Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Tropic Moon by Georges Simenon

A noir thriller with moral and psychological depth
Joseph Timar, a naive young Frenchman, travels to Gabon, a French colony in West Africa, to work for a lumber company. When he gets there, he discovers the position is not actually available yet, so he finds himself with nothing better to do than hang out at a hotel in Libreville, associating with the other whites residing there. Soon after his arrival a black boy is murdered, and though suspicion points toward the innkeeper’s attractive wife, Timar becomes involved with her anyway.

Though Georges Simenon is primarily famous for his Maigret series of detective novels, he is also well respected for what he called his “romans durs,” more serious literary novels often dealing with psychological themes, of which this book is an example. Tropic Moon is in fact a mystery story and a noir thriller, but the instances of crime and punishment take a back seat to the setting in which they take place. Though Timar enters Gabon with romantic notions about the glamor of the exotic Dark Continent, Simenon indulges no such illusions. His portrait of Africa is viscerally stark. Tropic Moon blatantly depicts the everyday injustices of the colonization of French West Africa. Though this may have been shocking to the audience of 1933, when the book was first published, today the fact that European empires exploited the resources of their third-world territories and oppressed the inhabitants of those territories is common knowledge. Nevertheless, through the direct matter-of-factness of Simenon’s descriptive prose, the reader finds himself inescapably effected by the palpable racism permeating the events of the book. The mystery story is what propels the book forward, enticing the reader to greedily gobble up each successive chapter, but the racial tension is ever-present just beneath the surface. The contemporary reader is not so much shocked by the racism as gradually suffocated by it. “They were whites, and they did whatever they wanted to—because they were whites.” The French characters in this book take what they want when they want it, whether it’s a piece of fruit, a centuries-old tree trunk, a native girl’s virginity, or the life of a black boy. We watch as Timar incrementally loses the inexperience and idealism of his youth, becoming ever more acclimated to the injustice and barbarism around him. The real mystery becomes whether he will completely succumb to the callous, brutish attitude of his white peers, or rise above their bigotry and assert his humanity.

Tropic Moon is a riveting thriller, set within a startlingly vivid slice of time and place. Although it takes you down dark roads you may not want to travel, the ride is captivating. Once I picked the book up, Simenon had me from page one, and I didn’t want to put it down. At a scant 133 pages, those with an adequate chunk of free time will want to read the whole book in one sitting.

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