Monday, June 1, 2015

Classic #14

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015.

Tropic Moon – Georges Simenon (French: Le Coup de lune)

In the summer of 1932 Simenon took an African tour.  Starting in Egypt, he went to Khartoum, Juba, the Belgian Congo, and descended by river over 1700 km to Kinshasa, Port-Gentil, Libreville and Conakry. He returned to Europe with a dark vision of colonialism as evidenced by three novels: Tropic Moon (Le Coup de lune, 1933), Talatala (Le Blanc à lunettes, 1937) and Aboard the Aquitaine (45° à l'ombre, 1936).

The novel Tropic Moon is a descent into hell from which no one escapes unscathed. The protagonist exemplifies a young man who protects his dignity behind a madness that we hope will clear up once he gets back to France. His temporary – we hope - madness may serve as his alibi for his guilty complicity and protect him from self-destruction as a response to the world he has just discovered.

To backtrack. Though full of naive enthusiasm for his new job cutting timer in Gabon, Joseph Timar is told that his predecessor does not want to leave the upsriver post – even threatening to shoot his replacement -  and that the company that employs him is in financial trouble. “Nothing to do” is a bad situation for an expatriate since boredom causes stress. Timar also falls victim to an ineffable malaise brought on by the equatorial humidity. He settles in the only European hotel in Libreville's port, which is run by a couple, the Renauds, with a sketchy history that includes trafficking in human beings.

Remember this is a Simenon novel so on the first day, busty boss Adele Renaud, whose husband Eugene is dying slowly of a tropical fever, offers herself to Timar. The sexual encounter, however, puts Timar in state of both sensuality and remorse. He feels unbalanced and unconnected in his new unknown environment. If this book is read for nothing else, it is worth reading for its rendering of the worst case scenario of culture shock and its symptoms.

The next day a murder is committed. Timar has an alibi since he went out with a group of Europeans for an evening of drinking and exploiting the local population. Following the proverb, “A stranger can throw his shame away,” the whites boast about abuse they inflict on blacks and depend on each other to keep silent if ever questioned by the authorities. This section was so critical of colonists’s behavior and so exposing of the racket of colonialism that I wonder if it was a reason the French government refused Simenon a visa to return later in the 1930s.

Meanwhile, the Adele’s husband dies, freeing her up to pursue business adventures upriver. She persuades Timar to get an influential uncle to pony up funds for a forest concession. Adele and Timar sign contracts and deeds. They will be able to settle together, after a long journey through a jungle that Timar finds more and more oppressive and hostile. Getting no solace from sleeping with Adele (who may in fact really love him), Timar feels increasingly alarmed by a terrible void and feeling of a inescapable absurdity.

One morning Timar wakes up to find that Adele has left him to go testify at the trial of the young black accused of murdering the local man.  Joseph gets a dozen village men to canoe him down the river. This section is amazing, but Simenon is always amazing when he is doing a pursuit. He excels putting his characters between two points and in a nightmare.

Highly recommended to readers into literature about colonialism, culture shock, and existentialism.

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