‘Monsieur Pain’ by Roberto Bolaño

Monsieur Pain

A Novel

Roberto Bolaño

Translated from the Spanish

by Chris Andrews

New Directions: 146 pp., $22.95

There’s an apocryphal tale that on the day jazz composer and bassist Charles Mingus died at 56 in Cuernavaca, Mexico, 56 gray whales beached themselves on the local shores in tribute. True or not, the story makes a kind of cosmic sense. Mingus’ art and life seemed governed by a set of rules no one but he understood: We could only intuit their design by letting his music wash over us.

One wonders whether when the Chilean-born writer Roberto Bolaño died in Blanes, Spain, in 2003, anyone thought to check the beaches. Like Mingus, Bolaño was possessed of a genius that was totalizing and inscrutable. Like Mingus, he balanced formalism with the avant-garde, delighted in annihilating narrative expectations and took dreams and nightmares as seriously as waking reality.

“Monsieur Pain” is among Bolaño’s earliest efforts, written in 1981 or 1982 when the novelist was attempting to earn a living by pursuing prize money offered by regional writing contests throughout Spain. A dubious strategy, but it worked: Bolaño cleaned up. “The Elephant Path,” as the book was then known, won 300,000 pesetas and a book contract from the Toledo City Council. Further victories followed.

Set in Paris in 1938, “Monsieur Pain” is loosely based on actual events. The titular character, Pierre Pain, is a mesmerist called to the bedside of the famed Peruvian poet César Vallejo, who cannot stop hiccupping. Pain is brought in as a last resort, through the machinations of Madame Reynaud, a widowed friend of Vallejo’s wife with whom Pain is in love. A World War I veteran on a military pension, living in rented rooms, he is a mousy type, unable to escalate his acquaintance with Reynaud into courtship.

Although the doctors can find no ailment to treat, they acknowledge that Vallejo is near death. A prominent specialist has been cajoled into taking the case, but he seems overmatched, and also derelict in his duties. In a typically satisfying instance of Bolaño’s authorial misdirection, Pain sees Vallejo exactly once, for no more than a few minutes, before being ejected from the room by the briefly interested specialist.

Even before he sees Vallejo, though, the mesmerist finds himself followed through the perpetually rainy Paris streets by a pair of mysterious Spaniards. Eventually, they bribe Pain to leave the case alone. Pain takes the money, a considerable sum, without either understanding the foreigners’ motivations or intending to follow their directives. The next day, however, he is denied entry to the clinic. He later sneaks back inside, only to become lost in the building’s labyrinthine corridors -- one of several strange, solitary adventures on which Pain will unintentionally embark.

The attentions of the Spaniards, meanwhile, do not abate. One of them steers Pain into a reunion with a former acquaintance, Pleumeur-Bodou, who studied the occult under the same master and now puts his talents to use interrogating prisoners on behalf of the Spanish dictator Franco’s fascist regime. This encounter begins in a movie theater, with a lengthy set piece of admirable narrative dexterity -- the film and the conversation open by playing counterpoint to one another, before merging in an unexpected way -- and ends with antagonism and drink-throwing in a café. But first Pain learns the fate of the third student in their old circle, Terzeff, whose demise has been variously attributed to his attempts to discredit Madame Curie, his love affair with her daughter or his inquiry into the death-by-trampling of her husband.

“Monsieur Pain” is by no means among Bolaño’s major novels, but it offers considerable pleasures. Like his later works, it plays with genre the way a cat plays with a mouse -- batting around the conventions of noir and toying with thriller-structure, then turning away in search of the next amusement. That amusement is often another of Bolaño’s trademarks: an out-of-the-blue story-within-a-story, a scene-stealing speech by a secondary character or a door that opens onto a nocturnal world of intrigue.

Such moments offer hints of the writer Bolaño would become, but it is equally interesting to note the ways in which his style and worldview are present only in embryonic form. Early on, Pain observes that “the deep secrets of a condition are often revealed by the person who brings us into contact with the patient” -- a strange and quintessentially Bolaño-esque idea -- then avers that “as a theory it was, of course, highly speculative, and I gave it little credence.” A mature Bolaño, one cannot help thinking, would have let Pain trust this idea instead of undercutting it or even granted him the space for a hilarious 10-page tangent in support of the assertion, a tactic deployed frequently and to brilliant effect in the author’s posthumously published masterpiece, “2666.”

The epic polyphony of Bolaño’s “The Savage Detectives” is prefigured, too, in a short final section titled “Epilogue for Voices” that details the deaths of even the novel’s most minor players, from as many perspectives. All of this makes “Monsieur Pain” a brisk Bolaño miniature, a revealing early salvo from a future great.

Mansbach is the author of “The End of the Jews,” which won a California Book Award.