Just like The Skating Rink is a detective story that is not fully a detective story, Monsieur Pain, another early and slim Bolano novel, is a mystery that is not fully a mystery. In a literal labyrinth of Parisian streets and a figurative maze of imaginative constructions, Monsieur Pain is a middle aged mesmerist and dabbler in the occult who ekes out a meager existence from the government pension awarded him after his lungs were burnt at Verdun during the first world war. His unrequited love of the young widow Madame Reynaud prompts him to do her a favor by visiting the husband of a friend in the hospital, and thus begins his perceived difficulties. I say perceived because the extent to which Pain's sense of menace and danger may be perhaps his only facility for flights of the imagination as shown in this favorite passage highlighting the occasional obtuseness of the protagonist:
"I have very little to lose, really," I said, excusing myself. "You can't even imagine how little."
"Don't worry," said the dark one, smiling. "We have a lot of money, it's not an issue."
"And besides, don't underestimate the imagination."
"The imagination can imagine anything."
"Anything," said the thin one.
"Leave Vallejo to us, we'll take care of him; he's a friend, a soul mate."
A soul mate ? The imagination can imagine anything ? I had a sharpening sense that I didn't understand what they meant.
The dying man in the hospital turns out to be real life Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo who appears to be dying of nothing more than chronic hiccups that may originate from the will of the victim rather than the will of an undetectable disease. Pain leads Madame Reynaud and the wife of the suffering poet to believe that he can help after he spends some time with the patient, but is never able to reconnect with Vallejo, but takes to the streets in a surreal, peripatetic attempt to evade the mysterious Spaniards who have bribed him not to help Vallejo.
Pain may appear perpetually lost as he stumbles from one mysterious set of circumstances to another, and the narrative may offer one foggily noir cinematic moment after another, but this book is actually fairly straightforward. It was a joy to read for the playfulness with form and language that I always bring up in connection to Bolano's work (like a broken record). Poets and assassination and dreamlike existence play out in various forms like the cinematic touches, noir influences, surrealism, political dismissal of the forces shaping the upcoming second world war. In other hands this could have been a strained and incomplete mess, but Bolano makes it all appear effortless, all of these disparate elements somehow compatible. In one of his first forays into the novel, he picks up all his favorite construction tools, and wields them expertly to craft a slight but elegant hint of what will follow in his prose.