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The Outlaw by Georges Simenon

November 11, 2015 19 comments

The Outlaw by Georges Simenon (1941). Original French title: L’outlaw.

C’était terrible ! Stan était trop intelligent. Il avait conscience d’être aussi intelligent, sinon plus, que n’importe qui. Il pensait à tout !

Il savait même qu’il allait faire une bêtise et pourtant il était incapable de ne pas la faire ! Comment expliquer cela ?

It was terrible! Stan was too intelligent. He was aware of his being as intelligent as anyone else, if not more. He thought of everything.

He even knew that he was about to do something stupid and yet he was unable not to do it! How to explain this?  

Simenon_outlawWhen The Outlaw opens, it’s night, it’s winter and Stan and his girlfriend Nouchi are walking around in Paris. They’re broke and cannot go back to their cheap hotel because they haven’t paid for the room and they know that the owner will be on the prowl, waiting for his payment or to throw them out.

Stan is Polish and Nouchi is Hungarian. They are both illegal migrants in the Paris of the 1930s. They’ve been together for a while and have come back to Europe after a few years in New York. We soon understand that they had to leave after Stan did something stupid.

The first chapters are poignant as Stan feels trapped in his penniless life. He lives in constant fear of the police. They  walk around, looking for an open café to warm themselves a bit. They are desperate. They’re not allowed to work, they’ve already gotten all the money they could from friends. We follow Stan’s train of thoughts and he doesn’t see the end of the tunnel.

Il marchait. Il pensait. Il pensait durement, méchamment. Ses narines se pinçaient et il serrait les poings. Il n’avait pas le droit de s’asseoir sur un banc, car il aurait attiré l’attention et la première idée de n’importe quel agent serait de lui demander ses papiers ! He walked. He was thinking. He was thinking harshly, meanly. His nose was pinched and his fists were clenched. He couldn’t sit on a bench because it would have drawn attention to him and the first idea any deputy would get was to has him for his papers.

Nouchi and Stan need food and shelter. Exhaustion plays dirty tricks with Stan’s mind. He comes with the idea to bargain with the police: for 5000 francs, he will give them information about a gang of Polish criminals who operate from the same shabby hotel as the one they’re staying in. Instead, they want him to infiltrate the gang.

Simenon_outlaw_EnglishFrom there starts a rather confusing hide-and-seek game. The police are using Stan’s information but are still surveilling him. They are also staking out the Polish gang. I never quite understood whether the police were already aware of this gang’s activities or if Stan put them on it. Stan hopes to leave that mess scot-free and with the money. But Stan isn’t as clever as he thinks and he’s driven by fear, a bad adviser. He’s a young thug who isn’t brave enough to be as violent as his thug persona would require to and he can’t help wanting to earn easy money.

It could have been a great book if the plot had been polished a bit. It feels like it’s been written in a hurry and not edited much. I was more interested in the setting, the Paris of that time and Stan’s status than in the actual story.

It sounds strange to consider Polish and Hungarian citizens as illegal migrants as Poland and Hungary are now part of the EU and we can live wherever we want in the Union. Stan’s current nationality reminds us of the political instability in Europe.

Je suis né à Wilno. Donc, avant la guerre, j’étais russe. Après, nous avons été lithuaniens… Les Polonais sont venus mais, au fond, nous sommes toujours lithuaniens. I was born in Wilno. So before the war, I was Russian. Then we became Lithuanian…The Poles came but deep down, we remained Lithuanian.

All this in a life time. I can’t imagine what it was for them. (Of course, I picked up on this since Romain Gary was born in 1914 un Wilno.)

Simenon gives a chilling idea of what it was (is?) to be an illegal migrant. Stan and Spa from Spa Sleeps by Dinev would understand each other at some level although Spa isn’t willing to do become a criminal to get money.

That part was more appealing to me than the rest and Simenon set Stan’s state-of-mind really well and prepared the reader to understand what he did later. There’s no excuse for crimes but there are explanations on how criminals got there. More about this later this month with my billet about Crime by Ferdinand von Schirach.

This was #TBR20 number 16.

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