp or the other is bound to throw down the gauntlet. Sooner, the way things are going.
       Pain is not an artist, and barely a fraud; hence, there's only so much Bolaño can do with him (and, not surprisingly, the epilogue reveals that he neither achieves much nor survives much longer after the events he described). Yet he's an interesting character in his inability to deal with the rich world around him. Sinister forces seem to be at play -- and there are numerous scenes of characters following one another (tellingly generally with the one being followed aware of the other's presence) -- and Bolaño's use of real-life incidents (Vallejo's demise, the nearby Spanish Civil War, the Curie-family) make for an appealing nightmarish journey for the overwhelmed narrator.
       Despite his admissions that he fails to comprehend so much, Pain too has moments of surprising -- and poetic -- perception; it's a testament to Bolaño's art that these barely jar -- so, for example:
The weather could not have been worse; the rain was intensifying, and above the fossilized buildings, which were enveloped in a murmur that struck me, paradoxically, as similar to a nursery rhyme, a leaden sky reared, with milky patches molded by the shifty wind into lung-like shapes, forms that seemed able to breathe in and out, suspended over our heads.
       Yes, it is difficult to read Monsieur Pain without thinking of it in terms of being an apprentice-work, but it is surprisingly assured and can stand on its own merits. It also shows Bolaño's almost off-hand mastery: if imperfect, it still suggests that he could have been capable of almost anything, from conventional thriller to the works that he's most famous for.
       A good introduction to the author, and fascinating for those familiar with his later work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 October 2009

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Monsieur Pain: Reviews: Roberto Bolaño: Other books by Roberto Bolaño under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chilean author Roberto Bolaño lived 1953 to 2003.

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