This story can be found in Last Evenings on Earth. Its humor is Borgesian and many-edged.
Like many Bolaño stories, it's about a writer, a struggling writer if that isn't an oxymoron --
“Publishing houses and their accredited readers (that execrable subcaste) seem for some mysterious reason to detest him.”
Whether the joke here is more on writers or more on publishers is also mysterious.
When France falls to the Nazis, “the writers, who until then have been divided into scores of pullulating schools, gather to form two bands opposed by a mortal emnity,” those prepared to resist and those prepared to collaborate. While ostensibly the story is about being a French writer post-1940, the experience feeding the story is surely that of being a Chilean writer post-1973.
A collaborationist offers Leprince a well-paying newspaper job, apparently assuming Leprince will collaborate because he is a mediocre writer. Artfully, Bolaño leaves Leprince's motivation for not accepting this job unexplained.
For a brief period following Pinochet's coup, the young Bolaño was a courier for the resistance in Santiago. The fictional Leprince does similar work in France. But despite treating his hero with understanding and sympathy, Bolaño gives Leprince no credit whatsoever for his heroism... which is what convinces me that deep down Bolaño is really writing about himself here.
"Henri Simon Leprince" is a savage, tender story about a hero who cannot be taken seriously because of some deficiency in his writing. The sense conveyed is that Leprince's work for the French Resistance is merely an attempt to compensate for his not being prestigiously published. Leprince – and this time I'm pretty sure the joke is on writers -- is far less preoccupied with the tyranny of the Nazis than with that of the literary establishment. He is snubbed by the writers he helps as a “reverse opportunist” --
“... they ask where he has published his works. Leprince mentions mouldering magazines and newspapers whose mere names provoke nausea and sadness.”
And I shudder at the contradictory emotions packed into the following sentence:
“Nobody can be bothered to look up the works of the writer who saved their life.”