Hopeless, hapless, helpless

Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolaño,
Chris Andrews translator 2010.
Picador 2011 (1999)

Paris, April 1938
Young widow Madame Reynaud approaches Pierre Pain, war pensioner and mesmerist, with an unusual request. Would he attend to César Vallejo who is dying in a Paris hospital? The doctors have no idea why he is expiring, nor why he is hiccupping. Perhaps Monsieur Pain, with his unorthodox skills, can help?

Thus begins this novella by the late Roberto Bolaño, and the reader is soon plunged into a world of paranoia and mystery set in a miserably wet capital on the eve of war. Can we believe what we read when it’s told by such an unreliable narrator? Especially when he doesn’t seem to know what’s going on either?

This is a strange little tale where nothing much makes sense and perhaps isn’t meant to — like Vallejo’s hiccups we lurch randomly from one inexplicable scenario to another. Towards the end there is a scene in a small cinema where an independent film is being shown: called Actualité, it isn’t literally ‘the news’ or ‘current events’ but a confusingly edited narrative mixing staged acting with unrelated documentary footage. Interspersed with these two jarring threads is a third, where the narrator is talking to a former acquaintance about past events, and the story is further interrupted by a slanging match with the cinema audience. This dissonance, one of many but perhaps the most symbolic, is deliberately created to confuse the unwary reader. It’s almost as though the reader expecting a straightforward thriller has been mesmerised, their awareness for significant clues falsely heightened.

The story, for what it’s worth, has Pierre Pain trying to discover why two Spaniards are trying to stop him seeing Vallejo, then why the hospital is trying to do the same. Madame Reynaud, whom he has taken a shine to, mysteriously disappears, and the wife of the patient is nowhere to be seen. He has dreams which make no sense, he has or witnesses encounters he is unable to fathom out. He visits bars, he gets drunk, he almost drowns in the rain, he is led a merry dance round the streets of Paris, and he is no further to finding out what’s going on, and nor are we. What’s real, what’s unreal, what’s surreal? Pain’s labyrinthine lollop through the French capital — Bolaño even gives us an itinerary — reminded me a little of Jorge Luis Borges’ Death and the Compass, so it came as no surprise that he was an aficionado of the Argentinian’s writings, nor that his evocation of the fetid atmosphere of Paris was influenced by Edgar Allan Poe, whose Mesmeric Revelation he quotes from at the beginning of the novella.

The ending is deliberately prosaic: Pain, who has suspected some kind of conspiracy behind him being led astray, discovers that Madame Reynaud’s disappearance had a rational explanation and that Madame Vallejo’s lack of appearance at the hospital was also logical, in that Vallejo had died on Good Friday and had been buried. There is no Easter resurrection, however, only the revelation that César Vallejo was an obscure Peruvian poet. Though, as one character remarks, “Now he’ll become famous.” A life after death, but perhaps not what Poe had in mind in Mesmeric Revelation when he has one character declare:

There are two bodies — the rudimental and the complete; corresponding with the two conditions of the worm and the butterfly. What we call “death,” is but the painful metamorphosis. Our present incarnation is progressive, preparatory, temporary. Our future is perfected, ultimate, immortal. The ultimate life is the full design.

Bolaño’s preliminary note insists that “almost all the events related actually occurred,” and that “even Pain is real”. Following the novella is his ‘Epilogue for Voices: The Elephant Track’; in this he purports to tell — sometimes in obituary or journal form, more often as reported eyewitness speech — what happened next to various characters we’ve met in the story. These pen-portraits are unutterably sad, Pierre Pain’s in particular, and I have a suspicion that Pierre Pain’s name appealed to the author because it recalled the name Peter Pan. One of the famous quotes of the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up is “‘To die would be an awfully big adventure”.

Pierre seems to me to be a strange mix: hapless, haunted, paranoid, immature, friendless, indecisive. Surviving — just — the First World War, and living in the shadows of the Spanish Civil War and the threat of German militarism may bring back to him the hopeless, helpless state of the ordinary soldier during such conflicts. No wonder he lives a kind of half-life, waiting for the inevitable hiccup in his life to happen. The depressing spring weather of 1938 Paris couldn’t have helped either.

Paris, Grand Boulevard

Repost of review first published 5th May 2014, the latest in an occasional series of such reposts

13 thoughts on “Hopeless, hapless, helpless

    1. Thank you, they’re both of Paris in the 30s. The book is odd if one’s expecting a narrative where everything’s tied up neatly at the end; as it is it’s more messy, like life, with few answers forthcoming. It’s perhaps not the refuge we look for in a book!


      1. Yes, the contemporary photos were a prize find, Stefy, thanks. The title? One of those things that came to me in a flash, so much so that I worry it might be an unconscious quote and not original… 😁

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Now, with Modiano you’ve stolen a march on me but I’ll take your word for it! If you both like tricksy narratives then this Bolaño might well be for you.

      Despite a thirty year difference in date, this grey pre-war vision of Paris reminds me of my first visit to Paris as a student in 1967: the drabness, consuming onion soup at a workers café in Les Halles market, negotiating bedding at a cheap hostel, and an abandoned attempt to sleep under one of the bridges over the Seine.


      1. I think I went there first for a weekend in 1970 with two other gels. We stayed three to a room in a tiny hotel and met up with some young men who spoke no English. They told us they were’ plongeurs’ which I thought could have been plumbers or deep sea divers. Later I discovered it meant dishwashers.

        Modiano has one great advantage for the busy reader; his books are always around 164 pages long. If you like confused searches for one’s past with lots of Metro names he is for you. Try Out of the Dark.

        Liked by 1 person

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