Tropic Moon (Coup de lune)* is the first of Georges Simenon’s novels to be set outside Europe, and it is also among the first and best of his serious novels, those he called romans durs in order to distinguish them from the hundreds of genre fictions he produced, the romans populaires that were making him rich and world famous, including his psychological crime thrillers and the titles in the Inspec-tor Maigret series. It is a remarkable work, in which Simenon’s characters deliver a brutal and clueless enactment of interwar French imperialism at its most naked—in Gabon, French Equatorial Africa, in the capital, Libreville, and upcountry. As a revelation of the institutionalized squalor the French Empire amounted to, it stands high, ranking with L.F. Céline’s depiction of life in another part of the same empire, Cameroon, in his Voyage au bout de la nuit.
It’s a particularity of the iconography in porn magazines that the male partners of the lovingly detailed women on display will often enough be represented essentially as mere functioning lower selves, torsos, their heads cut off by the edges of the layouts. Something similar is seen in the character embodiments in this moral tale: the actors are reduced to their appetites. The face of Adèle, the hyper-promiscuous antiheroine of the novel, is never described. We do learn about her that she wears clinging dresses and disdains underwear. She is in her thirties. Her breasts droop, slightly. Similarly, the African locale is rendered rather generically. We have the Hotel, the Prefecture, the Docks, the Police Station, all evoked without recourse to the kind of detail that might distract from the vertiginous drama of personal destruction we have come to witness. Simenon’s heightened minimalism serves his purposes well, forwarding the staccato unfolding of the central plot. Maddening heat, isolation, boredom, illness, alcohol—the traditional scourges of white expatriates in tropical Africa—play their expected parts in sustaining the lethal malaise that hangs over Libreville.
Joseph Timar, a young man from the provinces (La Rochelle), arrives in Libreville in the early 1930s intending to take up a posting at a timber camp in the jungle. His well-placed family in France has arranged this opportunity for him. He is an innocent. Obstacles arise that prevent him from going directly upriver and he falls into a sexual relationship, not an affair exactly, with the wife of the owner of the hotel he is lodging in. This is Adèle, and she has been active with a great many of the French gentlemen around town. Billiards, Pernod, card games, out-of-date newspapers, and intermittent sex with Adèle occupy Timar’s time. When the mood seizes them, male members of the French community organize orgies in the bush with native women, abandoning them there without transportation at the end of the one excursion Timar goes along on. At this stage, the story has only begun.
In Tropic Moon the sad tale of Joseph Timar is less a plot in the usual sense than it is an artifact of other plots, in the sinister sense, going on around him, of which he is very imperfectly aware. What happens is that early in his liaison with Adèle, a homicide occurs. After an altercation with Adèle, a black restaurant worker, Thomas, is found shot dead less than two hundred meters from the hotel. No weapon is in evidence. No one who was present in the hotel dining room on the night of the shooting has any information to contribute. An investigation, of sorts, gets underway.
Blackwater fever abruptly takes Adèle’s husband, a repellent figure whose past activities in the field of white slavery (in which Adèle was a partner) had resulted in their banishment to the colonies. The widow inherits the hotel. The affair between Adèle and Timar continues, even as Timar learns that suspicion in the homicide has fallen on Adèle. A bullet has been recovered that would undoubtedly match her revolver, if only that item could be found.
Sick of inaction, and despite his realization that the timber company that he has come to Gabon to work for is technically bankrupt, Timar undertakes to repair, at his own expense, the motor launch that will take him upriver to his work. But Adèle has another plan for him: he is induced to use his family connections in France to secure personal title to a valuable timber concession whose original leaseholder wants to sell. Adèle has capital and will be his partner. His family agrees, and the deal goes through.
Adèle sells the hotel to one Bouilloux, and prepares to move with Timar to the concession in the bush they have acquired. They set off together. En route, Adèle makes a stop: she vanishes into a hut in a riverside settlement for an unexplained rendezvous. She and Timar then proceed to the concession, where she takes charge of timbering operations. Timar is unwell, delirious at times. He suspects Blackwater fever.
News arrives from Libreville. Thomas’s murderer has been identified. A local has been found in possession of the murder weapon. It becomes obvious to Timar that the mysterious river stop had been made by Adèle for the purpose of handing over the incriminating revolver to someone, in fact to the purchaser of the hotel, with the purpose of planting it on a black. Timar’s fixation on Adèle survives all this. The carnival of injustice is about to climax. Adèle and Timar will return to Libreville for the trial.
Passim, Simenon presents the vile minutiae of empire. He describes the shocking level of insult used in normal discourse with the Gabonese people. The public prosecutor, offering friendly advice, explains to a timber dealer how to beat his employees without leaving marks. Gratuitous cruelties are added to everyday matters of exploitation: a man whose wife and her sisters, one of them “not much more than a child,” have been commandeered for sex by the white gentlemen of Libreville is given a derisory bribe and sent off with a kick in the behind. In good times and bad, the butchering of the forests gathers pace, and the rare woods, the ebony and mahogany, must be sought farther and farther inland.
We can’t help but read this novel today against our knowledge that in 1932 European civilization is poised, one more time, to give birth to monstrous fratricide, genocide, apocalyptic warfare, cultural destruction, the breaking of nations. In Tropic Moon the dehumanizing heedlessness, rapacity, and cruelty shown by the agents of the French mission civilatrice toward the black populations under their control will, we know, be replicated, played out differently very soon elsewhere, by different Europeans, different actors, with different victims. And beyond the looming specter of fascism—a subject, by the way, not on the minds of any of the characters in this book—is something else we know is coming. And that something else is the bleak outcome for black Africa of the inevitable arrival of independence, a process itself hastened by the autodestruction of European power.
The reader should not indulge in the easy comfort of feeling that the poverty and cruelty of colonial life described in Simenon’s novel will be, will have been, undone by decolonization. Conditions in Francophone Africa today are dauntingly, if variably, grim. But how could it be otherwise? The scene presented by Simenon—the stripping of natural resources by French commercial interests, the instruction in unfairness provided by the colonial system of justice, the reduction of the African population to servile status—is portentous. There are portents in Tropic Moon. Its original readers may not have seen them, but we do.
In the matter of justice, Simenon’s novels—the romans durs and the psychological crime studies—dispense with it. It is not to be had, generally speaking. So Tropic Moon can be taken as one more specimen from a dense array of similarly Hobbesian Simenon stories set anywhere, including the United States, Europe, ships at sea, in which crimes (typically crimes of passion or impulse) are committed, l’homme nu (Simenon’s term for the potentially murderous universal everyman he saw everywhere and in every station of life) does his thing, people get hurt, and somebody’s suicide may wrap things up.
If you want to see justice done, you must go to the seventy-six Maigret policiers. Maigret embodies justice, the bringing of order. Simenon referred to him as le redresseur des destins. Maigret is reliable. Simenon kept the two streams of narrative running fiercely side by side his whole life. It makes an interesting balance. Graham Greene, another great writer as engaged as Simenon with questions of crime and punishment, made a similar distinction between his commercial products, which he called entertainments, and his serious novels. Greene, however, employed his serious novels as vehicles for explorations of justice—justifications of the ways of God to man. There is no theodicy in Simenon. Nothing close.
It can be instructive to compare what a novel stands for or represents—its direct or implicit advocacies or critiques—and what it accomplishes as a strictly aesthetic device. Tropic Moon is notable on both counts. What it achieves aesthetically is a true evocation of a social hell and a persuasive portrayal of what it does to thinking, perception, identity, to be a member of the oppressor class in such an environment, and to a lesser degree, of what the toll is on the oppressed. This evocation is conveyed in Simenon’s trademark style—swift, colloquial, seamless. (Simenon deliberately restricted his literary vocabulary to two thousand words, in the interest of accessibility.) And these qualities are strongly registered in this fine new translation by Marc Romano.
What Tropic Moon represents politically is a sulfurous blast against empire as it was then. The novel arose out of travel reports Simenon wrote for the magazine Voilà in 1932, a series published under the title L’Afrique vous parle: elle vous dit merde, based on his visits to Gabon, Senegal, and the Belgian Congo. Simenon’s summary conclusion, according to his biographer Patrick Marnham, was essentially that colonialism was not practical. Marnham writes,
In years to come he was to recount many times how he had always seen through colonialism, and even before his journey through Africa had been a resolute opponent of it. In fact what he wrote …[on the subject] was both more complicated and more original…. His conclusion was that colonialism was a fraud and that it would have been better to leave the people of Africa in peace than to make any attempt to introduce education or medical care or democratic government…. Simenon’s chief objection to colonialism at the time, was for the effect it had on the white colonials.
The complications in Simenon’s anticolonialism don’t end there. What exactly did he think he was doing when he ran backstage after a birthday performance given for him by a Martiniquaise dance troupe and had his way with two of the dancers, to general merriment? It’s hard not to think of Simenon as a rich, entitled white erotomane first and an anticolonialist second. In any case, his magazine series L’Afrique vous parle: elle vous dit merde and Tropic Moon incited resentment in official circles, and when he sought to revisit the French colonies in 1936, he was denied a visa.
An aspect of empire that Simenon captures well in Tropic Moon is the ethical blankness, the cloud of unknowing it seems to engender in the psyches of the imperializers, at all levels. The characters in Tropic Moon may experience odd moments of vague disquiet that interrupt the peculiar emotional equilibrium that reigns while dark deeds are routinely being committed, but deep recognition of what is truly happening is rare, and when it occurs, costly. The conditions floridly depicted by Simenon, specific though they may be to a time and a place in the past, are not irrelevant for Americans to contemplate in the new millennium. Here, writing in 1921 in his book The New World, is Isaiah Bowman, director of the American Geographic Society and a high-level adviser to a string of American presidents on matters of global policy:
United States expansion has in recent years evoked a certain hostility…. Here we have a problem of the first rank. For the people of the United States are as unknown to themselves as they are to the rest of the world. They do not know how they will take interference in their policy of expansion….
Today, something very much resembling empire is back. It remains to be seen how our own fictions will serve us now and how they will be read in the future.
August 11, 2005