By Roberto Bolaño, Trans. Chris Andrews
Because you don't have the time for Bolaño's decided masterwork, 2666—named after its page count?—but still want to get a taste for what all the lit-hubbub has been about, New Directions has been posthumously publishing slim, previously un-translated novellas from the late Chilean drifter-turned-novelist. The last one, The Skating Rink, was outwardly pulpy, revolving around a foretold murder, though the crime ultimately served as a red herring, an anticlimactic device used to lend urgency to the book's character studies, portrait of Northern Spain, and critique of corrupt Communist governance.
The latest, Monsieur Pain, written in the early 80s, is unabashedly more lurid; Bolaño leans on the ominous motifs of films-and-romans noir to establish a paranoid vibe, with men in dark suits and upturned lapels standing under single light sources in perpetual rain, handing off envelopes stuffed with cash. Set in Paris on the eve of German occupation—the impending world war looms subtly over the book—Pain centers on its title character (Mr. Bread?), an acupuncturist and mesmerist contracted to treat Cesar Vallejo, who's laid up in a labyrinthine hospital, ostensibly healthy yet dying of incurable hiccoughs. Two shadowy Spaniards follow Pain and bribe him not to treat the patient; when Pain decides to treat him anyway, hospital security won't let him in.
From there, the novel morphs from nervous mystery into hallucinatory nightmare, as Pain wanders through Paris with unfocused anxiety, moving between surreal encounters. These amblings vaguely evoke Eyes Wide Shut, just without the blatant psychosexual subtext. But, then, what is the subtext? Any expressionistic connections between Pain's waking life and the fantasyscapes he traverses are obscure: are they moody and meaningless mesmerizations or abstruse allegories? Bolaño might offer a hint late in the book, during a cryptic film-within-the-novel, in which one character tells another: "most nightmares have no substance." Or, is that just another Bolañ an red herring?