31 August 2014

Jacques Poulin: Le Chat sauvage (1998)

Things seem to be in their place in this ninth novel of Jacques Poulin's: it's set in Vieux-Québec, a cat on the cover, there's a writer (albeit for other people) called Jack who has a (this time relatively new) Volskwagen minibus, there's a mysterious young girl, and there's a search. Hemingway's mentioned of course, although I started to wonder if the title 'the Modiano of Québec city' isn't appropriate for Poulin, although I think he'd have to make a much better effort than with this part-detective story to earn such a title.

Jack lives with Kim although she needs she own space, and they're well both beyond their youth but their ages are only vaguely hinted at. Jack is an 'écrivain public', or public letter-writer, which means he writes people's CVs, speeches, even love letters, etc; and Kim is a kind of psychotherapist who sees clients at all times of the day.

The story proper begins when a Vieil Homme – an Old Man whose name is Sam Miller, although it's hardly used at all – visits Jack because he wants to write to his estranged wife to get her to come back to him. Jack and Kim's cat interrupts the proceedings and the man leaves without further ado.

But Jack's curiosity is aroused, and he stalks down the identity of the man, discovering his name, address, and that he's a calèche driver, showing tourists and lovers round Vieux-Québec. The man returns several times and Jack writes him a few letters, and the man says his wife has replied to the second letter, saying she'll return at some unspecified date in the future. The man refuses to let Jack send the letter to the woman's address.

After one visit Jack follows the man, who meets Macha, a young girl sleeping rough who Jack's had a few brushes with, and who is a keen reader – a little like la Grande Sauterelle in Volkswagen Blues, who also has a way of procuring books without paying. It's le Vieil Homme's son's partner who calls Macha a 'wild cat'.

Eventually, Jack realises that the man's wife doesn't exist, and that the letters are in fact addressed to death, which the Vieil Homme thinks about a lot.

And as for Macha – well, she fascinates Kim, who goes away with her for several days and comes back and snuggles up in bed with Macha, who now seems more like a tame kitten than a wild cat. This, Jack feels, just means he has to pack his suitcase in preparation to leave.

It seems an odd end to the book, almost as if Poulin couldn't decide how to conclude it in a satisfactory manner, but odder still is that I can see no clearing up of the relationship between le Vieil Homme and Macha: what exactly did they have to do with each other? And how were we expected to believe that the man's 'wife' wouldn't have recognised that the letters were in a different person's hand? I'm pleased that this isn't the first Jacques Poulin book I've read, as I think I'd have been disinclined to read any more of them.

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