««« back to CC Books

Georges Simenon: Tropic Moon [1932]

§ You don't read this because it's fiction, you read it because it's true. This isn't Babar the Elephant, although you can console yourself by saying all this was then, back in the inter-war years when colonialism was still considered a civilized thing, part of the white man's burden and all that. A young fellow by the name of Joe Timar is sent to French West Africa to work for a timber company, lands in Libreville, gets stuck in the local hotel because it seems the man he is to replace has said he'll shoot anyone who comes up river, tries to usurp him. So Timar turns his attention to the wife of the hotel owner, a thirty something femme fatale from Hell who has pussy-whipped all the local white males into submission because, well, she can... and this is how you survive in the jungle, it seems. Despite the blistering heat, she always dresses in black but wears no underclothes, in some sort of totemic adaptation of the black native identity. Her name? Adèle... Adèle Renaud.

"He looked at her in alarm. And yet she was a woman with soft skin, a good figure, a yielding body."

Simenon: Tropic Moon

While Adèle can be compared to other femme fatales such as Phyllis D. in Double Indemnity or any other James M. Cain female or even Kitty in Maugham's The Painted Veil (although the setting is more appropriate than the character, perhaps), her self-assured relentless amorality takes on a larger, more symbolic identity than that of a mere hot woman with nothing better to do. Going deep, the real comparison for Adèle is to Camus' Meursault -- who came later -- another French colonial who murders a native just to get rid of him, as you would swat a bug or step on an insect. Of course the usual comparison for L'Etranger is to La Nausée (1938), Sartre's classic novel of existential angst... and you know, in a very general way, La Nausée has some resemblance to Tropic Moon, which is saturated with physical and mental nausea. Who influenced who, exactly? Or is it rather that these three writers were drawing from the common pool of a maladjusted culture -- not just French -- that is, the modern secular sickness of rippling disbelief.

Certainly Camus -- the Oran schoolteacher -- admitted hijacking the "hardboiled" American style of Hemingway and James M. Cain, and if you look at Simenon, you have to say he was hardboiled right from the start, despite the softer Inspector Maigret series that made him rich. Tropic Moon annoyed a lot of French people when it came out, apparently. The face in the mirror was too ugly. The character of Adèle was beyond the pale, misogynist even. A classless French adventuress slapping the natives around, committing murder, stitching up a patsy... a bullet and a heartless shag her two main weapons, all this sordid stuff going down just over the horizon out-of-sight in Gabon, equatorial Africa. Dengue? Jungle fever? It certainly gets Timar, her latest love toy. In Herbert Lottman's massive 1979 biography of Albert Camus, he says "a Finnish economic geographer" told him him that when Meursault pulled the trigger, "it was a textbook example of the effect of climate on the population." (244)

This pretty well syncs with Simenon's anti-colonial views: white people should stay out of Africa, let the Africans find their own way. As Joe Timar travels up river, he catches jungle fever and is certainly never the same thereafter... although the bug that bit him was a woman, first day in town. Later he succumbs to sunstroke, becomes a raving paranoid idiot... yet although his paranoia turns out to be justified, it's certainly not tolerated by the white clique in Libreville, and he's expelled from the colony, sent back to La Belle France to disappear into bourgeois conformity.

So, zombies were once idealists too. As usual, some electric Simenonian detailing along the way, some outrageous incidents and superb characterizations all framed within the utter absurdity of cultures in collision. Who can forget the sordid, drunken wee hours orgy under the "tropic moon" involving the white patrons of the Libreville hotel and some native women they round up, then abandon 20 klicks from their village? "Moonstroke", for sure... and although Timar is just an uncomfortable witness, he eventually succumbs to the promiscuous lure of the jungle when he shags a village chief's nubile daughter somewhere down-river during his desperate pursuit of Adèle. Wearing a white suit doesn't remove a man from the cycle of bodily functions, it seems.

Then, in a stroke of genius, Simenon draws out his color symbolism by having Timar's white suits confiscated before he's put on the steamer for home; he failed as a colonial, as a white man, and now he exits wearing a black suit, like a mourner at his own funeral, an exoskeleton that signals his total corruption... or failure... or the disease his lover in black gave him.

"They were standing, their bodies like two pale smudges in the room."

Simenon: a great writer? A match for Celine? Better than Maugham, perhaps? Because of the period, comparisons of their subjects and themes are inevitable, of course. For a long time Simenon's 'hard fiction' (romans durs) drifted out-of-print in English -- perhaps displaced by his popular Inspector Maigret stories -- but now (2015) Penguin is busy bringing back many of these forgotten titles. You can get Tropic Moon as a Kindle eBook, or, if you're willing to pay the cult premium, find a used New York Review Books Classics paperback ("A brutal and clueless enactment of interwar French imperialism," says Norman Rush in his excellent introduction to this edition).

Tropic Moon at Amazon: US | Canada | UK

*Check out LR's novel RADIO BRAZIL »»