I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015.
Aboard the Aquitaine – Georges Simenon (French: 45° à l'ombre)
Dr. Donadieu treats fractures to dysentery among passengers on the grim ship Aquitaine. It transports people and cargo between Matadi (at the mouth of the Congo) and Bordeaux. Ostensibly a loner, Donadieu endures this dull and predictable plying back and forth with regular habits and a pipe or two of opium in the evenings. Sometimes, however, passengers arouse his curiosity and his natural compassion. Though he tries to stay detached, passengers lure him out of the cocoon he’s wrapped around himself.
On this trip three couples in first-class attract his attention. Mr. and Mrs. Huret have had to leave the colony because the sweltering climate is preventing their baby from thriving. Mr. and Mrs. Bassot have had to leave because he has lost his mind, like the protagonist in Tropic Moon. Mr. and Mrs. Dassonville are returning to France because he has an important meeting. So, Mrs. Huret is cloistered in the cabin taking care of her sick child; Mr. Bassot is forced into a padded cell; and Mr. Dassonville occupies himself with endless paperwork.
Their spouses naturally have no qualms about having fun drinking, dancing, playing cards and games, and canoodling. The rich timber-man Lachaux watches all these goings-on with cynical interest, nasty and chewed at by dozens of tropical diseases. About 300 Chinese railway laborers are also on board, sleeping during the day and gambling all night, while something – maybe dysentery, maybe yellow fever – breaks out among them. Just incidentally, the ship doesn’t have enough water so it’s being rationed and a propeller is out of true.
With a calamitous backdrop like this, the boat is a microcosm of the colonial experience for the local blacks, the Chinese toilers, and the colonizers themselves. Simenon's message is clear: colonialism abuses and degrades the locals, exploits third-country nationals, and wrecks the colonizers themselves.
With the large cast of characters, there is a Grand Hotel, soap-opera-like feeling to this novel. The atmosphere is the star. It is remarkably crude and coarse. Simenon doesn’t spare the asinine pettiness of people forced to live together in a confined space for a month.
A good seedy novel, if you’re tough enough.