Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Roberto Bolaño: Monsieur Pain

Two reviews of Roberto Bolaño's Monsieur Pain.

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.
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"Monsieur Pain" is one of Roberto Bolano's first novels; it won two regional writing contests in Spain in the early 1980s. It feels a lot like a number of Bolano's other books, as well as a New York Trilogy-era Paul Auster novel and something by Kafka -- complete with a mysterious conspiracy, polite thugs who won't answer questions, a dearth of clues for the protagonist and the reader, and yet the sense, throughout, that the mystery is drawing us ever closer toward a solution we won't find. (...)

The Bolano craze in the United States, which peaked with last year's publication of "2666," is perhaps now in its denouement. New Directions is issuing translations of the slender novels the late Bolano churned out in his short career, of which this was the first.

It certainly shows the seeds of the mature Bolano's enduring obsessions, including poets (this novel has more than a bit to do with Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo), labyrinthine bureaucracy (the poor Pain is barred at every door where Vallejo is dying by tough orderlies, haughty doctors and mean nurses) and genre fiction, especially mystery. It's also haunted by revolution, as the Spanish Civil War is everywhere in the background. It's a very good read and essential for Bolano completists.

But for a reader new to Bolano, it's best to begin with another of the shorter novels -- "By Night in Chile" or "Amulet" -- and then if you've developed a taste, go on to "The Savage Detectives," Bolano's first door-stopper masterpiece. It's a bit of a slog in the middle, requiring time and determination. Save "2666" and "Monsieur Pain" for later, once Bolano has cast his formidable spell on you.
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