Christopher Moore is the rare author whose work has sent me reading each and every one of his novels. Usually, he deals in what could only be described as humorous supernatural horror… with a few exceptions. Eleven of his thirteen novels exist in one very particular universe with a rogues gallery of characters, demons, angels, and gods… Sacre Bleu, along with Fool, his take on King Lear from the point of view of the fool, breaks this mold and gives us a wonderful story based on a very loose historical fiction surrounding the Impressionists in the late 19th century.
Sacre Bleu is about the color blue… that is the starting point. How does one write a fictional novel based on a color? You use the very odd death of Vincent Van Gogh as the starting block and you go from there. In the afterword of the book, Moore states that he has stood at the graves of Vincent and Theo Van Gogh and thought about the fact that Van Gogh shot himself in the chest and walked a mile to the doctor for help. He concludes that that action makes no sense… so he supposes that Van Gogh did not in fact shoot himself, but instead was shot. But by whom… and why?
The main protagonist of the story is Lucien Lessard, a baker in Montmartre (a Parisian district) whose father instilled in him a love of art… whose bakery became a place for all of the great masters of the Impressionists to gather… Renoir, Manet, Monet, Cezanne… and most notably, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Lessard and his bakery are works of fiction… all of the artists are real… many of the events in the novel are real events… most of the story is fiction. Where those lines begin and end are laid out quite well by Moore in his afterword… but the effect is wonderful. The actual lends a certain amount of reasonable believability to what are ridiculous situations sprinkled throughout. The fun is in figuring out what was real… what came from the mind of Christopher Moore.
Everything about the physical appearance of the book itself screams: “this is not a typical Moore novel”. I had ordered this book online and had a few days wait before I received my copy (this was released in April of 2012). Mrs. Blahg was eager (read impatient) to read this and almost downloaded the digital copy to our iPad… I warned her off of that. I knew enough about this particular novel to wait until getting my hands on the physical hardcover. The cover itself is beautiful… the jacket is a half-jacket that covers much of the mysterious woman on the cover… the start and end pieces of the book are a map of famous Parisians monuments… the pages are cut roughly… but it is within the pages that the novelty of this book becomes apparent, much of the story is backed up with well known images of famous paintings from the time and the artists being written about. There is a very meta feeling to viewing these 100+ year old paintings in the context of this humorous tale.
Of course… you can’t judge a book by its’ cover… what is the story actually about? After the death of Van Gogh, Lucien and his friend and studio-mate, Toulouse-Lautrec, begin piecing together oddities that have occurred for years with various artists… memory lapses, missing paintings, and for each of these painters, a woman who has inspired them and has always either left or died, leaving behind broken hearts and broken memories, and most notably, a twisted small brown man calling himself The Colorman.
The Colorman (first name The, last name Colorman) deals in only the finest of pigments… paints made from only the most pure of materials… but it is his ultramarine… the scare bleu… that causes all the fuss. Through the use of his very special blue pigment, mysterious and strange things happen to the painters who indulge in this holiest of colors. Like a juvenile Vonnegut (I mean that in the most respectful of ways), Moore plays with time, with perception, with color… and the result is a story that found me scratching my head in wonder at times… making wild guesses… and by the end, having all of my answers fulfilled.
By presenting this tale in a very real world place and time using actual historical individuals and incorporating many of their truths, the reader is engrossed in a story both fantastical and grounded. Gone are Moore’s typical goofy characters who say such things as, “Kayso” and “OMG”… in their place are famed artists who will occasionally dip into modern colloquialisms with a wink and a nod. Humor is sprinkled throughout, but the tone weaves in and out of melancholy and sacrifice. Wonderfully balanced… and it turns out that many of the funnier moments are the factual ones.
After having taken a brief break from reading anything with heft and delving into my comics again, Sacre Bleu was a perfect re-entry into literature. This book may not have the emotional heft of any of the works of art Moore writes about or displays, but his use of their heft to lighten our mood is truly the work of a master of his craft.
Seriously… his name is poopstick,
Cornelius J. Blahg