Friday, 16 September 2011

monsieur pain [roberto bolaño]

Bolaño's literary history means that he's going to spend a long time dying. Having written extensively for twenty years before he was first published, there's a substantial back catalogue to be worked through. The reason he had to wait so long for success was more to do with the fact he was a maverick than anything else, scrabbling around on the margins. All of which means that, in death, he's more prolific than most living writers. This book is one that helped to get him recognised, and is the subject of one of his more famous stories in Last Evenings on Earth. As such it almost as interesting for its role within the Bolaño myth as it is for its literary qualities.

Monsieur Pain is a slight if beguiling book, set in Paris before the second world war, when the eponymous hero, a mesmerist, is drafted in to consult on the case of a man who is dying, apparently, of hiccoughs. However, a rival party doesn't want the man, Snr Vallejo, cured, paying Monsieur Pain a sizeable bribe in order to get him not to take the case. That's about it with regard to the narrative. The pearls are to be found in the writer's love of arcane detail. He meets a pair of twins who design ghoulish scenes in fishtanks, (a kind of cross between Mr Hirst and the Chapman Brothers?); Pain is plagued by random characters who pursue him across Paris. His former best friend has become a fascist luminary in the Spanish Civil War. There is an air of Poeian menace (the book includes a quotation from Poe at the front).

Monsieur Pain is neither a great book nor a terrible one. At times it feels like an exercise in style, at others it includes writing that is bona fide Bolaño. As ever, a little research brings intriguing results. Bolaño was always a fervent advocate of neglected Latin American poets. It turns out that Vallejo is not a fictional but a real figure, who died in Paris in 1938. One whose work is held up to be among the most eccentrically brilliant in the Spanish language. Vallejo's qualities don't really come through in the book: he is a man who cannot speak and is dying of hiccoughs. However, it might not be too spurious to suggest that Bolaño sees something of himself in the figure of the Peruvian, a Latin American poet dying in exile. Which would make Monsieur Pain something of a prophetic text, as though the writer sensed a tragic destiny underpinning his development, something that tallies with his instinct to auto-mythologise, blending fact and fiction, as though his life was a book he was constantly writing, fragments of which would be captured on paper and described as his novels.

Given this, the following lines from a Vallejo poem (Black Stone on top of a White Stone) would appear to have their part to play in the story and Bolaño's reasons for writing this book:

I shall die in Paris, in a rainstorm,
On a day I already remember.
I shall die in Paris-- it does not bother me--
Doubtless on a Thursday, like today, in autumn.

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