Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Someone Will Spit Reading This

I Spit on Your Graves, by Boris Vian, Translated from the French by Boris Vian and Milton Rosenthal, Canongate Crime, 2001



The first thing you need to know is that this novel, originally published in France in 1946, has absolutely nothing to do with the controversial 1978 film,
I Spit on Your Grave. While the film was originally titled Day of the Woman, it subsequently changed to the more familiar title, and there the similarity ends.

Originally written on a bet (whether or not the author, Boris Vian, could write a bestseller in a couple weeks),
the novel was the the first published for Vian who was an active member of the French literary and intellectual circles, having published poetry and had other novels accepted for publication.

This novel, a loose and nasty little pulp, was cooked up as a bet and passed off as a translation of an American novel by Vernon Sullivan, translated into French by Vian. It tells the story of Lee Anderson, an black man passing for white who moves to Buckton, a small town in America without any further specificity as to place, though we are led to believe that its location is somewhere in the south.

The notion of a white author purporting to be translating a black author -- i.e., passing for black -- while writing about a black man passing for white is one of the novel's little twisted charms. It'd sound almost sick to say that all the unpleasantries of the novel are cruel charms, but from time to time I'm in the mood for something rather sick and sadistic. To say that I Spit on Your Graves fills that bill would be an understatement.

Lee Anderson is in Buckton on a mission. To avenge his younger brother who was lynched for dating a white girl. His plan: to seduce a couple of white, rich sisters, humiliate them, then kill them. Single-minded of purpose, he finds himself a nice position as manager of Buckton's one bookstore, then goes about learning the ways and fashions of the town. This leads him, a twenty six year old, into hanging out, drinking, and having sex with a number of fifteenish year olds.

The first sign that this book was not written by an American comes right there.

While it may be perfectly plausible for men ten years their junior to hang out with French teens in the post-war years back around Paris, I think we can safely assume that small town, southern America was probably a whole different story. I'm not prude or naive enough to believe that no adult ever had sex with a minor in 1947 Alabama, just not so openly or so frequently.

With his in-town sex partners under his belt, Anderson begins casting about for the perfect prey. The semi-anonymous Judy's of Buckton aren't nearly as much of a challenge, nor as much as a prize. And so Anderson lingers, until a sickly upper-middle-class boy named Dexter introduces him to the Asquiths, a well-to-do family from Prixville. There he finds the two sisters, Jean and Lou, roughly twenty and fifteen respectively, who are sufficient for his revenge.

Taking his time, Anderson insinuates himself into their lives, at times pitting the two against each other, though sisterly bonds and Dexter's suspicions complicate matters entirely.

If there is a particular fly in the ointment to Anderson's quest, it comes on the reader's side, not the character's. Much like a certain lack of awareness of southern mores in the 40s, Vian's hep lingo or Negro approximations are weak and never very convincing. For French readers of the same era they were, by sales accounts, sufficiently authentic seeming, but from a later, Stateside perspective there are elements of the voice ("my good Negro blood" and the narrator's belief that his fluency in jive is genetically innate) that don't ring true.

All of this actually seems beside the point. Vian paints Anderson's anger and obsessions pretty thoroughly. While in some respects one could just as easily subtract the entirety of the racial element and merely make Anderson seeking revenge for the death of his younger brother at a party, this is one of the novel's strengths. While Vian is seeking a book that sensationalizes "the Other" to some degree, what comes out through all the pulp conventions is that human nature is universal.

That's a rather kumbaya ending for a review of a novel that features tons of underage sex, a couple of brutal murders, and rape, I know, but there is actually more going on than just a down and dirty shocker. It's too short and too harsh to see it at first, but upon later reflection, Vian, like most good artists, couldn't help slipping in a little deeper meaning. The only drawback is that he gets you right inside it all to make you see it -- and for some, that may be too much