Heart of Darkness

George Simenon
George Simenon; drawing by David Levine

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…

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