In Jacques Poulin’s Mister Blue, the novel’s protagonist, lives in a ramshackle house on the Île d’Orléans with his cat Mr. Blue. Jim’s world is defined by the bay, the St. Lawrence River, the beach and the novel he’s writing and not writing in the attic room where he works. As a novelist, he refuses to intrude into the lives of his characters; he watches and waits for them to fall in love on their own while he watches and waits for his chance to meet a mysterious young woman who has suddenly taken up residence in a small cave near his house.
Jim and Mr. Blue have seen her anchored sailboat, her footprints in the sand and a few possessions in the cave including a copy The Arabian Nights inscribed with her name, Marika. Yet, he refuses to overtly intrude into her life, certain that he will ultimately meet her by slightly nudged chance. When he cautiously visits the cave, the sees her bookmark’s progress through Scheherazade’s fanciful stories for the Persian king, but Marika is never home. Jim’s life suddenly shifts from that of an aging, divorced man dwelling in solitude with a cat to to an awakening writer in a shifting world of daydreams and obsession that mirror the fits and starts of a manuscript in the attic.
Before his obsession begins, he wonders if he’s picked the wrong subject for his novel. A former Hemingway scholar, Jim sees that he has broken Papa’s first rule: write what you know best.
“I had to acknowledge that I’d broken this rule. I was trying to write a love story without being in love myself. I’d probably chosen this subject because, as I felt myself growing older, I was afraid it was too late to fall in love one last time.”
Poulin’s compassionate story about a man searching for himself flows from beginning to end as smoothly and effortlessly as the river outside Jim’s attic window. The 150-page novel appears deceptively modest because the prose is just as unadorned as the protagonist’s gentle life of promising days and lonely blue days.
On days of hope, Jim’s novel moves forward and he almost finds Marika. Though he is forever just missing her, the marching bookmark in The Arabian Nights, the movements of her sailboat and other hints of her presence nourish him. On blue days, he sees no sign of her and loses himself in memories of the past and mourns the fact that his haunting, off-stage muse eludes him like words in his book.
“Words are independent, like cats, and they don’t do what you want them to do. You can love them, stroke them, say sweet things to them all you want – they still break off and go their own way.”
Poulin’s novel is a powerful masterpiece of understatement. What is real and what is dream? Neither Jim nor the reader can be sure in a story where seemingly disparate elements—an idealized woman, tennis games with a brother, the friendship of young girl who suffered an abusive past, and Mr. Blue—rise and fall like the tides in the bay without the heavy handed intervention of novelists and their characters.
This novel rubs up against a reader’s emotions with a soft, but persistent purr.
Mister Blue (Archipelago Books, January 3, 2012) originally appeared in 1989 as Le Vieux Chagrin (old sorrow) and in a subsequent English edition Mr. Blue, in 1993. Like the 1993 edition, this new edition comes to English readers through the work of the award-winning translator, Sheila Fischman. The novel has won Prix Québec-Paris, Prix Molson of the Académie des lettres du Québec, and the Prix France-Québec.
–Novelist Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of magical realism and contemporary fantasy including “Sarabande” (Vanilla Heart Publishing, August 2011).