Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolaño
Surrealist narrative is a literary form at war with itself; disconnection is a primary tactic of surrealism, and story is a process of making connections, however unexpected. 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.
A synopsis that made sense would misrepresent the book, since all we know "what happens" is what the narrator tells us, and he doesn't distinguish actuality from hallucination. He is Monsieur Pain, a gentle Frenchman, lung-damaged in the first world war, who makes a small living as a mesmerist in mid-1930s Paris. The woman he loves but is too shy to win brings him to the hospital where a friend of hers named Vallejo is dying of a mysterious illness, complicated by intractable hiccups.
The white corridors of the Clinique Arago are labyrinthine, nightmare-like. Two Spaniards persistently shadow Pain, then bribe him not to treat Vallejo. He accepts the bribe. He returns to the clinic, but is driven from it into a (labyrinthine, nightmare-like) warehouse, where his life is threatened. He follows one of the Spaniards into a cinema where they watch a surrealist film containing a sequence in which he recognises a friend, a physicist, long dead; another man he knew back then joins the Spaniard, insists on renewing his acquaintance with Pain, takes him out for a drink, and tells him, smiling, that he is "treating" republican prisoners for the Spanish fascists. Pain throws a drink in his face. He finds a way back into the dream-corridors of the clinic in a vain search for Vallejo; hiding in an empty room, he witnesses an apparently significant conversation but cannot hear it through the window. Some while later the woman he loves comes back to Paris with her new husband; she tells Pain that Vallejo is dead, and that he was a poet. The narrative is followed by a set of brief, allusive obituaries of some of the characters.
César Vallejo, considered by some the greatest South American poet, an active communist persecuted by the government of his native Peru, lived the latter half of his life in exile; he died in Paris in 1938 of an undiagnosed illness. His wife brought in "alternative" practitioners to try to save him. Roberto Bolaño, now often spoken of as the successor to Borges and García Márquez, left his native Chile when the dictator Pinochet took power, and lived most of the rest of his life in exile. He wrote Monsieur Pain in 1983, when he was 30. He died in 2003. From the seed of fact grows the great vine of imagination, twining and intertwining, casting shadow, bearing fruit sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter.