Pure and Simple Despair…

Pure and Simple Despair…

Rogelio García-Contreras

Roberto Bolaño,
Monsieur Pain,
New Directions, New York, 2010.
Translated by Chris Andrews



From the poems of Cesar Vallejo to the imagination of Roberto Bolaño. Monsieur Pain is along with Nazi Literature in the Americas, a master piece of contemporary world literature. Once again Bolaño plays with facts to deliver fiction. Immersed in the lives and passions of the characters he creates and recreates, his work can never be discarded as reality. It is as if the author knew, like Borges, that reality is the best poet since it speaks–naturally–a language of metaphors. Monsieur Pain is very much the perfect metaphor, the poem of official history, the alternative to the scientific effort to kidnapping memory and manipulating events for specific purposes.

Reality reveals itself as the unknown; the eternal dance of action and intension, the unfulfilled promise between everything that is apparent and the evidence of all that is actual. This brilliant novel is a reminder of the weak and ephemeral nature of life. Like the male character of a Greek tragedy, Monsieur Pain manifests himself as the synthesis between calm and despair. Bolaño’s central character is the personification of a way too human character, a timid and at times confused individual unable to avoid the practical and inevitable contradictions of anyone that is alive:

“Over the following days my life seemed to return to its normal course. Pure and simple despair alternated with depressive episodes (which may have been religious in origin, since I regarded them as inevitable, without for a moment considering suicide and accepted the sorrow, drinking it down to the lees), setting the tone for days of renewed lucidity, calm in spite of everything”.

The sad and apologetic tone of Bolaño’s story is the result of something that Western civilization ends up doing for all of us: it installs a feeling of guilt given the tremendous social, cultural and economic gap that exists between our world and the “primitive” world of what we assumed to be more “imperfect” moral discourses. This kind of mentality though, trapped between the certainty of doing things right and the guilt for taking advantage of this ‘right’ whenever possible, leads or has lead to two extremes: totalitarianism (left or right) and post modernity (the absence of a sense of morality for considering it an obstacle to reason and the truth, if ‘the truth’ exists at all).

Monsieur Pain is indeed a strange combination between Prometheus and Sancho Panza. The free individual, the leader, the follower, the modern Western man: a titan in love with progress, a fanatical giant who worships “getting things done” but never asks himself what he is doing nor why he is doing it. His activity is not creative play but mindless sport; He believes in sentimental love and his sadism goes by the name of mental health. He raises cities and spends millions of dollars in his dog, his psychiatrist, or even worse, both. He is still tied by his umbilical cord even though he is the explorer of outer space. Progress, solidarity, good intentions, and despicable acts. He seems to suffer from hubris and his stoicism is without comparison, perpetually repentant and perpetually self-satisfied, a man constantly influenced by so many things, most of them rather small.

Despite the grandiose aspirations of Western civilization, Bolaño reminds us, through his characters and stories, that all of us are influenced by small things so much more than by the so-called big events in history. But just like Homer wrote in the Odyssey, reality is not a destiny but an actual challenge to our understanding and expectations. The world, as we have come to accept it and understand it, can change. And the good news is that we are not condemned to accept it as it is, even if there is a system of values or beliefs that promotes itself as the truth, the light and the path for eternal life.

The fact is that no system is eternal. All systems must be changed from the system itself. Monsieur Pain reminds us of the inevitability of certain pains in life. As a matter of fact, in life there are some unavoidable pains, and this is due to the fact that we are alive. In other words, there are certain sufferings, such as illnesses, sudden death, tragedies, even love or the lack of it that are inescapable, they are part of life, they are part of the profession of living, the art of living.

So in our lives we are pretty much condemned to suffer in more or less magnitude, certain pains. In consequence it is only smart to realize that there are some pains that we cannot avoid, that we cannot fight. As human beings is our duty to learn how to pick our battles, because there are some pains that simply we cannot avoid. But there are others that we can. These pains come directly from very specific socio-economic systems that fabricate every day hunger, fear, unemployment, solitude, slavery, poverty, and repressive ideas, and we have the right and the duty to fight against these avoidable pains and say: Enough!

From Prometheus to Sancho Panza, Monsieur Pain shows at the same time the harmonious sense of fatality of our human condition and an innate opportunity that springs solely from the liberty allowed by this fatality. Like most of our great artists, neither Bolaño nor Monsieur Pain turn their back on human suffering or surrender to it. Apart from what Kundera calls the narcissism and prejudice of art experts, Monsieur Pain is an attempt to balance the injustice of an unhappy condition against the disorder of the emotions created by this same injustice. The kind of order that the main character of this extraordinary novel is looking for is simply a worthy one. It is not that of a soul or a system of ideas. After all, there is no literature where there is no pain to be overcome.

Posted: April 25, 2012 at 9:01 pm

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