I am, I confess, a cat person. Cats are independent, intelligent, clean, charmingly capricious, and they don’t love lightly. I’ve always had the impression that when a cat seemed to love me, I’d done something to earn it.
I admit, then, that one reason I was initially drawn to Jacques Poulin’s Mister Blue is that there was a cat on the cover. Reading the flap gave me “Puss in Boots” vibes, and, suddenly, voilà, I’d adopted the book. The Mister Blue of Poulin’s novel is a cat, the sole companion of a solitary writer named Jim on the Île d’Orléans—until the summer they discover an old copy of The Arabian Nights and a little sailboat in the bay near Jim’s house. The flyleaf bears the inscription “Marie K,” and this Marika, as Jim calls the mysterious owner, soon comes to occupy a prominent place in his thoughts and emotions. A Hemingway scholar, Jim begins to write what he knows—this time a love story, intended to be the most beautiful love story ever written. He spends large portions of the summer stalled. “Words are like cats,” he says—also capricious and independent. Inspiration is unpredictable, and Marika is forever just out of reach, in spite of Jim's walks on the beach and the messages that he leaves for her.
At around the same time, two other characters arrive in the gentle drama of Jim’s summer: Bungalow, a social worker and “mother hen” who runs a shelter for girls in Old Quebec, and La Petite, a sixteen-year-old girl from the shelter who was abused by her adoptive father and describes herself as an alley cat, mistrustful of people. While Mister Blue, in his silent appearances, is dignified, personified, La Petite is depicted as wild and untamed, skittish but still hungry for affection. Both Jim and this young newcomer are damaged and deeply introverted creatures trying to piece their pasts together, and the bond that they form changes the course of Jim’s work. The love story that he ends up writing is, in many ways, the love story of this book: a story of friendship, hope, and healing.
It is a new sort of fairy story: no longer the Nights’ tale of the prince and the “unknown lady” whom he loves, nor the story of the Ensorcelled Prince, who is half man and half marble, but the story of a man who finds wholeness and self-knowledge in a place he doesn’t expect it. This is not Perrault nor the Nights that replaced him, but a new tale, because, as Jim (via Paul Hazard) notes, our stories change, but the need for story is eternal. Jim, and Poulin himself, are our new Scheherazade. Mister Blue, spare in its Hemingway-inspired prose, is a story swathed in mystery, and Jim is its unconventional prince.
The translation by Sheila Fischman, who has published over 125 translations of Quebecois texts, merits special note, as well. Poulin’s sentences, in Fischman’s voice, have a sense of gravity and thoughtfulness that is captivating. The cat’s name itself, Mister Blue, is a play on words that gathers wonderful new connotations in English. His name in French, “le vieux Chagrin” (also the French title of the book), or “Old Sorrow,” is a colorful name that also reflects the chagrin d’amour, or unhappiness in love, that Jim experiences when his wife leaves him for another man. “Mister Blue” keeps these connotations of sadness but also references, in a stroke of genius, Jim’s theory of the soul: a bluish aura that he says envelops each person like a nightgown and calls out to like souls. Mister Blue, a more subtle Puss in Boots, is Jim’s animal helper—his spirit animal. The cat’s steady, quiet presence and the affection that he shows Jim and La Petite echo what Jim comes to believe: that emotional connections between people are the most important thing on earth.
Addie Leak is in her final year of the University of Iowa's MFA in Literary Translation. Her first language love is French. She has translated subtitles for Martinican Fabienne Kanor's film Husbands of the Night; Khaled Khalifa's pleas for raised consciousness about Syria in the Huffington Post (Feb 2012); and the Congolese short story "Me and My Hair" by Bibish Marie-Louise Mumbu, forthcoming in 91st Meridian. Her thesis project is a translation of Amours nomades, Djiboutian Chehem Watta's collection of stories about African women living as exiles in Europe.