Review: Heartsnatcher, by Boris Vian

>>Published (in French): 1953

>>Published (in English): 1968

>>Finally got around to it: March 2012

At the sound of the word shame Timortis took a step back—and then felt ashamed of himself for having done so.

‘I’ve got a home,’ said the man who, having noticed Timortis’s movement, gave a sour little smile. ‘I get my food. And they give me gold. Loads of it. But I haven’t got the right to spend it. Nobody wants to—and nobody will—sell me anything. I’ve got a house and I’ve got loads of gold—but I have to swallow the shame of the whole village for them. They pay me to feel their remorse for them. Remorse for everything wicked and evil that they do. For every one of their vices. And every one of their crimes. For the Old Folks Fair. For the tortured animals. For the apprentices. And for all the film and scum.’

He stopped for a moment.

‘But all this can’t be very interesting for you,’ he went on again. ‘You don’t mean to stay here, do you?’

There was a long pause.

And then, ‘Yes. I do,’ said Timortis, decisively. ‘I do mean to stay here.’

‘Then you’ll grow like all the others,’ said the man. ‘You’ll learn to live with a clear conscience and you’ll load the weight of your shame on to me. And you’ll give me gold. And sell me nothing for it in return.

***

Drawn to a strange and surreal village by the cries of a woman named Clementine as she prepares to give birth to triplets Noel, Joel, and Alfa Romeo, the psychiatrist Timortis (who wants only to “psychiatrize” at every available opportunity) finds himself surrounded by fairs that auction off the elderly like cattle, a priest with transcendent performance skills, and a man named Glory Hallelujah, who spends his days fishing the skeletons of the dead (and from people’s closets) out of a scarlet stream, using only his teeth.

Boris Vian’s Heartsnatcher, the last novel completed before his death in 1959, is a book about obsession, manipulation, and shame. Timortis, a travelling avatar for the audience, is both inquisitor and subject. Through Clementine and her oppressive desire to protect her children by removing them from the world with increasing severity, Timortis witnesses the idiosyncratic extremes of the villagers. They are caricatures, two-dimensional embodiments of greed, sexual depravity, ignorance, cruelty, and control. Together they construct a Rorschach of proclivities and desires—of wanting everything, all the time, as swiftly and simply as possible; of complete and total control over one’s life, offspring, and exterior threats to self. As days turn into months and years, Timortis is engulfed by the village, quickly falling prey to its strange yet enticing ways.

Vian’s view of society is… dismal, at best. Through Clementine, Glory Hallelujah, and the vicar, he’s crafted three pillars of love and devotion so entirely corrupted by the nature of those around them that all hope is abandoned. Clementine, so eager to shelter her children (prone to quite literal flights of fancy) that she would rather trap them in cages for the rest of their lives; Glory Hallelujah, so giving of himself and ambivalent towards life that he accepts his role as universal village scapegoat, destined, somewhat nobly, to live and die for the sins of others; and the vicar, who views God as a luxury item, a privilege—not a right afforded equally to all men and women—performing for his parish as a means of placating them, convincing them of his power, of his direct line to God.

Heartsnatcher is more than the sum of its parts. Vian’s characters pull together to create a smartly conceived tapestry that never falls too far to the whims of deliberate absurdity or contrived occurrences. Through Timortis and the months and years that bleed together (quite literally, in some cases—Novembruary, Aprigust, Octoptember), Vian presents a series of black and white archetypes with little room for personal emotional embellishment, yet manages to evoke pathos all the same.

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