Simenon’s African Trio

have written about the astonishingly prolific French (or Belgian or Swiss) novelist Georges Simenon (1903-89) a number of times and of the splendid New York Review Press project of rescuing outstanding books (mostly novels) that have gone out-of-print even more often. Given the immensity of Simenon’s oeuvre—most of it translated into English—, I have relied on NYRB reprintings for guidance in selecting from Simenon’s hundreds of romans durs (literally, “hard novels,” in the sense of “hard” that is used in “hard-boiled” for American crime fiction that usually represents nonmarital sexuality as well as violence unblinkingly). I have also read at least a dozen of his Inspector Maigret mysteries.

Before the publication of Tropic Moon (first published in 1933 as French as “Le Coup de lune”—which I would translate as “moonstruck”) I had seen a collection, African Trio, published in 1979 and gathering three Simenon novels set in French colonial Africa of the 1930s. Simenon had first (in 1932) published a book of his observations of French and Belgian colonies in Africa, The Negro Hour in which he proclaimed that “the time of colonial Africa is running out.” Interrupted by World War II, and then hastened by the failed attempt to maintain control of Indochina, independence was granted to French and Belgian African colonies during the 1950s.

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The three Simenon novels in African Trio show European officials and entrepreneurs falling apart in the tropics. They are more in the tradition of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness than of Dinesen’s Out of Africa, though with more morbid humor than in either of those. Black Africans are backdrops rather than characters in Simenon’s novels as in Heart of Darkness and Out of Africa. Like Bertrand Tavernier’s film “Coup de Torchon” (and Heart of Darkness), Simenon’s African novels show the positions of superiority to the natives as corrosive to the colonists.

Tropic Moon, (the novel NYRB Books reprinted) in particular, mixes portrayal of miscarriage of justice (a native framed for murder) and sexual confusions and moral paralysis among the white folks reminiscent of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India. It follows the introduction to Africa (specifically Gabon in French Equatorial Africa) of Joseph Timar, a poor relation of a well-connected French magnate. He has been sent to join a failing enterprise. While waiting to go upcountry, he drinks a lot of whiskey, has a sexual liaison with hotel, the wife of (and barmaid for) the hotel owner, a jealous but ailing lout.

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To keep her husband from finding out about the affair (which is far from being her first), Adele kills a servant—needlessly as it turns out. Everyone knows she did it, but no one will say so or even that they saw her go out at the time of the murder. Timar is uncomfortable with his involvement, and is stricken with dengue fever when he finally goes upriver (to a different enterprise than the one that brought him to Gabon). The novel explores his relationship with Adèle (“sexual obsession” would not be out of place as a categorization of it) and with the colonists’ conspiracy to frame an innocent man for the crime.

Colonial officialdom is also portrayed in a very unflattering light in Tatala, though the central focus in that 1943 novel is a coffee plantation owner being mesmerized by a female English nobleman who literally falls to earth on his plantation and about his fiancée back in France who senses a crisis and comes out unannounced. It provides a contrast between English and French perceptions of and responses to the colonized that fits not only with their colonizings in Africa but the earlier ones in North America.

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The one I like the most and the shortest, Aboard the Aquitaine (translated from the 1936 novel titled 45 degrees à l’ombre is set on board a ship bound from the African port of Matadi to Bordeaux, and containing several hundred Indochinese workers in the hold. The protagonist is an opium-addicted ship’s physician who feels sympathy for a couple with a sick infant (the husband is mesmerized into a shipboard affair with another English noblewoman).

Simenon was a master of plotting and of economical effects, and all three novels are quick and interesting reads (perfect for intracontinental flights). The endings he contrived for Aboard the Aquitaine and Tatala are particularly satisfying. Tropic Moon leaves more the taste of ashes famously (later) invoked by Claude Lévi-Strauss in Tristes Tropiques. Tropic Moon is the one most directly critical of the colonial officials. It is also the one with the least compassion for those observed by the novelist’s cold eye of the “African trio.” It is well worth exhuming, and I hope that it will be followed by republication of the other two.

Titled “Adèle” and moved to Bolivia (!) with Grégoire Colin (Beau Travail) as Timar and Eulàla Ramon as Adèle; alas, it is not available on DVD or blu-ray here.)

©2006, 2019, Stephen O. Murray

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