‘I don’t quite know what to think of it. To be honest, I don’t entirely understand it’ – Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolano

‘Almost all of the events related actually occurred,’ Roberto Bolano tells us in a preliminary note to Monsieur Pain, a novel written ‘many years ago, in 1981 or 1982’ that won the Felix Urubayen prize under the title ‘The Elephant Path’ – and yet a stranger, more morbid fever dream of a novel you will not have read.

It is Paris. 1938. Our eponymous hero is a mesmerist and acupuncturist, derided by medical colleagues for being a charlatan, invited at the behest of a Madame Reynaud (whose husband he failed to save the previous year and who he is looking to impress and possibly woo) to attend the bedside of a Peruvian poet called Cesar Vallejo who appears to be hiccupping himself to death. Like Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, though – and I say this in the full knowledge of how apparently nonsensical it will sound – Monsieur Pain is less about what it’s about than what it isn’t about.

Monsieur Pain is followed by two Spaniards who attempt to jocularly buy him off the case, even though he has at that point yet to meet Vallejo himself. On the one occasion he manages to get through the internecine labyrinth of the hospital itself, he tells us:

‘I know I could never describe Vallejo’s face, at least not as I saw it then, the only time we ever met; but the hiccups, the nature of the hiccups, which swallowed everything as soon as you listened carefully, that is, as soon as you really listened to them, was simply beyond description and yet was accessible to everyone, like a sonic ectoplasm or a Surrealist found object.’

He accepts the bribe from the Spaniards and this causes him some consternation as he makes his way about the world – but there is a sense that the way in which he makes his way is what the book is actually about. Consider this (a more or less typical night, a more or less typical passage):

‘At some point – we were all fairly drunk – someone suggested we try our luck at a dubious gaming house. I vaguely remember an alley, I think it was in Montmartre, although I couldn’t swear to it, and a series of doors promptly opened by someone who remained hidden. I considered asking the time, checking my wallet, and leaving, but I didn’t. Suddenly I found myself sitting with my back to a circle of gamblers in a stuffy, malodorous room, barely illuminated by a flickering light globe hanging from the ceiling. I heard shouts and cries; I made no attempt to find out what they were playing. I went back the way I had come and the same shadow opened the doors before me. Before reaching the last one I stopped.’

Pain calls people up, talks to people in bars and restaurants, gets drunk, dreams and lurches bewilderingly from one phantasmagoric episode to another (sleeping in a warehouse, getting lost in the hospital, observing a fancy dress party). ‘I can’t remember what time it was when I went to bed, nor in what state I climbed the stairs,’ he tells us relatively early in the book. Later: ‘I was undoubtedly falling ill, and yet my mind and spirit remained alert, curious, open to – how can I put it? – to the strange confessions whispered along those unreal streets.’ Even though Bolano is fashioning a period drama, there is no sense of history or time beyond the calm statement of the date by Pain periodically. This is not nineteenth century Paris. This is a fugue state. A blistered vision. The world outside Pain’s head and the world inside Pain’s head are inextricable:

‘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.’

There is menace, certainly (‘There was something in the air, something that didn’t bode well. I took a few wary steps, testing the lie of the land. There had to be an exit somewhere.’) but the predominant feeling created by the book is one of puzzlement. Towards the end of things, as Pain sits in a cinema with Aloysius Pleumeur-Bodou, an old acquaintance (who we may want to think of as possibly resembling the Orson Welles’ character in The Third Man) discussing the film they are watching, to the chagrin of those seated nearby, Pleumeur-Bodou says ‘I don’t quite know what to think of it. To be honest, I don’t entirely understand it’ – and that, if I’m being honest, is more or less my take on the book.

Any Cop?: There will be lazy reviewers who mention Kafka or Murakami but Bolano is truly like neither. He is singular. Perplexing and mysterious and confounding but for all that entertaining and unlike anyone else I can think of. I don’t think Monsieur Pain is for everyone (and it’s probably a little closer to Amulet – a difficult Bolano – than to, say, The Skating Rink – an easier Bolano) but if you were to ask me whether I was glad I’d read the book, I’d say yes.

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