Sunday, November 22, 2020

Tropic Moon (1933)

My first venture into the work of the prolific Belgian writer Georges Simenon turned out not to be a detective novel at all, but rather one of his self-described roman durs, or "hard novels." And it is indeed quite hard, in terms of life conditions, with a colonial setting reminiscent by turns of Heart of Darkness, The Stranger, and The Sheltering Sky—arguably even "harder" than any of them, flat, brutal, and so compact it is always directly to the point. The literal translation of Simenon's title, Coup de Lune, is "moon burn" or "moon stroke," which are more apt. Joseph Timar is a young Frenchman, about 23, who travels to Libreville, Gabon, in Africa, on the promise of work through his connected uncle. Once there he finds the job with a logging concern is not available exactly because the man presently holding the position has promised to shoot any replacement who shows up to try to take it away from him. Timar doesn't know what to do about it so he hangs around the hotel drinking a lot and eventually starts having sex with the hotelkeeper's wife. Apparently everyone around there has her on the regular. Then she shoots a native and all the troubles turn in a new direction. In fact, there's no end to troubles in this very short and impressive novel. In his introduction to the 2005 edition (ridiculously overpriced at the moment, sorry to say), Norman Rush discusses how Simenon was more interested in the damaging effects of colonialism on conquering oppressors. All that privilege is turning these whites into monsters, Timar absolutely not excepted, though he causes more the kinds of problems we see from bumbling well-meaning nice guys. Whites are a tiny minority in Libreville. At a certain level they have to stick together. Africans are most often "a black," and just in that way Simenon shows how deeply the dehumanization has hold. Everyone here is pretty much fucked up, much of it racism and other side effects of colonialism, and things proceed from there. I had not realized before how prolific Simenon was, a member of the sparsely populated 500-novel club with Isaac Asimov and L. Ron Hubbard (I had actually not realized it about Hubbard either). The structure of Tropic Moon and the way it moves do feel as though written by someone who is comfortable writing novels, however short it might be, well under 200 pages. The composer Joseph Haydn wrote short symphonies too, but he wrote 106 of them, compared to Beethoven's nine long. All the ones I've heard are polished and satisfying. Just so, Simenon mixes and chooses and emphasizes his elements to best effect. Really great—can't wait to try another.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

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