Thursday, October 21, 2010


Roberto Bolano has become one of my alltime favorite writers, as I've said before on this blog.

His THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES, considered by many to be his masterpiece, was the first book of his I read and dug deeply.

He died in 2003 and before his death was hardly known in this country, because his books were unavailable in translation. But since the amazing critical success of THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES, followed by its unexpected popular success—unexpected because his writing is more "experimental," as they used to say, with not a lot in common with most popular writing, even the more "literary" kind (ala Jonathan Franzen et. al.)—his books have been coming out almost faster than I can keep up with them.

I'm not as compulsive a reader as I was before my brain surgery, whereas throughout my pre-brain-op life I felt compelled to read every word, every page, of every book or magazine I started, including copyright notices, typeface codas, etc.

Fortunately, one of the good things about the operation was it has allowed me the freedom I assume most people have to skip over extraneous pages, like the title page or in paperback reprints of successful books, all those quotes from a stream of reviews, and to skip the ads in The New Yorker and Time, etc.

I still feel moved to read every article and story and poem in The New Yorker, for instance, but I recently actually went through the stack of maybe fifty or so books next to my bed that I am in the process of reading—some from before the operation which was almost a year ago now—and was able to put aside books I realize I have no other interest in finishing except to satisfy this lifelong compulsion to read every word of any printed matter I encounter.

It feels like liberation, especially since the books I decided to not finish are obscure ones by authors I'm not crazy about and I was reading only because someone had sent me them, or bought them for me, or passed them on to me thinking I might like them, or they were promoting them because they published them or wrote them or knew the person who did, etc.

MONSIEUR PAIN was different. I still felt compelled to finish it, even though it ultimately was less satisfying than anything else I've read of Bolano's, but the compulsion wasn't my old I-must-do-this almost robotic like response, but more just a sense of fairness, as in I love this writer's work so I want to read this book all the way through so as not to judge it unfairly.

But that said, and the book finished, I would only recommend it to the most ardent fans of Bolano's work or of obscure texts whose rewards are mostly arcane or to those of us who just enjoy the challenge of reading something that is unique—as I feel everything I've read by Bolano so far is—and not easy to see what the point may be other than following along with someone stretching a writing muscle and taking a chance at doing something different that might ultimately disappoint.

There are many passages in MONSIEUR PAIN, especially early on in the book, that gave me great satisfaction just from the writing, the imagery and perspective, the narrative voice and historical references. It's set in pre-WWII  Paris and centers on the narrator's attempt to make contact with the Latin American poet Caser Vallejo, who is in a hospital in Paris because he can't stop hiccuping. The narrator is a "mesmerist" who falls in love with the friend of Vallejo's wife who asks for his help.

There is a level of anxiety reminiscent of the best of Kafka, and in fact seems like an attempt to combine a Kafkaesque maze-like plot with Latin American neo-surrealism. And there is much to admire in the results. But ultimately, it comes off more as an accomplished exercise than another little masterpiece in the vein of Bolano's other shorter novels.

I will certainly read anything else of Bolano's that's been translated or gets translated into English or American that I haven't yet. And will definitely read them all the way through. But other books I pick up, or magazines or other printed matter, that don't engage my interest, I think I will finally be able to stop reading and let go of. What a nice result of having someone cut into my brain!


AlamedaTom said...

I have not read anything by Bolano, but in reading your post I did wonder if you checked to see whether the translator of Monsieur Pain is the same as the translator of the earlier books you love. I have found that a translator can really make a difference. Just a thought...

~ Willy

Lally said...

Good thought Tom, and I meant to mention that of course the translation counts. But in Bolano's case there's been two main translators and, Natasha Wimmer, who translated THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES and Bolano's posthumous sensation 2666. Chirs Andrews translated MONSIEUR PAIN, but he also translated BY NIGHT IN CHILE which I dug. I dug MONSIEUR PAIN as well, but in the end felt much less satisfied and don't think it works as well as his other books, so far. But Wimmer might have made it more palatable. I wish I could read Spanish well enough to read the originals. Though sometimes the translations are better they tell me, like movies adapted from novels or plays are sometimes better. Hmmm.