It is a small book, only 134 pages. Certainly not anything that would take any great amount of time, normally, but it took me two days to finish because I was busy attempting to digest it. It’s a mystery novel where you have no idea what the mystery is, let alone the solution to it, and a pastiche of surrealism or expressionism. It’s a disconcerting book but you’re never quite sure why.
Most of the characters in the book did exist in real life: the main character, the occult mesmerist Pierre Pain, the poet Vallejo; the Curies also make an appearance. However, from there, Bolaño weaves his own mysteries around the events of the novel. Pain, a middle-aged gentleman mesmerist, is shyly in love with the widow Madame Reynaud, a beautiful woman several years his junior, and he is unable to let her know his feelings. When she comes to him with a request to help her friend, the wife of Vallejo, he is unable to refuse. The poet is dying of incurable hiccups, and Reynaud and Mme. Vallejo wish Pain to use his occult abilities to cure him. Pain only sees his patient once in that nightmareish hospital before being ejected from it, then is stalked by two mysterious Spaniards, and then embarks on a series of surreal adventures while he guiltily attempts to see Vallejo again, despite having been bribed by the Spaniards not to see him. Eventually, he becomes convinced that there is some sinister plot against the Peruvian poet, but is never quite able to find out what it is.
The charm of the book is not, of course, in the plot, or in the resolution of the plot. Half of what happens makes no sense at all, it merely flows on, like a slightly nonsensical river. The charm of the novel is in the Borgesian labyrinth that Pain finds himself thrust into–mysteries on top of mysteries, stairs that go on endlessly, questions that multiply without answers as Pain attempts to absorb everything that has happened to him in such a short period of time. Bolaño’s prose is lyrical but uncomplicated; eventually, you can just give up trying to figure out what’s going on and absorb it all, instead. Definitely a precursor and not as well-structured as some of his later works (this was published in 1999 but remained untranslated until recently), but also definitely worth reading.