Monsieur Pain, p.1Roberto Bolaño
Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews
A NEW DIRECTIONS BOOK
for Carolina López
P. Does the idea of death afflict you?
V. (Very quickly.) No–no!
P. Are you pleased with the prospect?
V. If I were awake I should like to die, but now it is no matter. The mesmeric condition is so near death as to content me.
P. I wish you would explain yourself, Mr Vankirk.
V. I am willing to do so, but it requires more effort than I feel able to make. You do not question me properly.
P. What then shall I ask?
V. You must begin at the beginning.
P. The beginning! But where is the beginning?
Edgar Allan Poe
Many years ago, in 1981 or 1982, I wrote Monsieur Pain. Its fate has been haphazard and erratic. Under the title The Elephant Path it won the Felix Urubayen prize for a short novel, awarded by the Toledo City Council. Not long before, it had been short-listed in another provincial competition, under a different title. I won three hundred thousand pesetas in Toledo. And around a hundred and twenty thousand in the other city, as I seem to recall. The Toledo City Council published the book and made me a judge for the following year. In the other provincial capital they forgot about me even sooner than I forgot about them, and I never found out whether or not the novel had been published there. All this is recounted in a story in Last Evenings on Earth. Time, that consummate joker, has subsequently sent a number of major prizes my way. But none of them has meant as much to me as those awards scattered over the map of Spain: buffalo prizes I had to go hunting like a redskin whose life is on the line. Never have I felt as proud or as wretched to be a writer. There’s not a lot more I can say about Monsieur Pain. Almost all the events related actually occurred: Vallejo’s hiccups, the carriage — a horse-drawn carriage — that ran over Curie, his last experiment, or one of his last, which touched on certain aspects of mesmerism, the doctors who were so negligent in their treatment of Vallejo. Even Pain is real. Georgette mentions him on a page of her passionate, bitter, helpless memoirs.
On Wednesday the sixth of April, at dusk, as I was preparing to leave my lodgings, I received a telegram from my young friend Madame Reynaud, requesting, with a certain urgency, my presence that evening at the Café Bordeaux, on Rue de Rivoli, relatively close to where I live, which meant that if I hurried, I could still arrive punctually at the specified time.
The first indication that I had just been drawn into a singular episode presented itself immediately: as I was going down the stairs I came across two men climbing up to the third floor. They were speaking Spanish, a language I do not understand, and wearing dark trench-coats and broad-brimmed hats, which, since they were below me on the stairs, obscured their faces. Because of the semi-darkness that generally prevails in the stairwell, but also because of my quiet way of moving, they failed to notice my presence until I was right in front of them, a mere three steps away, at which point they stopped talking, and instead of stepping aside and allowing me to continue on my way down (the stairs are wide enough for two but not three people abreast), they looked at each other for a few moments that seemed to be fixed in a simulacrum of eternity (I should stress that I was a few steps above them), and then, slowly, very slowly, they trained their gazes on me. Policemen, I thought, only policemen have preserved that way of looking, an atavism that goes back to hunting and dark woods; then I remembered that they had been speaking Spanish, so they could not have belonged to the police force, or not the French police force, at any rate. I thought they were readying themselves to speak, to jabber as disoriented foreigners always do, but instead the one directly in front of me lurched aside in the clumsiest imaginable fashion, and pressed against the shoulder of his companion in a way that surely must have been uncomfortable for both of them, at which point, having pronounced a brief and unreciprocated greeting, I was able to continue my descent. Out of curiosity, when I reached the first-floor landing, I glanced back at them: they were still there, standing on the very same steps, I would swear, faintly illuminated by a globe suspended over the landing above them, and—even more surprisingly—still holding the exact position they had adopted in order to let me pass. As if time had stopped, I thought. When I reached the street I found it was raining, and I forgot all about that incident.
Madame Reynaud was seated against the far wall of the restaurant, her back held very straight, as usual. She seemed impatient, although when she caught sight of me her expression softened, as if a sudden relaxation were the appropriate manner in which to indicate that she had recognized me and was waiting.
“I want you to see the husband of a friend of mine,” was the first thing she said, as soon as I took my place in front of her, facing an enormous wall-mirror, in which the restaurant could be surveyed almost in its entirety.
Guided by some recondite analogy, I remembered the face of her young husband, who had died not long before.
“Pierre,” she repeated, stressing each word, “you must see my friend’s husband, professionally, it’s urgent.”
I think I ordered a glass of mint cordial before asking what illness Monsieur . . .
“Vallejo,” said Madame Reynaud, adding, with equal concision, “Hiccups.”
I don’t know why fragmentary images of a face, which could have been the face of the late Monsieur Reynaud, superimposed themselves on the people drinking and chatting at the nearby tables.
“Hiccups?” I asked with a sad smile that was intended to be respectful.
“He’s dying,” my interlocutor affirmed vehemently. “No one knows why; it’s no joke. You have to save his life.”
“I’m afraid,” I whispered, as she looked out the front window, nervously watching the flow of passers-by on Rue de Rivoli, “I’m afraid that if you can’t be more explicit . . .”
“I’m not a doctor, Pierre, I don’t understand these things, it’s something I deeply regret, as you know; I always wanted to be a nurse.” Her blue eyes shone furiously. It was true that Madame Reynaud had not pursued advanced studies (in fact she had not pursued any studies at all), but that did not prevent me from considering her a woman of lively intelligence.
Frowning slightly and lowering her eyelashes, with the intonation of someone reciting a text learned by heart, she added:
“Monsieur Vallejo has been in hospital since the end of March. The doctors still don’t know what’s wrong, but one thing is clear: he’s dying. Yesterday he began to suffer from the hiccups . . .” She stopped for a moment and looked around at the people in the restaurant, as if attempting to locate someone. “That is, yesterday he began hiccupping constantly and no one has been able to do anything to help him. As you know, in extreme cases, hiccups can be fatal. As if that weren’t enough, he’s running a temperature of more than forty degrees. Madame Vallejo, whom I’ve known for years, called me this morning. She’s alone, with no one to turn to except her husband’s friends, who are almost all South Americans. When she explained her situation, I thought of you, although of course I didn’t promise her anything.”
“I’m honored by your confidence,” I managed to whisper.
“I have faith in you,” she replied immediately
Faith is the first requirement for love, I thought. She looked fragile. Her eyes were dry (why should they not have been?) and seemed to be unhurriedly studying the shoulders of my jacket.
“You can succeed where the doctors have failed, with acupuncture.”
She put her hand on mine; I felt a faint tremor; for a moment, Madame Reynaud’s fingers seemed trans
“Believe me, you are the only person who can save my friend’s husband, but we must hurry; if you accept, you will have to see Vallejo tomorrow.”
“How could I refuse?” I said, not daring to look at her.
“I knew it!” Her cry caught the attention of the people sitting around us: “Oh, Pierre, I believe in you, I really do!”
“What should I do first?” I asked, cutting her off, and noticing in the mirror that my face was flushed, with pleasure perhaps, while over by the till, two tall, thin, hollow-cheeked individuals dressed in black were engaged in conversation with the waiter, as if they were settling their bill or confiding in him.
“I don’t know, Pierre, I need to speak with Georgette, with Madame Vallejo,” she said, “and arrange a time tomorrow, as early as possible.”
“I quite agree. The sooner I can gauge the condition of your friend’s husband, the better,” I declared.
The waiter and the two men in black turned to look at us. The men, who were extremely pale, nodded their heads in unison, as if to signal assent. I was momentarily under the strange impression that those men, the pair of them, were one of the possible incarnations of pity. I wondered if Madame Reynaud might know them.
“They’re watching us.”
“Over there, next to the till—don’t look straight away—two men in black. They look like a pair of angels, don’t you think?”
“Nonsense! Truly, Pierre! Angels are young and rosy-cheeked. Those poor men look like they just came out of jail.”
“Or out of a cellar.”
“Although they’re probably just tired office workers, or ill, perhaps.”
“True. Do you know them?”
“No, of course not,” she replied, her eyes fixed on my tie-pin.
She seemed to have shrunk.
Six months earlier, in spite of my efforts, Madame Reynaud’s husband had died, at the age of twenty-four. Exactly a week before that, Madame Reynaud had appeared at the door of my apartment with a brief letter of introduction from old Monsieur Rivette, a mutual friend, and from the very start I had known that there was nothing I could do; the doctors had long since declared the patient beyond recovery, and it was clear that only someone as young and as desperate as Madame Reynaud could have persisted in the hope that they were mistaken. Breaking with my customary practice, and, I must admit, somewhat wearily, I acceded to her pleas. That day I visited Monsieur Reynaud, who was lying on his deathbed at the Hôpital de la Salpêtrière, which I had been visiting for some years already, since a number of doctors there, who held me in high regard, would call from time to time upon my elementary knowledge of acupuncture to aid them in various courses of treatment.
Monsieur Reynaud had a swarthy complexion and dark green eyes—a southerner, it seemed—and was gracefully pretending to be unaware of his state of health. I took to him immediately: he was handsome and awkward and one only had to spend five minutes in his company to understand his wife’s devotion.
“They’re all crazy if they think I’m going to recover,” he confessed to me the second night, after I had recounted certain trivial details of my daily routine, to distract him, and perhaps to create a space of mutual trust.
“Don’t think like that.” I smiled.
“You don’t understand, Pain.” His face was slightly turned toward me and it shone, but his eyes were searching for something that I couldn’t see.
I stayed with him until he died.
“You shouldn’t blame yourself, we all knew it was inevitable,” said Doctor Durand that night, trying to console me.
From then on I began seeing Madame Reynaud every two or three weeks. Was it friendship? I don’t know. Perhaps it was something more, although when we met it was usually just to go for a walk and pass the time chatting about this and that, never broaching our feelings or political convictions, or at least not hers; I did almost all the talking, and much to my regret the conversations tended to revolve around my already somewhat distant youth, the Great War, in which I had fought, my interest in the occult sciences, and our common love of cats. It is true that we also went to the movies, always at my request, or took refuge in restaurants, wherever our steps had led us, and generally sat there in silence. A silence that comforted both of us. There was never the slightest allusion to matters of an intimate or emotional nature, except perhaps on those occasions when Madame Reynaud quite innocently took me into her confidence and spoke of her late husband. And finally, we never visited each other at home (except for that first time, when Madame Reynaud came to find me with the letter of introduction from Monsieur Rivette), although we had each other’s addresses.
Unhurriedly, as I walked home, I began to recompose Monsieur Reynaud’s fever-stricken face, while meditating on the hiccups afflicting Monsieur Vallejo, with whom I was still unacquainted. A recurring image, it occurred to me: during the preceding months I had found it difficult not to associate illness and even beauty with the memory of Monsieur Reynaud. It was almost midnight. After leaving Madame Reynaud I had spent the remainder of the evening in a café in Passy with an old acquaintance, a retired tailor who devoted the better part of his time to the study of mesmerism. The rain had stopped. It struck me that the deep secrets of a condition are often revealed by the person who brings us into contact with the patient. The intermediary as a kind of X-ray. As a theory, it was, of course, highly speculative, and I gave it little credence. What had Madame Reynaud revealed about my future patient? Nothing. All she had revealed was her own morbid curiosity about my competence. That is, she wanted to see me cure someone, finally, and so justify the trust she had placed in me. My role and mission when I first appeared in her life had been to save her husband, and I had failed, but now I had a second chance, with her friend’s husband; I had to save him, and so testify to a higher reality, a logical order, in which we could continue to be who we were. And perhaps come to recognize one another, finally, and having attained that recognition, change, and, in my case, aspire to happiness. (A reasonable happiness, akin to care and trust.) And yet there was something amiss, something I could sense in Madame Reynaud’s silences and the state of my own sensory apparatus, which was on the alert, although I couldn’t tell why. An extraordinary malaise was lurking in the most trivial details. I believe I sensed the danger, but had no notion of its nature.
Suddenly, as I turned the corner into my street, which is normally deserted at that time of night, my fears were vindicated by the sound of quickening steps. I walked on a few yards before stopping, in shock. I am being followed, I realized, with a blend of certitude and astonishment, like a soldier discovering that gangrene has taken hold of his leg. Was it possible?
Cautiously, I glanced over my shoulder; two men were walking abreast behind me at a distance of about twenty yards, so close together they seemed to be Siamese twins, wearing enormous broad-brimmed hats, their black silhouettes standing out against the light shed by a lamp on the other side of the street.
I knew that as they walked, they were keeping their eyes fixed on me. So intense was the sensation of being observed that it triggered a physical pain, a pain that turned me into someone else. I covered the remaining distance to my apartment building as quickly as I could. I can’t remember hearing them run, which leads me to think that my reaction took them by surprise. Once inside, having managed to close the hall door, I found that I was sweating profusely. With my back against the door, I thought: Perspiration is an unequivocal sign of good health. Later I felt deeply ashamed; I must have run, I thought, and the men must have supposed, with good reason, that I was running from them, and so on. Just as this bout of self-reproach, which had only served to humiliate me, was coming to an end, just as I was catching my breath in preparation for the steep climb up to the fifth floor, I heard two voices on the other side of the door, more or less at ear level, jabbering in Spanish.
I climbed the stairs as quietly as possible, without switching on the light, and shut
April, I thought. A new life-phase. At some point I fell asleep.
I woke late, with a headache. Someone was knocking at the door. It was Madame Grenelle, who rents the rooms adjoining mine, holding two standard paper envelopes, one blue, one white, pinched between finger and thumb. When she saw me she stifled a cry:
“Monsieur Pain, you gave me such a fright!”
“But all I did was open the door,” I said, in fact, the way I had opened it, far from being abrupt, was almost too slow, as if I were resigned. And Madame Grenelle had taken fright!
“It’s midday,” she said, craning her neck in the vain hope of finding an overnight companion in my lodgings.
To preserve my dignity, I half closed the door and asked if the letters were for me.
“Of course,” she said, “nobody writes to me; the only letters I ever get are from the provinces, from my sister or my late husband’s sister, never from anyone in Paris.”
She smiled defiantly, her double chin at the level of my chest. I tried to smile too, understandingly.
“They were delivered in person. This one,” she waved the white envelope like a fan, “by two foreigners, Spaniards or Italians. And this one,” she flourished the blue envelope delicately, with a complicit wink, “by a courier. But smell it. Can you smell the perfume?”
Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolaño / History & Fiction have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes