A review of Monsieur Pain
by Roberto Bolaño; translated by Chris Andrews
New Directions (2010, $22.95)
Reviewed by Cooper Renner

Despite Bolaño's claim in his "Preliminary Note" to Monsieur Pain that "Almost all the events related actually occurred," his novel (its French title means "Mister Bread") is much closer to early twentieth century surrealism than to biography or literary history. Fluid narrative sequences more like dreams than most writers' versions of dreams related the mysterious events swirling around Pierre Pain -- acupuncturist, reader of cards, mesmerist -- after he is called in by his acquaintance Madame Reynaud, a friend of the wife of César Vallejo, because the Peruvian poet seems to be dying inexplicably (of hiccups?) in the Clinique Arago in Paris. Despite Pain's failure to save Mme. Reynaud's husband some months earlier, she has great hopes that he will succeed with the little-known poet. Pain's past washes up against him, especially in the person of a former fellow-student; he finds himself repeatedly in the presence of a pair of Spanish men whom he suspects of following him; he loses his way in the winding halls of the Clinique, like nothing so much as a Borgesian labyrinth (or perhaps a medical version of the Guggenheim Museum). Employing a reserved and stately voice reminiscent of pre-Modernist fiction, Pain's tale is itself mesmerizing, debonair and entertaining. I had earlier read Bolaño's By Night in Chile, Distant Star and Nazi Literature in the Americas, but none of them pleased me as Monsieur Pain has.