Tag Archives: colonialism

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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Lorraine Hansberry’s (posthumous) third Broadway play

Lorrraine Hansberry  (1930-65) knew the South Side of Chicago (where she grew up, and where “Raisin in the Sun” is set) and New York’s Greenwich Village (where she lived as an adult, and where she set “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window”) better than she knew Africa. Nonetheless, I find her primary African character in her posthumously produced play “Les Blancs,” Tshembe, more credible than the American journalist, Charlie, who is its seeming protagonist. Charlie strikes me as a device to stimulate exposition by other characters, including Tshembe and “Madame,” the wife of a medical missionary who seems to be based on Albert Schweitzer but who is on the other side of the river and does not appear in the play.

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Tshembe has left Africa, and married a white woman, who has borne a child. He returns for the funeral of his father, a Kwi chief—who was also covertly the local head of the “terrorists” (based, I think, partly on Kenya’s Mau-Mau, partly on Algerians rebelling against their French masters). Tshembe’s brother, Abioseh, is also part of the resistance passing as a simple-minded servant of the European missionaries.

When the play premiered late in 1970 (which is to say after Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia had become known and led to furious protests, especially on college campuses, including Jackson State and Kent State, where protesters were shot), it divided the audience and critics, much as the plays of her idol, Sean O’Casey had in their day.

She was accused of supporting genocide of whites in Africa by some and of displaying (stereo)types rather than individuals (I would agree in regard to Charlie, but not Madame and not the Matoseh brothers).

 

The sanest response seems to have come from Harold Clurman in The Nation

“Les Blancs” is not propaganda, as has been inferred; it is a forceful and intelligent statement of the tragic impasse of black and white relations all over the world. It clarifies but does not seek to resolve, the historical and human problems involved. It does not provide an Answer. It is an honest play in which tought-provoking matter is given arrestingly theatrical body.

Despite a much-praised, powerful performance by James Earl Jones as Tshembe, the play did not run long on Broadway and seems largely forgotten. Whereas I thought that “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” read better than I can imagine it playing on stage, I think that “Les Blancs” is playable, as well as interesting to read, and is a worthy companion to, for instance, Yulisa Amadu “Pat” Maddy’s 1973 novel No Past, No Present, No Future.

(The title is a strike at Jean Genet’s (1959) Les Noirs, which she disliked, but the French title gives the unfortunate impression that it is set in a French rather than and English African colony. Genet’s play deals with black identity, anger at colonialism, and the murder of a white woman, btw. And James Earl Jones also appeared in the first American production of Genet’s play, off-Broadway.)

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

3 WWI Comedies from 50-60 years later

In my list of the best WWI films, I excluded comedies. The notable ones that occur to me are ones I saw decades ago, but one of them won the (1976) Academy Award for best foreign-language film.

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I’m not completely sure that I saw Richard Attenborough’s film-directing debut, a guest-star-studded 1969 adaptation of “Oh What a Lovely War.” I saw the play three times in two weekends (due to a shortage of date venues in East Lansing, Michigan during my freshman year) and conflate it with the 1967 WWII absurdist comedy “How I Won the War.” The play was a story of “jukebox musical,” i.e., a parade of WWI hit songs. Along with its throwback music, the dialogue draws heavily on quotations of the knaves who were the political and military leaders of the UK in the supposed “war to end wars.” A docu-comedy? A docu-musical?

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The earlier (1966) “King of Hearts,” directed by Philippe de Broca (whose masterpiece was “That Man from Rio”) became a cult classic in American college towns a few years later. I thought of it (and think of it) as a movie in which Catch-22’s Yossarian succeeds in being judged crazy. Alan Bates played the soldier who is sent into a French village (Marville) to defuse bombs planted by the retreating Germans late in the war. He takes refuge in the local insane asylum, presenting himself (to the Germans) as the King of Hearts. His subjects offer him the young and gorgeous  Geneviève Bujold as royal consort/queen. She tells him where the German bomb is planted, but his detonating it leads to a battle during which the inmates return to the refuge of the asylum. And he decides they are less crazy than the generals.

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The most-acclaimed WWI black comedy is set far from the main military action. Directed and co-written by Jean-Jaquess Annaud (Enemy at the Gate), released in English as “Black and White in Color” (1976) the French title was “La victoire en chantant” (which does not mean enchanting victory, but a tuneful victory). Learning that France and Germany are at war (at the start of 1915, news traveled slowly!), some French traders and missionaries in French Equatorial Africa (the film was shot in the Ivory Coast) assemble a troop of “natives” to attack German traders. The backdrop is gorgeous, though the Europeans don’t seem to see that. They are absurd in their jingoism and the attempt to inspire their troops to identify with the glory of France.

The French colonist set up a picnic to view their troops overcoming the Germans(‘), but it turns out that the Germans organized native troops of their own and the carnage of trench warfare is replicated in Africa, after a heretofore pacifist French geographer, Hubert Fresnoy (Jacques Spiesser), takes over and “professionalizes” the French troops.

All three films could be faulted for hammering too long and not very subtly that the officers are knaves (the humanist solider-come-lately is every bit as callous about the lives of “his” troops as the jingoists he supplanted) and the high-casualty war (WWI) particularly pointless.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray