Gerrit de Veer, a novice writer on a 16th-century Dutch merchant vessel, chronicles the daring mission to discover a trade route across the North Pole to Asia. But the heroic journey turns into tragedy when the ship gets stuck in the relentless, penetrating ice. The men are forced to spend the winter on the frozen, arctic wasteland of Nova Zembla, fighting polar bears, hunger and lethal temperatures. Their chances of making it until the following spring are virtually zero.
Set in Catalonia, Painless weaves two stories: in one, starting during the Spanish Civil War and running through to the '60s, an asylum attempts to rehabilitate children who feel no pain, by teaching them physical suffering. In the second, in the present time, a brilliant neurosurgeon who needs a bone marrow transplant, discovers this dark past when he searches for his biological parents.