Tropic Moon by Simenon [New York Review Books Classics, 1933]
Simenon is best known for his Inspector Maigret novels, which enjoy a rabid cult following among detective fiction enthusiasts. But he also wrote a series of roman durs, "hard novels" that have more in common with the grimdark noir of James M. Cain or Patricia Highsmith. Tropic Moon is one of these: the tale of a poorly adjusted but politically well-connected Frenchman who travels to Gabon during late colonialism in search of fortune and self-actualization, only to discover the place ruled by shady characters, abiding corruption and vicious racism. The book caused such a stir, in fact, that the Belgian Simenon was actually banned from traveling to France's colonies after the book's publication. But how does it stand up today?
To begin, the book is extraordinarily well-written. If you are unfamiliar with Simenon's prose style, then suffice to say that "economical" doesn't even begin to do justice to it--it's downright minimalist, and makes Hemingway look like he was paid by the word. There's a moment early on in the book where protagonist Timar is seduced by Adèle, the independent, morally ambiguous manager of the expat hotel he lives in. The entire seduction, from first stray glance to post-coital ambiguity, takes place over the course of a single sentence, yet somehow says enough to fill multiple pages. It's breathtaking, even in translation. At other times, though, the terse style just feels sort of bare, with little in the way of in-depth characterization beyond Timar or Adèle.
Simenon, writing for a late colonial period audience, does a good job portraying the dominant European view of Africa as a malarial backwater only good for exploiting, and of Africans as something in-between lesser human beings and a form of wildlife. Timar shares these assumptions, to a degree, though as the book goes on he begins to see the humanity of France's colonial subjects, and the inhumanity of French colonial domination. There's also a murder mystery, but it isn't much of a mystery.
Overall, for me the novel feels a bit anachronistic. Others disagree: Alice Fisher, writing in the Observer, calls Simenon's depiction of French colonialism "transcendent." And I think, back in 1933, it must have been really subversive. But I've read a lot of these kinds of novels, from Max Haavelar to Graham Greene's A Burn-Out Case, and no matter how shocking colonial corruption, racism and violence are portrayed in these books, they are still written for audiences that see colonialism and racialism as normal and acceptable, and as such have to set things up so as to gradually draw the reader into the conclusion that these things are/were in actuality terrible. This is thoroughly understandable, given the place and time these books were written, but today we--or more accurately most of us--already know European colonialism was terrible. That shift in assumptions on the part of the reader renders the subtleties and setups of books like Tropic Moon less compelling than, say, an actual historical account of colonialism, or novels written by former colonial subjects like Chinua Achebe's No Longer At East, neither of which pull punches in the same way.*
Is that an unfair criticism? I admit it might be, and I sympathize with Simenon's mission to cast an unflattering light on the French colonial dominion in such a way that even many of those who had accepted it would begin to instead question it. But it's not 1933 anymore, and Timar's journey from casual acceptance of racism to the now quite outdated antiracism of 80 years ago is just kind of, well, not that interesting to read about.
Baseline Assessment: 6/10
Bonuses: +1 for the exercise in prose minimalism; +1 for the excellent new translation.
Penalties: -1 for the book's subversiveness and progressivism feeling pretty dated; -1 for that subversiveness and progressivism being the main attraction here; -1 for the book consequentially being pretty boring to read today.
Nerd Coefficient: 5/10. "Problematic, but has redeeming qualities."
*Note of clarification: I'm not saying it's problematic to read about the terrible qualities of colonialism, but rather that the novel holds back because it's trying to gradually pull readers, from a different place and time, towards the same view of colonialism Simenon had. I think today's readers can (and should) gravitate towards accounts that even less compromising.