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Thursday, February 4, 2010

"Monsieur Pain" by Roberto Bolano (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Roberto Bolano at Wikipedia
Order Monsieur Pain HERE (Read Inside Excerpt available)

INTRODUCTION: The phenomenon that is Roberto Bolano was discovered by me based on Larry from Of Blog of the Fallen highly-highly enthusiastic recommendation some two years ago, and while I started with what was available at the time in English translation, the author's masterpiece 2666 has been translated in 2008 and that has been followed by a steady stream of translations of which "Monsieur Pain", an early short novel has been the latest published in early January 2010.

The author's two "big" novels The Savage Detectives and the masterpiece that is 2666 are extremely impressive and 2666 ranks second on my list of top novels of the 00's decade but they may seem daunting at first, The Savage Detectives due to its unusual structure and 2666 due to its length and breadth, so maybe a shorter work like "Monsieur Pain" which is mesmerizing, relatively accessible and unitary will convince every lover of interesting fiction to give Mr. Bolano a try.

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: "Monsieur Pain" stands at some 130 pages, of which the first 115 represent the narration of the title character, with the last 15 or so a vignette-like epilogue detailing the fate of various characters. The contrast between the more immediate and even surreal style of the main body of the novel and the encyclopedia-like format of the vignettes added to my appreciation of the book, though I would have rated it quite high based on its main part only. Partly a mystery, partly an investigation of the boundary between the real and the fantastic, the atmospheric page turner that is "Monsieur Pain" serves as a great introduction to Roberto Bolano's work, while giving the more experienced Bolano reader a great treat too.

"Monsieur Pain" follows the title character, a mid-40's war veteran living on a "disabled vet" pension in 1938 Paris and supplanting his meager income with unconventional medical treatments like acupuncture and mesmerism. When some six months earlier he was called by young Mme. Marcelle Reynaud to help her dying husband, Pierre Pain conceived a sort of "romantic crush" on her and kept seeing the now young widow every two weeks or so in a sort of "friend to help in her bereavement" guise.

So when Marcelle asked him to try and help with another dying man, this time an obscure and poor South American poet Vallejo who is hospitalized somewhere in Paris on the charity of a patron, Pierre accepts despite his misgivings and the fact that mysterious "Spanish looking people" seem to follow him.

Not to forget that it is 1938 so the Spanish Civil War is raging and while it's not clear what if anything that has to do with poor Vallejo, some of Pierre's long time acquaintances who actually took a side in that war may be involved...

There are flashbacks to events in the early 20's, nightmares and the sense of unreality, of Pierre standing on a thin line between the real and the paranormal, all narrated in a very visual page turner that you cannot really put down.

For me the novel succeeded so well for three reasons:

- the magical voice and the extraordinary flow of words that appropriately given Monsieur Pain's talents, mesmerized me and made me read the novel twice in a row as well as including it in the category of books that stay with me and I plan to revisit once in a while rather than read and forget.

-the atmosphere of Paris 1938 is just superb and visually recreated and I felt I could imagine the place and time perfectly.

-the twists and turns that make "Monsieur Pain" 's destination unpredictable and always ahead of you; this actually is a characteristic of Roberto Bolano's oeuvre in general and while it may not satisfy the "completists" who want a definite ending, it works wonderfully for me and I never felt "cheated" in the resulting ambiguity; though here the epilogue vignettes, so different in tone give a clear completion which probably more than anything
signifies the fact that indeed the novel is an "early" Bolano since later the author will be confident enough to remain ambiguous to the end...

An A+ and just superb and a great introduction to the author if you have not encountered his work so far.


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