Blues for a Black Cat
Boris Vian (1920-59) led a rather too short life on this earth. But, within that 39 years, he wrote 10 novels, 42 short stories, 7 theatre pieces, 400 songs, 4 poetry collections, 6 opera libretti, 20 short story and novel translations. He was praised by stalwarts like Jean Paul Sartre, Louis Malle and Eugene Ionesco. His novels range from metaphysical fantasies to hardcore potboilers. “Blues for a Black Cat” is probably his only short story collection translated into English.
This anthology, consisting of 10 brilliant short stories, provides a perfect introduction to the world of Vian—a world full of feverish imagination and uncouth happenings. To give an idea, let me cite one or two examples—in these short stories, you’ll find a musician who earns his living by selling his sweat, a cat which has a distinct British accent, and a group of people travelling in train who brutally torture a fellow-traveller for not being talkative enough. In short, it is an explosion of unrestrained imagination which leaves the reader gasping for breath.
But, are these short stories nothing but fantasies, mere spurt of fretful daydreaming, full of clever wordplays and creative juggleries? Sorry, I beg to differ. Through these brilliant fireworks of Vian’s imagination one cannot fail to notice a gloomy world, full of pain and suffering. Vian repeatedly highlights the absurdity of our existence—an existence blighted by oppression, terror and helplessness. That’s why, Vian’s characters are so much plagued by unruly gadgets, brutal superiors or heartless fellow creatures. Also, Vian’s radically transgressive logic hints at the basic irrationality of the world surrounding us. His attitude is quite similar to that of Beckett or Ionesco, but more playful and a lot more mischievous. His scathing black humour reveals the raging mind behind all the apparent fun and fanfare.
Here, I want to specially mention the story “Pins and Needles”, a vitriolic analysis of a war-ridden era. Though one can safely assume that the story describes the landing of allied force in France, the incidents actually take place in an ambiguous time and space. As a reviewer aptly puts it—
“The unstable, shifting nature of Vian’s prose—alternating here between deadpan serious and craftily naive—perfectly captures the confusion of the battlefield, rendering the horrendously violent subject matter as black humour of a deeply chilling variety. More than a parody of battlefield horrors, unnerving enough as that may be, the story turns one of the most hallowed battles of recent history into an absurdist melange of death, dismemberment and pain, signifying nothing. An excerpt: “We got behind the tank. I went last because I don’t have much confidence in the brakes of those contraptions…. But I don’t like the tank’s manner of reducing corpses to a pulp with the sort of noise that’s hard to remember–at the time you hear it, though, it’s pretty unmistakable.””
“Pins and Needles” is probably the best anti-war story I’ve come across, painstakingly revealing the absurdity of war and its meaninglessnes.
Due to his abhorrence to the Cartesian logic of “Cogito Ergo Sum”, Vian became interested in Pataphysics and, as a reviewer rightfully says, “Blues for a Black Cat” betrays “Vian’s Pataphysical sensibility and love of language play”. Above all, Vian’s stories are much too funny to be carelessly laughed at.
Lastly, I want to thank Rupa & Co. for introducing Vian to Indian readers. “Rupa France” is doing a great job, offering us some of the most prestigious literary experimentation, ranging from Andre Malraux to Daniel Pennac, from Louis Ferdinand-Celine to Didier Daeninckx.