Mesmerism, Hiccups: Roberto Bolaño’s Strange Early Novel of the Occult

In Book Review by Gwendolyn Dawson

Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolaño (translated by Chris Andrews) reviewed by Gwendolyn Dawson

Set in Paris in 1938, Monsieur Pain is the first-person account of a series of strange events in the life of a practitioner of animal magnetism (a mesmerist). With typical élan, Pain, an eccentric bachelor, explains how he became a mesmerist after a bad experience in World War I:

“From then on, supported by a modest invalid’s pension, and perhaps as a reaction against the society that had imperturbably sent me forth to die, I gave up everything that could be considered beneficial to a young man’s career, and took up the occult sciences, which is to say that I let myself sink into poverty, in a manner that was deliberate, rigorous and not altogether devoid of elegance. At some point during that phase in my life I read An Abridged History of Animal Magnetism, by Franz Mesmer, and, within a matter of weeks, became a mesmerist.”

Because of his expertise in mesmerism, Pain is asked to treat a friend’s husband, a Peruvian poet suffering from a severe case of hiccups. Before long, the case takes a turn for the surreal when two mysterious Spaniards trail Pain through the city and bribe him not to treat the hiccuping poet. Pain finds himself within ever stranger hallucinatory scenes, calling into question the border between reality and Pain’s own mental labyrinths.

Pain confronts the increasing confusion with a kind of naïveté that is both charming in its innocence and frustrating in its passivity. The novel’s lively dialog and frequent moments of suspense overcome its fragmentation and occasional self-indulgence. Written in 1981 or 1982, Monsieur Pain is one of Bolaño’s earliest novels, and, at fewer than 150 pages, it is also one of his most concise. Monsieur Pain is a nice introduction to Bolaño’s particular brand of genius for those readers new to Bolaño, while those familiar with his more major works (The Savage Detectives and 2666) will enjoy witnessing Bolaño’s writing at a more formative stage.

Monsieur Pain is published in the United States by New Directions.

Gwendolyn Dawson is the founder of Literary License. Her reviews appear here and there regularly.

About the Author

Gwendolyn Dawson