I read this for the 2014 War Challenge with a Twist at the reading challenge blog War Through the Generations
Dirty Snow – Georges Simenon
The original title is La Neige était sale and was published in 1948. It’s a masterpiece. But it’s not fun.
The setting is during WWII a German-occupied country, perhaps France, perhaps Austria. Simenon symbolizes occupation with dirty snow. Occupation by an enemy brings a sort of filth. Nothing is pure, nothing is straightforward, nothing compares to the whiteness of the snow. The occupation brings just dirty snow, all that pure snow that becomes foul and tainted, covered in black and debris.
Psychopaths, mercifully, are rare. But it’s unfortunate when they find each other, deprave and pervert political parties, hurl their countries into insane wars and occupy neighbors just minding their own business.
But human nature being what it is –What’s In It For Me? – not at all rare are opportunists and collaborators seizing the whip hand in as frightful an occupation as the Nazis imposed. As a result, ordinary people live chaotic and disorderly lives in sickening abjection. In the absence of rule of law, in a society dominated by envy and treachery, distressed people want to keep a low profile.The occupation reduces normal modest living to a daily struggle for coal, warm clothes, shoes, and food.
…he felt the need to cling to something stable, familiar. The crowds in the streets always frightened him a little. You saw, in the light of shop windows and streetlamps, faces that were too pale, with features too drawn and eyes that had a fierce, vacant look. Most were a mystery. But worst of all were the dead eyes. As time went by, you saw more and more people with eyes that were dead.
The main character is an ordinary psychopath with the usual anti-social tendencies and lack of remorse and empathy. At only 19 years old, Frank Friedmaier is a thug, pimp, burglar, and killer. Precise as a surgeon, Simenon uses his scalpel to probe the most remote recesses of Frank’s criminal brain. Frank doesn’t feel anything. He is a being disconnected from his environment, as if he were in a dream or were a fierce animal foraging in a drought. He scares people when he looks at them because his set face is like a mask. His psychological kinks come out of growing up fatherless and neglected by his mother, a whore with an endless line-up of boyfriends.
Frank and his mother run a brothel for Nazi officers. Frank trolls the city for desperate country girls. His mother, the madam Lotte, breaks them into The Life. Frank and Lotte make money hand over fist. Their business and affluence make them targets of hatred and envy in their apartment house. But they are protected by the authorities from the denunciations of their neighbors.
Frank lives the idle life of a crook, hanging out with other shits who are applying to the occupation the premise, What’s In It For Me. On a whim, Frank stabs to death an officer of the army of occupation and steals a revolver he coveted. Frank already has interposed a wall between his emotions and his surroundings so this murder and his subsequent crimes do not add or subtract to in his coldness and cynicism.
I don’t do spoilers in these reviews. But I will say that we should sit up and pay close attention whenever Simenon uses a flashback. In this case Frank recalls an injured cat taking refuge in a tree where no one could reach him. It’s a kernel of humanity that is as much a part of human nature as What’s In It For Me.
No, Simenon is not dealing in fun. You want to look at the bright side, read The Little Saint.