Monsieur Pain - 2015 Reading Challenge

First things first, if you're enjoying my book reviews, you might want to check out the one I wrote for Ploughshares on William Boyd's new novel, Sweet Caress. I had a lot of fun writing a review for a literary magazine, and I hope one or two of my reviews this year have convinced you to try a book you might not otherwise have picked up. On that note, however, don't let my negative reviews put you off trying something you think you might enjoy. Reading is a very subjective thing, and what I dislike might be something you find phenomenal.

Case and point might be today's review, where I will discuss why I just didn't 'get' Roberto Bolaño's novel, Monsieur Pain.

A book that was originally written in a different language

I've read Bolaño before. He was talked/gushed about a lot when I studied my MFA, and I have friends who admire him and find that he inspires their work. Unfortunately, for me this isn't the case.

It's certainly not that he's a bad writer, of course, or even that the translation of his work is bad, I'm sure. I suppose part of the issue is the way the two books of his have been marketed. On the cover of my copy of Monsieur Pain, there is a blurb from the Observer that calls it "A gripping noir conspiracy thriller."

The only problem for me is, there wasn't really one time in the book where I felt like I had to find out what happened next. I've read thrillers that I genuinely did not want to put down -- thrillers where I was so excited to find out what happened next that I started jumping ahead several paragraphs and then going back to read what I'd skipped in my anxiety to find out.

Monsieur Pain follows the title character, a Mesmerist in early 20th century Paris, as he gets called to apply his alternative health methods to a curious case of a man with perpetual deadly hiccups. That in itself is bizarre and almost farcical, but the story really isn't funny. Soon after his first visit with the patient, Pain is stopped by two rough-looking Spaniards who bribe him never to visit the patient again. Despite accepting their bribe, Pain returns to see his patient and is barred from the hospital by the staff.

He wanders the streets. He comes across one of the Spaniards, whom he follows into a cinema and there sees one of his old friends. Pain talks to his friend. He leaves. The mystery is never solved.

Honestly, I know this is a stylistic thing, and this novel won several awards and is highly regarded, so maybe it's just not my deal. I wish I had a better explanation than that. To me, the characters were flat and unlikable, and the story didn't resolve in any meaningful way. I'm more than happy to have loose ends, but this just petered out, really.

I didn't hate Monsieur Pain, as I have hated some of the other books I've read this year (and previously of course). But I don't think I would read it again, and after not being particularly grabbed by the other Bolaño novel I've read, it may be a while before I pick another of his books up again.

For the sake of ending on a high note, I am 100 pages into a new novel from Allen & Unwin called Hester and Harriet and I am absolutely loving it. Until next time, what are you reading?