Bolaño aspired to be a writer of the fantastic, like Philip K. Dick, because he believed the fantastic to be more realistic than realism. It is instructive to compare his work in this respect with that of García Márquez, the colossus who had already spread his enormous wings over Latin American literature as Bolaño’s generation came of age. The jungle fecundity of García Márquez’s imagination is so grand that it devours the reality of his generals and patriarchs, mythologizing their brutality so that they come to seem mere specimens of the marvelous, as safely removed in time as Babylonian tyrants, their menace as antique as the cuneiform on clay tablets.
By contrast, the evil in “Monsieur Pain” feels ominously real, despite the fact that Bolaño hardly enunciates its presence. The novel melds existential anxiety to political terror in a measure peculiar to Bolaño — imagine the protagonist of Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart” if he were being interrogated by the secret police on suspicion of having hidden subversives behind his wall. Readers know, as the characters of “Monsieur Pain” do not, that Paris in 1938 is a city of sleepwalkers, that a darkness soon comes its way. It is Bolaño’s great gift to make us feel the dimensions of this darkness even when we cannot see exactly what it hides.