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Thursday, 1 January 2015

Mister Blue - Jacques Poulin (translated by Sheila Fischman)

I’m going to do something outrageous, skip the Wikipedia summary and head straight to the “Canadian Encyclopaedia” to delve a little into the background of Jacques Poulin. There I learned that Poulin (born 23 September 1937) is the author of nine novels and the winner of several literary awards including the Prix David in 1995 and “is among the most widely read Quebecois novelists of his generation and the most respected by critics.” Geez that’s a strong call to make in an encyclopaedia “widely read of his generation?”, “THE MOST respected by critics”. I thought encyclopaedias were for facts – then again it may be true!!!

He earned two degrees at university in psychology and the arts and was a counsellor at a high school and then a translator for the federal government, after his first novel he devoted himself to writing, living in Paris for fifteen years. Interestingly enough if you search on Poulin at the Athabasca University site it says he was a “guidance counsellor” and a commercial and government translator and that he has returned to Quebec from France – ahhh the wonders of the internet.

It is interesting that he studied psychology as his works deal with the pain of solitude, the painful process of writing, the complexities of love and the machinations of everyday society. Themes he has possibly drawn from his studies?

A week ago I reviewed his work “Spring Tides” about a translator living alone on an island with his cat Matousalem, before Marie and her cat Moustache are dropped from the heavens, the peace and tranquillity of his solitude being further broken as more and more people are washed up (as also the rubbish arrives) with the spring tides.

Again we have the theme of spring, the isolation, loneliness, a dilapidated home and our protagonist being a writer. This work written in the first person and opening with the sentence: “Spring had arrived”. The cat this time is “Mister Blue” the title of our novel. Our narrator writes love stories and spends his time in the attic creating his works at a snail’s pace, having to feel along with the characters, who at times do not act as his story would like. One day he spots footprints in the sand (exactly the same shape as his own) and he follows them to the island’s cave where he finds a copy of The Arabian Nights, he leaves everything intact. On a further visit he notices the book has moved and he opens it to find it inscribed with the name Marie K. From there he dreams of a wonderful relationship with the mysterious Marika, who he has not met but who is slowly working through The Arabian Nights (in very short summary the tales of Scheherazade who to avoid execution tells the king a tale but does not end it, postponing her execution until the next tale and so forth for 1,001 nights). Early on in our novel our writer attempts to make contact with the mysterious Marika:

Dear Marika,
Welcome. Old Mr. Blue and I hope your visit here will be a pleasant one, as much as out inhospitable shores allow. Try not to let the cold and the damp bother you too much. Walk on the beach and the sandbar as much as you want: that’s an excellent way to shake off your worries, as I’ve often discovered for myself.
I have lived alone for a long time and solitude is propitious for my work, but it warms my heart to know that you’re at the other end of the bay. Now that you’re there, everything seems possible, even the wildest, most secret dream, the ones we never talk about, those that lurk beneath the surface of ourselves. I cannot help thinking that your presence is a kind of invitation to begin everything again, to start from scratch.
Though I don’t yet know your face, you already live in my heart.
I reread the letter. Its inappropriate and overwrought tone irritated me, so I decided to keep it for myself and use it later in the story I was writing.

We have an imagined Ernest Hemmingway arriving in his yacht and falling in love with Marika. Before eventually others arrive on his island (similarities to “Spring Tides” yet again). We also have our writer slowly revealing his marriage break-up, as well as a celebration of the written word:

I went upstairs to get a book from the sun porch. Novels were at one end of the room, practical books at the other. I looked at the novels, trying to decide which one to choose, and when I couldn’t make up my mind, I began stroking their spines. That’s an old trick: if you stroke the spines of books gently with the palm of your hand, you can sometimes feel vibrations or a kind of warmth. This time, though, I was too worked up, and I didn’t feel a thing, so I took the first book that came to hand. It was a novel by Colette, Cheri. Just as I was taking it from the shelf, a clear, sharp image from the past came to me, like a flashback in a movie, and I chased it immediately from my mind: a woman, still young, who was going to go away with another man, was removing her books from a bookcase, leaving shelves filled with blank spaces like gaps in a brick wall.

Colette’s Cheri being the story of a young man and his love for an older woman, written in flashback it is only after their separation that they realise their love for each other. As in “Spring Tides” our writer finds solace in a younger girl, this girl, La Petite, is coming to terms with the abuses of her step father whilst still trying to find her real parents. But this friendship destroys our narrator’s writing as his love story becomes one of tender friendship:

When you start to write a story, you’re like a traveller who has spied a castle in the distance. In the hope of arriving at it, you take a little road that descends a hillside toward a forest-covered valley. The road narrows and becomes a path that is obliterated here and there, and you’re no longer very sure what place you’ve come to; you feel as if you’re going in circles. Now and then, you walk through a clearing flooded with sunlight, or you swim across a river. When you emerge from the forest, you climb a small mountain. At the summit, you catch sight of the castle, but it is on the next hill and it’s not as beautiful as you’d thought: it’s more like a country house or a large villa. You don’t lose heart, you descent once more into a valley, you take a nearly invisible path through a dark forest, then you climb to the top of the hill and, on your last legs now, you finally arrive at the castle. In reality, it’s not a castle or a villa or even a country home: it’s just a dilapidated old house that, oddly enough, looks very much like the one in which you spent your childhood.

Another simple fable, with an ethereal quality, you become wrapped in the narrator’s life, his solitude, his loneliness, his quest for love, his desire to write. I haven’t given too much of the plot away here, as the quest for the mysterious Marika and the relationship with La Petite are the thread throughout, however again, this is a work where the surface and the stark writing actually reveal a lot more than the mere words on the page. A beautiful work, one to celebrate:

“I’m a person,” she told me, “who always wants to bite. I’m like an alley cat that everybody’s mistreated: my normal reaction is to want to bite and scratch. But when I read your books, it’s as if I’ve been given permission to be not so aggressive, to be gentle for a little while. As if somebody had told me: Be gentle if you want, nothing will happen, no one will harm you. Do you understand what I’m trying to say?”

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