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le coup de lune

21 november 2010

Le coup de lune is a stark, simple novel about a young white Frenchman disillusioned by his experience as a colonial in Africa. He is so disillusioned that, as he's sailing away from Africa at novel's end, he keeps repeating "Ça n'existe pas" [it doesn't exist]: his adventure, the community he's met in its course, and ultimately Africa itself. The only way to cope with some realities is to deny them.

Le coup de lune (1933) recalls Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and prefigures later colonial-Africa novels by outsiders, like The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene and The Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul. Rivers into the jungle are important in such books. So is a sense that humanity is at its most elemental deep in the heart of Africa: and not usually for the better.

Georges Simenon was not known as a particularly progressive soul, so it's intriguing to find that Le coup de lune is one of the less reactionary European novels about African colonialism. Protagonist Joseph Timar fetches up in Gabon on the strength of a family connection that is supposed to kick-start his career as a mercantilist. But nothing gets kick-started in Gabon between the World Wars. It is an inertial culture of hedonist whites and downtrodden blacks, and for weeks Joseph does little but hang around the only hotel in the capital, drinking.

He becomes the lover, or rather one of the many lovers, of the hotel's proprietress Adèle. One night, a black servant at the hotel is murdered in the street, under mysterious circumstances. Later that night, Adèle's husband dies of natural causes. Adèle decides that it would be best for her and Joseph to take on a logging concession way upriver: she'll front the cash, he'll pull the strings. But on the way up, they stop at a native village, where Adèle disappears for a while. Come to find that the murder is solved: a black inhabitant of the village has been found to have the murder weapon buried in his hut.

It is clear to everyone with a working brain cell that Adèle has killed the "boy" Thomas. It is just as clear that colonial justice will let her off, not out of any deep conspiracy, but because whites killing blacks capriciously is just one of those things that happens in colonial Africa, and to punish such crimes is to undermine the whole colonial enterprise.

Joseph, somewhat maddened by tropical fever, realizes that a native family is about to lose a loved one to a perversion of justice. He sees that family as honorable – different, certainly, but worthy of a respect that the whites will never accord them. He listens to a black woman give testimony:

Elle parlait sans jamais reprendre haleine, butant sur les syllabes, avalant sa salive, avec la volonté farouche de se faire comprendre et de convaincre. Elle n'employait pas les moyens des Blancs, n'essayait pas d'être émouvante. A aucun moment sa voix ne montait d'un ton. Et, au lieu de pleurer, de s'évanouir, elle mettait son point d'honneur à rester d'une rigidité de statue. (198-99)

[She spoke without taking a breath, checking at the syllables, swallowing her saliva, with a fierce will to make herself understood, to convince. She didn't use the techniques of the Whites, didn't try to be pathetic. Her voice never got louder. Instead of crying or fainting, she made it a point of honor to stay as stiff as a statue.]
Watching her testify, Joseph realizes he's had enough: he makes a scene in the hearing room and accuses Adèle. But for his pains, he's merely shipped back to France. Life in Gabon goes on as ever.

It's by no means unusual in white novels of colonialism to see white settlers as depraved. It's a little more unusual, however, to see a young author of rightist sympathies present whites as depraved while seeing blacks as decent people just trying to get along. Le coup de lune is no bleeding-heart book. Its black characters are hardly noble savages, and its women are invariably sources of evil and the uncanny. But perhaps all the more, it's intriguing to see Simenon's essentially non-racist, humanist attitude in this text. It may have been just the tone that fit the story at hand, but it's an admirable tone.

Simenon, Georges. Le coup de lune. 1933. Paris: Fayard, 1971.