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le fou de bergerac

4 october 2014

Le fou de Bergerac, one of the last of the Maigret novels that Georges Simenon published in the incredibly prolific year-and-a-half between early 1931 and mid-1932, explodes into action, if not very coherently. On his way from Paris to the south of France, unable to sleep in a couchette (I know the feeling), Maigret wonders about the equally restless passenger in the berth above. Suddenly the insomniac above gets up, goes out into the corridor, and jumps from the train. Maigret jumps after him. This is one of these "seems like a good idea at the time moves," but it quickly seems bad, because the fleeing man shoots Maigret. Our hero passes out and wakes up in Bergerac.

Bergerac must be a place, given that Cyrano was from there and all, but Maigret has never been there, and he's unlikely to see much of it aside from the hotel room where he recovers slowly from grievous bodily harm. There is a serial killer loose in the town. In fact, it takes Maigret a couple of chapters to convince the locals that he is a famous policeman, not the "madman of Bergerac." Mme. Maigret comes to stay with him and be his eyes and ears in the village. "Maigret écoutait à la façon d'un aveugle [Maigret listened like a blind man]" (77) as she paints a word-picture of the place and its people.

Lightheaded with loss of blood, Maigret decides that the serial killer must be one of the town's leading citizens. A third of the way into the novel, he's already convening one of those Hercule-Poirot get-togethers with the whole cast of characters, on the principle that one of them will break down and admit to being le fou. As it happens, Maigret is quite wrong about this, and his little confession session goes haywire from the start. Maigret's sidekick Leduc has his doubts about Maigret's sanity (and Maigret in turn suspects Leduc, wholly unjustly, of being the madman). And when Mme. Maigret begins to think that Maigret's lost his mind, even the reader gets worried.

The solution is well-hidden, and in fact this is not a puzzle mystery: there's no way for the reader to piece together the clues and finger a suspect. Le fou de Bergerac looks forward to Ross Macdonald instead of back or sideways at Agatha Christie. These murders are no vicarage peccadilloes committed on account of minor inheritances or parochial envy. They are noirish brutalities, in the context of altered identities, cryptic parentage, and international organized crime.

That last theme branches into a deeply unpleasant part of the novel. Simenon was involved in some far-right pamphleteering in his youth. But for the most part, he kept anti-Semitic themes under wraps in his novels – I say this like I've read all of them, but then again I've read about a hundred of them, and that's probably a representative sample. And that sample doesn't contain much anti-Semitism, at least in proportion to its volume, and certainly not much as central theme.

It's the more disappointing to find that the criminals in Le fou de Bergerac are Jews, one of whom is trying to hide his Jewishness. Not that representation of Jewish criminals is necessarily anti-Semitic, but that Simenon has Maigret reflect evilly on the movements of Jews across Europe. Maigret had always considered the Jewish emigrés of Paris, we learn,

comme s'ils eussent été d'une espèce différente de l'espèce humaine ordinaire. … Le Centre et l'Est de l'Europe … grouillant d'une humanité trop dense … Des centaines de milliers de Juifs affamés s'en allant chaque année dans toutes les directions …

[as if they were of a different species from ordinary human kind … Central and Eastern Europe … teemed, too thickly peopled … Hundreds of thousands of hungry Jews traveled every year in all directions …] (115)
And this on the eve of Hitler's rise to power.

So I don't recommend Le fou de Bergerac. It has its merits as a policier, but there are dozens of better Simenons you can read, far less reprehensible, or indeed not discernably reprehensible at all. The anti-Semitism here is fused with the theme of the novel and drives its vision of murderous, sexually insatiable madmen. It's an ugly book.

As if to echo the theme, the physical book I read was pretty ugly. It's a 1986 paperback with a cover in drab shades of teal and salmon. The typeface has been so obscured by several generations of reproduction that you have to guess at where the accents should go, and sometimes make out words only from the suggestive Gestalt of their faded outlines. I bought it for a couple of bucks online, and come to find that it was discarded from the library of a Catholic school in Newcastle. Completists get exposed to some unattractive things in the course of their reading.

Simenon, Georges. Le fou de Bergerac. 1932. Paris: Presses Pocket, 1986.

Danish title: Maigret og den gale fra Bergerac
English title: The Madman of Bergerac
German title(s): Maigret und der Verrückte [von Bergerac]
Italian title(s): [Maigret e] Il pazzo di Bergerac