“What Other Choice Do We Have?“
A Review of
Msr. Pain: A Novel.
by Roberto Bolaño.
Reviewed by Matthew Kaul.
Msr. Pain: A Novel.
Hardback: New Directions, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
The recent explosion of interest in the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño (d. 2003) has been fueled chiefly by his two major novels, The Savage Detectives (1998; translated 2007) and 2666 (2004; translated 2008). Bolaño’s work might be best understood by describing him as a sort of rebellious sociologist of culture, or perhaps more accurately, a cultural geographer intent on a revisionary remapping of the territory. As such, Bolaño thinks and writes on the borders of culture, examining the ways in which cultures overlap and the frequently-violent interactions that result.
The Savage Detectives and 2666 are interested in, among other things, the ways writers, especially poets, relate to the world surrounding them. The Savage Detectives traces a group of self-styled hipster poets, the “Visceral Realists,” around Mexico City as they pontificate, found journals, denounce their competitors, and generally talk big and produce little before being run out of town. 2666, on the other hand, begins by following a quartet of literature professors as they seek out an obscure, reclusive German author in whose work they specialize. In both books, these protangonists are drawn in to the world of literature, but are unable to ever completely integrate themselves within that world. On the cusps and borders of the literary world, they inhabit cities but are never fully formed by those cities.
Their skittish movements between places are not, however, merely the result of some attempt on Bolaño’s part to critique the shiftlessness of modern life or to ridicule these failed and failing artistic souls as they stumble around Mexico attempting to win some sort of recognition. Rather, their wanderings offer Bolaño the opportunity to explore more substantive territory. Inhabiting the literary hinterlands, his protagonists open the doors to an imaginative landscape as vast and spectacular as any contemporary novelist. Bolaño possessed an astonishing power to create worlds of characters, and 2666 and The Savage Dectectives succeed because they give Bolaño the opportunity to explore this power without restraint. Indeed, Bolaño’s creative gifts at times threaten to overwhelm his moral vision; the fourth section of 2666, for instance, consists of one graphic, brutal description after another of the body of a murdered woman in a fictional version of Juarez. This section has been both lauded and criticized for its attempt to draw attention both to the violence done to these women, and to our tendency to desensitize ourselves to such violence. By presenting us with such a vividly imagined representation of these murdered women, Bolaño makes them alive within the novel; they become characters, each possessing a story, a family, and therefore a certain poignance that a simple number–300 murdered women–does not have. Yet in giving these victims character status, Bolaño simultaneously can’t help drawing attention to his own creative power, his unequalled ability to imagine so completely the lives of dozens of murdered women. By making these characters into characters, Bolaño necessarily threatens to undermine the moral vision that led him to write this section in the first place by drawing our attention back to him. Whether or not this ambiguity was intentional is beside the point and not a question we could ever answer. The importance of the example is that it is the rare novelist who makes us think so deeply about the moral relationship between writer and character.
Monsieur Pain, turning finally to Bolaño’s most recently-published novel and the one under consideration in this review, present a different version of this problem. Rather than opening up an overwhelmingly vast imaginative world, Bolaño here focuses on a single setting: Paris, April 1938. Of course, Paris is sufficiently vast that there are plenty of streets and coffee shops and corner bars for Bolaño to explore. Nevertheless, Monsieur Pain is certainly a very different work than either 2666 or The Savage Detectives, not least because, at just 134 pages, it is a fraction of the size of the other novels.
The novel follows a single character, Pierre Pain, as he is called upon by a friend, Madame Reynaud (the wife of a former patient who died under his care), to heal a suffering Peruvian poet–unknown to him–by the name of Vallejo, who is dying from a severe case of the hiccups. Over the course of five days, Pain finds himself bribed, blocked, and otherwise frustrated in his attempts to treat his patient. Convinced that he has become implicated in a vast conspiracy involving ominous Spanish agents, whose purposes he can’t quite wrap his head around, Pain devolves into a paranoia further fueled by his increasing obsession with the emotionally distant Madame Reynaud.
For such a short novel with such a singular focus on a single individual, Monsier Pain manages to evoke a world nearly as vast, and even more terrifying, than those of The Savage Detectives and 2666. Bolaño gains access to this world through his constantly ironic vision of Pain’s relationship to fraught world of interwar Paris surrounding him. The irony begins early. On page one, Pain explains his first encounter with the men who he believes are trying to prevent him from treating Vallejo, stating, “They were speaking Spanish, a language I do not understand . . .” The novella, of course, was originally written in Spanish; from the outset Bolaño sets up a barrier between himself and his narrator. The irony continues throughout the book, extending to the question of why Pain would be so eagerly pursued by both Madame Reynaud and the Spanish agents, since he is not in fact a doctor, but rather a mesmerist and dabbler in the occult sciences.
The central ironic tension fueling Bolaño’s novella is the relationship between fiction and history; this tension is heightened by his setting of the novella at a time in which the threat of fascism looms threateningly over Paris. Nazism is the topic of discussion in the bars Pain frequents as he attempts to think through the strange events he confronts; Pain feels particularly threatened by his assailants Spanish at least partly because of fascism’s rise in Spain, especially since Pain has heard that a former friend has moved there and become a supporter of Franco’s regime. Fiction and history overlap not only in this broad sense, but also with respect to Pain’s elusive patient, Vallejo. After all, the great Peruvian poet César Vallejo was suffering with similar ailments in Paris at this precise time; his wife did (reportedly) resort to consulting mesmerists and occultists out of desperation; Vallejo died on April 15, 1938 (as he does in the novel), to the end actively engaged in the fight against fascism. Despite Vallejo’s stature as a respected poet, Pain himself is utterly unaware of his patient’s literal and symbolic importance in terms of the broader historical events occuring around him.
In other words, Monsieur Pain is a novel about a man who believes himself to be at the middle of a vast conspiracy. What makes Monsieur Pain so interesting is that this is not the case: Pain himself is little more than a peripheral figure caught up in vast historical movements far beyond his comprehension who nevertheless feels compelled to believe himself at the center. By the time of the chase scene towards the novel’s end, in which Pain pursues one of his Spanish instigators through the streets of Paris, all the while uncertain if he is pursuing the man or simply being led by him, every strange noise, glance, and smell becomes further evidence to Pain of his centrality, of his ability to heal his mysterious patient and of the necessity that he do so.
In this respect, in connecting his protagonist’s inner landscape to the historical currents of interwar Paris, Monsieur Pain ironizes the relationship between imaginative work and its impact on the world. Pain inhabits a world that speaks to him and to him alone; the cost of his “ability” to read the “facts” properly as indications of the conspiracy against him and his patient is his inability to communicate those facts to those around him in such a way as to allow him to change the situation and treat his patient. Interacting with the world isolates him from that world: Pain’s problem is Vallejo’s problem heightened to the point of absurdity. Vallejo abandoned the creative work of poetry to take up the more “realistic” work of politics and political theory in his attempt to help defeat fascism, yet he ultimately wound up (as depicted by Bolaño) unable to communicate anything beyond the hiccups. In an important epilogue to Monsieur Pain, the narration switches from Pain’s perspective to a multiplicity of perspectives as friends or acquaintances of the novel’s characters provide brief obituaries of these characters; here we find that Pain himself died not long after the war, after a decade performing palm readings. Pain’s unnamed partner explains
To cut a long story short, Monsieur Pain and I were left on our own, not knowing what to do, or where to turn in the chaotic struggle against fascism. At first we hoped the Resistance would get in touch with us, but no, nothing, not a word; for the Resistance, or whoever had been sending the messages to Chu Wei Ku [Pain’s mentor], we had ceased to exist. . . . So we went on working in the cabarets and circuses on the outskirts of Paris. (134)
Pain’s bleak end, languishing on the outskirts of a city, and on the far end of an epoch, in which he once imagined himself central, implicated, responsible, provides a coda for Bolaño’s own vision of all creative labor. Monsieur Pain seems to suggest that the greater our imaginative vision, the more completely we are able to create a vast universe that centers around ourselves, the more disillusioned we will ultimately find ourselves. But Bolaño’s novella is no call for quietism. Rather, especially when viewed alongside the difficult and problematic grandeur of a novel like 2666, it offers a vision of the world in which our creative power always threatens to either absurdity (as with Pain) or fascism (as across Europe during World War II), but in which, nevertheless, we must continue to press on in pursuit of ways to put that creative power in service of the marginalized and the voiceless. In doing so, we may find that we have failed, that we have merely succeeded in drawing attention back to ourselves. But the importance of Bolaño’s work lies in the fact that he persists in asking the question, “What other choice do we have?”