Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolano

I’ve avoided reading Roberto Bolano–mainly due to the hype, but then I visited mookseandgripes recently and came across the title of Monsieur Pain,  released by New Directions. The plot, built around incidents in the life of Peruvian poet, Cesar Vallejo sounded intriguing, and since the novel is set in that rather interesting time of flux–Paris in the 30s, I decided what the hell and ordered the book.

Here’s the plot:

Monsieur Pierre Pain, permanently damaged from Verdun, and living on a small pension, is asked to assist in the case of Peruvian poet, Cesar Vallejo. Vallejo is dying from a mysterious ailment–the only outward sign of any sort of medical problem is persistent hiccupping. Pain, a practitioner of acupuncture and Mesmerism, agrees to help mainly because he’s romantically interested in the woman who begs for his help. But his efforts to help are thwarted at every turn, and over the course of the novel Pain only manages to visit Vallejo once.

One of the novel’s recurring structures is the labyrinth, and I understand that this is true of other Bolano novels. The labyrinths in Monsieur Pain are both literal (the clinic and the nightclub) and figurative (various plot complications). The clinic is seen as an intimidating institution–a place that’s chillingly impersonal.  Here’s Pain looking at the clinic before seeing Vallejo:

I looked at the facade of the clinic through the slightly fogged window of the taxi and understood that what lay behind it, more than anything, even more than madness, was solitude, which is perhaps the subtlest or at least the most lucid of the forms that madness can take.

Once inside the clinic (and dealing with suspicion from hostile staff members), Pain realises that the clinic is constructed to disorient its visitors:

Then we followed Madame Vallejo down grey and white corridors, with a metallic, phosphorescent sheen, blemished here and there by unexpected black triangles.

“It’s like a modern art gallery,” I heard Madame Vallejo murmur.

“The corridors are circular, in fact,” I said. “if they were longer we could reach the top story without ever having noticed the climb.”

 While the clinic is painted in bright whites and seems to be well-lit, the lights flicker in some spots:

 I also noticed that the lighting in the corridors, contrived in a cunning but mysterious manner, since the illumination extended uniformly even into the corners where the newcomer could see no trace of wiring or globes, was however varying in intensity; almost imperceptibly, at regular intervals, it dimmed.

Hospitals are never happy places, but the Clinique Arago in this novel seems to exude a sort of evil. While Madame Vallejo compares the clinic’s labyrinthine structure to the Tower of Pisa, Pain, who’s a very intuitive man, and incredibly sensitive to atmosphere senses something else….

Just as it seems as though Pain might actually help Vallejo, the plot becomes increasingly surreal. The novel’s initial mystery is ‘why is Cesar Vallejo dying?’ Novels usually present a mystery and then solve it (or try to), but by the conclusion of Monsieur Pain, the mysteries have multiplied. The plot develops, becoming more elaborate and obscure as it moves farther and farther away from its central mystery, and simultaneously the characters become more opaque. Pain becomes involved with a series of bizarre characters in a sequence of seemingly meaningless encounters. There’s a great deal of skullduggery afoot in this novel, and most of it is rather vague: Who are the two Spanish agents who appear to be so interested in the fate of Vallejo? Why do they go on about the “common good“? How do the agents persuade Pain to cooperate and accept a bribe? What exactly is Madame Reynaud’s role in the story? What really happens to Vallejo? The fate of Cesar Vallejo is swallowed up by mysterious comings and goings, surreal misadventures and bizarre characters who could very well belong in someone’s fragmented nightmares. The two Spanish agents are sinister yet they remind me of Tintin’s amusing duo Dupond & Dupont, and then there’s a peculiar pair of brothers who loiter in a cafe with a “jungle-like ambiance” and “Indochinese green” lighting while they dream of hitting the big time in America with their business: creating disaster scenes in aquariums. Here’s Pain looking at the cafe’s aquarium:

I went across to the tank. On the bottom, resting on a layer of very fine sand, were miniature boats, trains and planes arranged to depict calamities, disasters simultaneously frozen in an artificial moment, over which indifferent goldfish were swimming back and forth.

Pain initially notes an absence of bodies, but then upon closer inspection…:

for a few moments I was puzzled by the black spots standing out against the sand, scattered all along beside the train. Then I realized: they were severed heads or bodies buried up to the neck. A string of corpses, but, oddly, there were none inside the train, which apart from the effects of the water had come through unharmed.

I’m limited in my ability to describe the surreal in Monsieur Pain. Imagine Alice in Wonderland blended with Edgar Allan Poe, and that’s about the best I can do. I am not a fan of surrealism; I feel much more comfortable with 19th Realism & Naturalism. Monsieur Pain is a very clever novel, very well-written, with marvellous descriptions, but when I turned the last page, I felt a bit puzzled and cheated, and I found myself asking such unanswerable questions as: but what about…? What happened to…? Why does…?All questions with no answers–or at least the answers have become so obscured by events that the truth is impossible to decipher.

As I stand further back and consider this tale again from a distance, I find myself admiring it more than I did at its immediate conclusion. The circumstances surrounding the real Cesar Vallejo are murky, and the real story–whatever it may be–is impossible to untangle at this distance. Perhaps surrealism is the only way to make sense of a world in which there are no answers and no accountability. 

It’s impossible to forget that Bolano, supportive of Allende’s regime, ended up arrested after Pinochet’s coup. He narrowly escaped torture, but others were not so lucky. Perhaps it’s safe to say that Monsieur Pain is about as surreal as being disappeared from the streets of Chile (or rendered if you prefer that word) and finding yourself in some Chilean dungeon with a cattle prod up your rear end. Or then again perhaps it’s as surreal as turning on the television and seeing Pinochet smiling, shaking hands, and having a nice cosy little chinwag with Margaret Thatcher.  

And this brings me back to the staged “accidents” in the bottom of the fish tank and the periodic dimming of the lights in the clinic. Both incidents bolster the novel’s intense surrealism, and yet one man’s surrealism is another man’s reality. The ominous power surge that Pain notes in the clinic hints of a massive power draw elsewhere in the building, and this reminds me of the tales of torture, dimming lights and staged accidents found at

Perhaps if someone lives with knowledge of the disappeared, perhaps if you survive and live to see the torturers walk away free, well perhaps you always see things through that surrealist lens….

And this gives me new respect for surrealism.


Filed under Bolano Roberto

4 responses to “Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolano

  1. Nick

    Great article (I feel that for such quality the term “post” would be undermining).

    Well… another Bolano to read.
    After Distant star and 2006, the feeling brought by all those unanswered questions mingling together in a sort of surreal, puzzling maze, is quite familiar, and I love it!

  2. Thanks Nick. Quite a switch from the 19th century.

    Reading this novel, and my reactions to it were an experience. I was really enjoying the plot, and as I prefer character-driven tales, I found myself looking forward to getting inside Pain’s head. This never happened, so at first I felt a bit frustrated with the way in which the plot unraveled. I wanted the tale to go in a certain direction and it didn’t.

    After I put the book down and got some distance, things fell into place.

    Trevor (mookse and gripes) recommended By Night in Chile. I can’t say that’s next exactly but it’s down the road.

  3. I’m avoiding Bolano, he seems massively oversold at present and while I’ve read Trevor’s reviews with interest on the first couple it felt like he wanted to like the works more than he actually did. Something that comes over in a lot of Bolano reviews to be honest.

    Not yours though, I like the tying of it to the dissapeareds, putting it in context, but even with that insight I suspect I’ll leave Bolano a while yet while the expectations around him diminish a little.

  4. I am put off when everywhere I turn I keep seeing the same writer’s name pop up. All the brouhaha surrounding 2066 alienated me from this author, but then after seeing Trevor’s review on top of the fact that someone whose opinion I respect a great deal loves Bolano, well I decided to give him a go…

    I am convinced that there are many other allusions in the novel that I missed entirely. I’ve read some novels that deal with the Disappeared and the issue of torture so I managed to catch those allusions. That said, I do much prefer the character based novels of the 19th. I recently finished a Maupassant that I’ll be raving about shortly.

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