June 1, 2010
Monsieur Pain (Roberto Bolaño)
I read Monsieur Pain a week ago. The "Epilogue for Voices" section is another rug-sweeping metaliterary device that reminds me of Nazi Literature in the Americas' "Epilogue for Monsters." I think Monsieur Pain is a prefiguration of Nazi Literature in that aspect and also in the structure itself of the "voices" where the name of the character in question is followed by the city and year of his/her birth and death. The narrator of Nazi Literature is identified, at least in the final story "The Infamous Ramírez Hoffman" where the storytelling voice shifted to a more personal one and where the name of the narrator is revealed in the story. We know also that the last story in Nazi Literature is further reworked and extended by Bolaño in Distant Star, which contains a sort of preface where the self-effacing narrator mentions his identity and that of his collaborator. So by extension, the narrator of Monsieur Pain could be the same two voices, Bolaño and his collaborator, except that I don't think that the time frame of the story in Monsieur Pain, 1938 Paris, supports this authorship. Bolaño's co-writer, and alter-ego, was born at a later date. The point of view of the novel proper of Monsieur Pain itself is a sort of first-person in a free indirect style before moving to an omniscient one in the epilogue, both of which manifest the winking narrator in Bolaño's latter books. This is getting pedantic, but it's one way of identifying the narrator of this elusive and enigmatic novel. Bolaño certainly conceived of his literary universe not as independent works but as part of a greater design, an entire oeuvre. It appears that the presence of an alter-ego is a necessary invention for the latter works which appear to be more autobiographical.
The present novel is soaked in an atmosphere of dread, fear, pain, and disorientation. It's a sort of an extended dream sequence. I like the idea of a friend of mine about the relationship between mesmerism and the rise of fascism. It's a very subtle and disturbing connection that transforms an apparently mystery novel into a political one. The motivation for mistreating the Peruvian poet César Vallejo in the hospital is an indication of the possible role of literature that is being suppressed by, here again, the embodiments of Fear and Hate, elements that we see also harassing Padre Urrutia Lacroix in By Night in Chile. The final character that Pierre Pain meets at the end certainly appears as a prototype of evil, specifically evil engendered and sponsored by an authoritarian government. We can think of the novel's characters as emblems or stand-ins for abstract/literary concepts, with Vallejo representing Poetry, and Pierre Pain as a failed Cure, and the circumstances as Sickness itself. The two foreign strangers who accosted the acupuncturist Pain are dead set at preventing the meeting of the poet and Pain, who can be his only cure. (Just imagine the name of your healer as Pain and you can't get more ironic than that. If we think of Vallejo's poetry output as something that is "humanist" (I read a collection of his translated posthumous poems called Poemas Humanos. Bolaño himself described Vallejo as "Virtue and spraining. The lyric that neutralizes itself.") then we get the idea why certain bad people are trying to censure him.) In the end, the reader is left to ponder the tale, pierced by images and voices as if pricked by needles all over the body. His curiosity remains unsatisfied, as he is prevented from getting the cure or absolution or closure that he wants to get from a book. But what do we expect?