Sunday Salon: Tropic Moon by Georges Simenon
Posted March 30, 2008on:
My small press reading tally for the month was unspectacular. Out of 9 (!) reads only two could count unless one stretched the definition to include university presses. (OUP’s Persuasion classics edition which I can’t say I was too impressed with.) The two romances were impulse reads finished within a day each. (One great, one blah.) Three books were for for a requested review and the SF novel was a surprise appearance.
Excuses out of the way I can pay attention to one of my reads that did count, Tropic Moon by Georges Simenon, translated by Norman Rush. (Yes, imprints are “small presses” on my blog for March.) He is an in-house favourite at NYRB classics or at least the editor’s favourite. The imprint is fairly successful at getting periodicals to direct some attention to his work when it releases a new edition, the NYRB itself a sure retainer of the books’ introductions. For the first time I hit on a female author from their catalogue whose work did not immediately impress — I intend to try again — so I decided to favour a male.
Comparison of the French and English titles along warrants some fruitful attention. Coup de chaleur means heatstroke; the book’s French title is Coup de lune. However, “Moonstroke” isn’t a very fetching title. “Tropic Moon” may at first seem inexact, a bit off-target, except that it isn’t once you start reading. One already gets the heat factor from the word “tropic” and throughout most of the book the naive, beleaguered young hero, Joseph Timar, complains about the sun’s harrowing intensity in Gabon. At the end the meaning is clinched when an unravelled Timar leaves Libreville, the country’s capital, on a shop, and overhears someone ironically ask a lieutenant still wearing his sun helmet at night: “Afraid of moonstroke?” Even without the original French one could piece it all together — it was because I had that I sought out the novel’s original title to see if it confirmed my ideas.
Why all this fuss about the title? At that aforementioned moment near the story’s end Timar fits rather neatly into the addled, crazy definition of moonstruck, fresh from a bout of dengue fever and a mental breakdown from living in a corrupt, racist French colonial outpost. Even then Simenon’s choice of using the moon is curious because the sun is the book’s more prominent celestial body, if you go by by the number of times its mentioned. Set in the early 1930s Europeans still retain that curious view that the tropical sun had harmful psychological effects. They looked down on creoles (Caribbean persons of European descent) as strange others not quite as refined, civilised and as normal as true Euros and this was partly explained by the hot climate. Charlotte Brontë incorporated this view into her depiction of Bertha Mason and her Jamaican family; Rhys expounded on (and undermined) it in Wide Sargasso Sea. (I’d like to review it but I lost my notes.) Using “moonstruck”, wholly appropriate on one hand with the moon as a symbol associated with illness and the female gender which links to Timar’s disastrous relationship with Adèle (to name a few instances), on the other hand serves as a diversionary prop there to shift attention from all the serious events that transpired in daylight. Yet that fit as well because Timar, at the end, was in full denial, cryptically announcing to himself and others that “It doesn’t exist!” His brain, perhaps, in retreat to protect him from past experience, to allow him to heal.
Simenon steadily lays the pressure on from the beginning. The novel opens with Timar worriedly asking himself, “Was there really any reason for him to be so anxious? No. Nothing out of the ordinary had happened.” But the anxiety behind each word is palpable as he recalls the excitement he felt during his arrival only to have it collapse two pages later in acknowledgement of a yet unexplained danger. You can tell this isn’t going to be a story with a happy ending; the story justifies it though, makes it a necessity, rather than some dourness thrown in to lend the tale faux gravitas. (A problem in some contemporary fiction: Haweswater was great up until the epilogue when Hall threw in a random death to force some arbitrary pattern on to the text. ) Timar’s uncle got him a job in Gabon with SACOVA, a logging company, and at first he tries to approach the trip as a kind of vacation or adventure, out to experience the strange but thrilling colonial life.
What a sight! This was the real Africa! In the café with the African masks on the wall, Timar cranked up the old gramophone. He felt like a real colonial.
He quickly gets a reality check on how things are run, the disconnect between the head offices and the lowly minions, when a SACOVA employee in Libreville laughs at his unexpected arrival, explains that there is no able boat to get him into the interior which will remain so for many weeks and, anyway, the man he is supposed to replace threatens to shoot anyone who makes the attempt. After four days of aimlessness, familiarising himself with the very small town, there was little left to do than to end up in bed with Adèle, the hotel owner, a married woman about twice his age (he’s 23) who walks around in a long black silk dress under which she may or may not be naked. In fact, she seduces him.
She is his main entry into Libreville’s world, not least because she allegedly slept with every able bodied (white) man available. Timar is largely passive through it all, observing and being manoeuvred into stranger and more shocking experiences; similar to Murakami Haruki’s heroes except that Simenon’s created world is claustrophobic and the character’s passiveness is a vital survival mechanism.
Expectedly, he does not initially see the African’s as three dimensional persons like himself. His first of one who carries him from his ship to the shore when he arrived is of a “naked arm, a black arm” that pulls him into the boat, who then is simply a “black” who takes him to shore. The problem is that the French residents are as strange, a strangeness of moral turpitude; damaging because the white workers are untroubled by their part in it but the government officials disingenuous superiority mask their own active enforcement of the underhanded system. Because Timar is an outsider with no fervent hatred of black Africans (he passively absorbed the prevailing ideas as most everyone else) when one of Adèle’s black servants is murdered he cannot blithely shrug it off like the rest. He has an inkling of who the murderer is, which grows into a certainty. Everyone else knew from the start who did it, including the police, who are willing to entertain other explanations since the murderer is white.
He does not expect this. Well, no one expects murder but he does not expect to recognise it as a symptom of the society’s more malignant condition. His inexperience makes him vulnerable and his infatuation with Adèle leaves him even more exposed because, despite the needling anxiety, the relentless sun beating down through the flimsy protection of his sun helmet, he tries to live in the miasma. The sun figuratively does its best to pierce through Timar’s assumptions about colonial life and his futile hopes and desire about his future prospects with Adèle. Ironically, the moments when this does occur and he gains further insight result in physical sickness. He joins with her in a risky scheme, with the help of family influence and money, to buy a concession miles from Libreville, accessible by boat. During the trip on the river they make a stop at a village and Adèle keeps an appointment that she initially refuses to admit happened and then denies its importance. In frustration and anger he is careless about skin protection and contracts dengue fever. Near the end he eventually buckles under the pressure of carrying on the act in an oppressively hot courtroom where Adèle is on the stand at the trial for Thomas’ murder. An African man from the same village as Thomas is the defendant in the case, sold out by a bribed tribal leader. Adèle’s husband fell sick and eventually died from a recurrent illness on the same night Thomas was murdered. It was too much to hope that Timar could have taken it for omen it was.
In what I think is characteristic of Simenon’s roman durs moral enlightenment, truth and virtue are not liberators but simply harbingers of other miseries. In Tropic Moon no one else but the hero is interested in such unworthy pursuits and they will turn viciously turn on anyone who dares to do so. It’s grimly humorous that it is Adèle who simultaneously entangles him in her affairs yet tries to foster his ignorance to protect him from its effects out of what I think is true affection. She is attracted to him because of his adolescent air and wishes to somehow preserve that quality.
It’s a very short novel, almost a novella at 133 pages, written in a simple prose like Murakami except that Simenon’s isn’t plain at all. His descriptive prose is light on the details but the absence is enigmatic. His withholding of information forces one to concentrate on what he does point while constantly wondering about what he’s only implied or left out altogether. It creates a mystery both out of the sentences, words containing hidden meanings; the brief scenes pregnant with clues, the characters making hidden gestures and coded remarks; the plot itself as Simenon dabbles the murderer’s identity here and there. It heightens my interest in his mystery books, his “entertainment” novels — they must be very good.
The brevity also acts as a way to measure Timar’s changing attitudes toward the black locals. From the abstract black arm at the beginning to the more fully drawn sailors who take him down on his last trip on the river from the concession back to Libreville.
An immense feeling of peace, that’s what he was experiencing, but he peace tinged with sadness — he didn’t know why. He had tenderness to spare within him, though it lacked a precise object, and it seemed to him that he was on the verge of understanding this land of Africa, which had provoked him so far to nothing but an unhealthy exaltation.
The river was calm, and the blacks steered the canoe to the bank and tied it up. Timar wasn’t scared, he didn’t feel the least twinge of apprehension, though he was the only one there who didn’t speak the language. To the contrary — he felt as though they’d all taken him under their wing, like a child entrusted to their care.
He doesn’t turn into a humanitarian but his familiarising time with them plays a role in the courtroom scene where he cannot stand to be silent as everyone seems set to ignore the confused accused and his mother, there with only a translator to help them, as they plead his innocence.
This impression may be coloured by the biographical articles I’ve read on Simenon but I detected a confident arrogance in the story’s short length as well, as if he wished to prove to himself and to others that he could create a complex, weighty work without resorting to 500 pages of elaborate sentences and an extensive vocabulary. That grabbed my attention, making me more alert from the beginning.
Timar’s alertness is more costly. His growing “understanding of this land Africa” leads him to what he feels is a temporary rejection of its existence as he leaves its shores, kicked out by annoyed officials who don’t really want the right answers to their questions. French West Africa was a land and represented a future that he wanted nothing to be a part of and seems to hold a French bourgeois life as the antidote.
Graham Greene’s A Burnt-Out Case has a somewhat similar theme and plot: a famous Catholic architect abandons a successful life in Europe for the numbing anonymity of anywhere, Congo just happening to be the destination available when he went to the airport. Timar is Catholic too. The difference is that Greene’s book is more hopeful despite the tragic ending. He allows his defeatist protagonist to temporarily achieve a reconciliation with his past. Greene, from the beginning, does not even spare him from the lightly mocking tone he applies to a narrow-minded Catholic priest who likes to fancy himself a martyr, or a bellicose, egotistical colonial. For Simenon religion is just another part of the setting with no impact on the thoughts or morals of any characters. Your conscience is your only guide and if it does it’s job it will be a painful process from beginning to end.