According to Roberto Bolaño’s introductory note, the original title of Monsieur Pain was The Elephant Path—a term for those well-worn shortcuts that pedestrians tread, say, across a grassy area between two paved sidewalks, examples of the human tendency to blaze our own trails heedless of the city planners’ best calculations of where we ought to go.
This short, intriguing book, which Bolaño says in his note he had written in 1981 or 1982, appears to be one of his earliest attempts at a novel. In his introductory note he also hints that the genesis of the book came from the memoirs of the wife of the Peruvian poet César Vallejo.
The plot is rudimentary. In Paris, in the spring of 1938, our narrator Pierre Pain, a dabbler in acupuncture and mesmerism, is asked by his friend Madame Reynaud to attend at the hospital bedside of her friend Madame Vallejo’s husband. It is Madame Reynaud’s hope that, using the occult sciences, Pain may cure the patient’s chronic hiccups, a case that has confounded his doctors.
Monsieur Pain makes three attempts to see Vallejo. During the first, he is dismissed in favor of a renowned specialist who has just shown up and whose time is apparently much more valuable than Pain’s. Not long afterward, he is offered a bribe of two thousand francs by two mysterious Spaniards not to treat Vallejo; he takes the bribe but is later convinced by Madame Reynaud to return to the hospital.
During his second attempt, he succeeds at appraising the patient’s condition:
I went straight to Vallejo’s side. He turned over and opened his lips but was unable to articulate a word. Madame Reynaud raised one hand to her mouth, as if to stifle a cry. The silence in the room seemed to be full of holes.
I held my hand a foot above the head of the bed and prepared myself to wait. The patient’s angular face lay before me, exposed, displaying the strange disconsolate dignity shared by all those who have been confined in hospital for some time. The rest is vague: locks of black hair, the collar of the pajama top loose around his neck, healthy skin, no sign of sweat. His hiccups were the only sound in that quiet room. I know I could never describe Vallejo’s face, at least not as I saw it then, the only time we ever met; but the hiccups, the nature of the hiccups, which swallowed everything as soon as you listened carefully, that is, as soon as you really listened to them, confounded all description, and yet was accessible to everyone, like a sonic ectoplasm or a surrealist found object.
On his last attempt, during which he plans to treat Vallejo, he is blocked by an officious nurse and ordered from the premises. Plagued by melancholy and what may or may not be an overactive imagination, Pain begins to think there is a conspiracy afoot to assassinate Vallejo.
Bolaño uses this plot as a scaffold on which to hang several strange set pieces, including Pain’s overnight stay in a gloomy, forbidding warehouse (where he hears a voice imitating Vallejo’s hiccups) and his long conversation with a former acquaintance who has recently returned from the Spanish Civil War, where he is an intelligence officer working on the side of the fascists. The conversation takes place in a cinema during the showing of an experimental film that seems to anticipate the work of Resnais or Godard by several decades; in a bizarre tour de force of feverish narrative dislocation, Bolaño sets off the conversation with numerous detailed descriptions of the action on screen.
The significance of the novel’s events is left mostly obscure, but the pleasures of Monsieur Pain lie not so much in the storyline but rather in Bolaño’s gleeful but deadpan bouillabaisse of French surrealism, expressionism, and Kafkaesque unease. The hospital in particular could have come straight out of a German Expressionist film, with its nightmarish architecture and its hostile employees:
Then we followed Madame Vallejo down grey and white corridors, with a metallic, phosphorescent sheen, blemished here and there by unexpected black rectangles.
“It’s like a modern art gallery,” I heard Madame Reynaud 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.”
. . . I also noticed that the lighting in the corridors, contrived in a cunning but mysterious manner, since the illumination extended uniformly even into corners where the newcomer could see no trace of wiring or globes, was however varying in intensity; almost imperceptibly, at regular intervals, it dimmed.
Suddenly we came across a man in a white coat, the first we had seen in the course of our exploration, standing stock still in the middle of the corridor, and apparently plunged in deep cogitations. As we approached, he raised his eyes, sizing us up with his lips curved in a mocking grin, and crossed his arms. He gave an impression of coldness, or at least that is what I thought at the time. At any rate, it was evident from his expression that our sudden appearance had displeased him. Madame Vallejo slowed her pace noticeably, as if to delay the inevitable encounter with that man. Clearly they knew one another and she was afraid of him. But why?
We were formally introduced:
“Doctor Lejard, my husband’s GP.”
That we never find out exactly why Vallejo’s doctor is someone to be afraid of, yet continue to feel the unpleasant aftereffects of his glare, is typical of the novel’s disconcerting effect on the reader.
Monsieur Pain ends with a curious “epilogue for voices,” subtitled “The Elephant Track,” in which we get glimpses of a number of the book’s major and minor characters in the future, either through an omniscient authorial voice or another person’s firsthand testimony. I’m not sure how Bolaño intended the reference to an elephant path to fit the novel as a whole, but Monsieur Pain is definitely a book that blazes its own trail. It was also an early step on Bolaño’s own dazzling, idiosyncratic, career-long elephant path through the literature of Europe and the Americas: from France to Mexico to his native Chile, from Kafka to Borges, from the detective story (The Skating Rink) to the fictional encyclopedia (Nazi Literature in the Americas) to the road novel (The Savage Detectives) to the bildungsroman (part 5 of 2666). Despite the usually confining expectations of genre, style, influence, or national culture, Roberto Bolaño always went his own way.