Tag Archives: surveillance

Simenon writing about terrorists and increasing surveillance

Generally, I wait for the New York Review Books editors to decide which of the hundreds of Georges Simenon romans durs (hard-boiled novels) to read next. I picked up The Suspect without their imprimatur, because it is about dissension within a terrorist cell — anarchists in France in the late 1930s (the book was first published in French in 1938). The protagonist is in Brussels, wanted by the French police. An inept member of his group comes, trailed by police, to tell Pierre Chave that the Paris group, at the impetus of K, who may be an agent provocateur, is planning to blow up a factory during the day while many people are working in it.

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Pierre is firmly opposed to killing workingmen and sets out to sneak back into France and stop the bombing. The police think that Pierre is returning to do the deed or at least to co-ordinate it. (They know something is about the happen, but not what or where.) Both the new leaders and old members of the Paris cell think that Pierre is in cahoots with the police. Pierre’s former protégé, Robert, has switched his loyalty to K and is the one designated to plant the bomb, so Pierre has to try to find and dissuade him

Though there is exploration of the psychology of those alienated from the dominant society, I think The Suspect qualifies as a thriller. There is more action than in many Simenon novels, including the Maigret police procedurals, and a proto-existentialist protagonist choosing life over violence while being suspected by both sides.

There are also scenes I find entertaining in which the Brussels policeman, Inspector Meulemans, has moved into the Chaves house with Chaves’s wife and often-crying (sick) baby, Pierrot. Simenon generally worked in some droll humor.

Fanatics willing to die while killing others (I hesitate to classify anyone in Simenon’s universe as “innocent”) are of renewed interest. I think of anarchist bombings as late-19th-century than between the world wars, and more focused on killing rulers (US presidents, the Hapsburg crown prince), but the book is a reminder that what become invitations to increase surveillance are recurrently made by those who believe a few explosions will change the world to their way of thinking (also see the recent Frankenstin in Baghdad).

I don’t think that The Suspect is as interesting as Dirty Snow, Simenon’s novel of collaborationists with Nazi occupiers, but prefer it to some of the recent of the NYR reprints I’ve read, Three Bedrooms in Manhattan (with another Frenchman getting by in exile) or Monsieur Monde Vanishes (M. Monde going into exile without leaving the country).

©2010, 2019, Stephen O. Murray

Abe’s “Secret Rendezvous”

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Abe Kôbô (1924-1993) was the major Japanese 20th-century writer whose work I long shied away from reading. I have found him an interesting figure in the memoirs of American Japanologists such as Donald Keene and John Nathan, and admire the three movies based on his novels made by Teshigahara Hiroshi (Pitfall, Woman in the Dunes, The Face of Another; I have not seen “The Ruined Map”), as well as the earlier Kobayashi “Thick-Walled Room”. I did not want to read an Abe novel that I had already seen adapted to the screen and hopes that the relatively short one that I chose, Secret Rendezvous (first published in 1977 in Japanese as Mikkai) would not be too sci-fi for me.

It was more sci-fi than I hoped, but not too much for me. A blurb from the Chicago Sun-Times on the back cover proclaimed that the novel “reads much as if it were the collaborative effort of Hieronymus Bosch, Franz Kafka, and Mel Brooks.” The Kafka I can see, though I know (from Donald Richie’s Japan Journals) that Abe was irritated that critics kept claiming that Kafka was an influence on him, that the prime western influence on him was, rather, Lewis Carroll. The mood and dry recounting of absurdities prefigured Paul Auster and recalled Edgar Allan Poe more than either Bosch or Brooks. There is some surrealist humor, but more like that in Philip Roth (especially the Philip Roth of The Breast and Sabbath’s Theater) than that of Mel Brooks.

What is like Kafka is that at the start someone is whisked away for no apparent reason. A major difference is that the someone is a woman, not the narrator, but the wife of the narrator. And it is medical rather than legal authority that is menacing.

An ambulance came for the wife at four in the morning though it had not been called and she was in perfect health. The mystery deepens after the narrator finds the hospital to which she was taken, but cannot find her.

An official who is always referred to as “the horse,” who seems to be more a centaur with a human diet and the ability to speak, gives the narrator security tapes to listen to in exchange for promising to write about his (the narrator’s) investigations.

Though continuing to try to find out what happened to his wife, the narrator is distracted by other very strange things going on at the hospital in the way of experiments on sexual arousal. There is a lot of female masturbation in the novel, and substitution not of single organs, but of half-bodies (the bottom half). There is also a thirteen-year-old nymphomaniac woman whose bones are melting (rendering her increasingly blob like). Heterosexual male fantasies, for sure. And very clinical (both the horrors and the failure to feel anything are prototypically heterosexual male…)

The book seems of great current relevance in anticipating heightened surveillance. The narrator joins the security apparatus centered in the hospital—one financed by selling recordings to aural voyeurs. The meaningful signal to noise ratio is very low, reminding me of present-day US surveillance biting off (collecting) far more than it can chew (make sense of or from): “The electronic surveillance system has swollen to unmanageable, mammoth size, and continues to absorb new information all the tie; even though no one is actually in charge of it any more, the mere suggestion that such a person might exist seems to inspire awe and submissiveness” (p. 117).

I neither liked nor loathed the novel and concluded that my original intuition that Abe’s fiction is not for me was right. Reading about him interests me more than reading him, the fate of too many writers, I realize. In a 1953 Paris Review interview, Nobel Prize-winner François Mauriac contended that “almost all the works [of fiction] die while the author remains…. There are almost no writers who disappear into their work. The opposite almost always comes about. Even the great characters that have survived in novels are found now more in handbooks and histories, as though in a museum. As living creatures, they get worn out and grow feeble… even Anna Karenina, even the Karamazovs. They need readers in order to live, and the new generations are less and less capable of providing them with the air they need to breathe.” This has become the case for Kafka, and at least for me, for Abe, too.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray