A Bolaño classic. The Peruvian poet César Vallejo is in the hospital, afflicted with an undiagnosed illness and unable to stop hiccuping. His wife calls on an acquaintance of her friend Madame Reynaud: the mesmerist Pierre Pain. Pain, a timid bachelor, is in love with the widow Reynaud and agrees to help. But two mysterious Spanish men follow him and bribe him not to treat Vallejo. Ravaged by guilt and anxiety, Pain does not intend to abandon his new patient, but his access to the hospital is barred and Madame Reynaud mysteriously leaves Paris. Another practitioner of the occult sciences enters the story (working for Generalissimo Franco, using his mesmeric expertise to interrogate prisoners) -- as do Mme. Curie, tarot cards, an assassination, and nightmares. Meanwhile, a haunted Monsieur Pain wanders the crepuscular, rainy streets of Paris. . . .
It sounds like an interesting story, right? However, the novel then diffuses into a confusing series of nightmares, odd circumstances, and inexplicable actions, and I quickly lost interest. I read half of the book closely, then skimmed over the rest with a mixture of boredom and annoyance.
Several encounters with old acquaintances add depth to the main character but some of these leave you wondering if what happened was real or not. It creates quite a foreboding atmosphere but the lack of an overriding plot really hinders my enjoyment of this read as you do get the feeling that there should be something there but I just couldn't grasp it. Perhaps it requires multiple readings to gain an understanding but I doubt I'll go back and try. I haven't given up on the author yet as there is still enough here to tempt me to more of his work but probably not this one again.
Monsignor Pain is a delightful construction. It is a blurred exposure. It is an appropriate paranoiac period piece; the Paris of 1938 teemed with suspicions and throttled aspirations. Bolano's titular protagonist is a haunted sort, gassed during the Great War and living on a pension, he's an Occultist and a confident. His bleery hopes are all unrequited. He stumbles and yet clings. A downpour of madness and paranoia overtakes him for a two day trip out of the bounds of proscribed sanity: with the Peruvian poet Vallejo reclining just off stage.
The best images occur in Pain's rainy visit to a cinema. The air throughout the novella remains heavy with absinthe, wet clothing and vermin. Who could honestly want more than this?