J’irai cracher sur vos tombes (Boris Vian, 1946)

j_irai_cracher_sur_vos_tombes

J’irai cracher sur vos tombes, by Boris Vian (a.k.a. I spit on your graves, 1946).

Score: unsettling.

This essay was written in the context of MUEC with the assistance of Professor Cora Requena.

They say good literature cannot leave the reader indifferent. Something must break, turn or bloom in you after you read a good book. It is also generally considerered that noir fiction, like other popular genres, never sets out to do that.

J’irai cracher sur vos tombes is told, masterfully, from the perspective of Lee Anderson, a man who arrives at a small town in the South of the United States with the clear purpose of exacting revenge for something done in the past to a certain kid… Lee starts hanging out with the local teenagers, attending wild parties and going on sex and alcohol binges with them. His final targets seem to be two sisters, Lou and Jean.

Vian maintains tension and suspense over Lee’s true identity and purpose for eight out of the twenty-four chapters of the book, while narrating in first person and leaving plenty of hints. The book is also sexually explicit and bloody violent, but never gratuitously. It has a deep will of social commentary about a topic so sordid it cannot be portrayed without explicit and brutal violence.

A classic of roman noir, this can be read and enjoyed by anyone who is seeking groundbreaking good literature.

***SPOILERS***

In chapter eight it is revealed that Lee is actually an African-American, out on a revenge against white people in general after his brother was lynched for falling in love with a white woman. His whole quest is something more than a story of personal revenge: it is the story of someone who finally flipped out under the institutional and historical oppression of his race. Someone who is part of a collective so systematically mistreated that can no longer be reasonable.

Lee is calculating and cunning: this is no hot-headed act of violence, but cold anger, bottled up for years and years. It is interesting to note the way in which he exacts his revenge: he’s quite condescending with white men and mostly ignores them. His revenge wants to humilliate as well as hurt, and how do you humilliate the white patriarchy? You don’t kill their sons: you rape their daughters.

As a white woman I have to admit the hardest passages to read for me were Lee’s sexual exploits. The characters’ understanding of consent is quite blurry. It is clear that back in that time a woman could not say yes openly and freely, so she had to say no, a no that was systematically taken as a yes. Her agency was constantly undermined by pressure in both ways: to stay chaste and to succumb to seduction. Vian’s prose is arousing in an anguishing way: it is never clear whether the woman is being raped or not. Even worse, it might be the case that she’s getting raped and enjoying it.

The final passages combine sex and violence in a way that feels almost treacherous; the vengeance and humilliation are consummated in a sadistic double murder. It’s all the same. Lee is caught and hung because he’s black.

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