Adil Bey is the newly-arrived Turkish consul in the dismal Black Sea port of Batum in the Soviet Union of the 1930’s. He does not speak the language, immediately alienates himself from the expatriate clique and is thus dependent on his twenty-year-old secretary, Sonia, for contact with the outside world. Sonia lives with her policeman brother and his wife in a single room opposite the consulate and Bey is able to observe them as they go about their humdrum lives. The couple begin an affair, more out of boredom or convenience than passion, which is disrupted when Sonia informs on a trafficker who has sought Bey’s help.
The action plays out against a backdrop of Stalinist paranoia and deprivation – the novel was later re-printed in the collaborationist journal L’Appel – but despite the exotic setting the affair at the heart of the book is pure Simenon. The lovers (if they can be called that) have little affection for each other. They do not communicate and Bey feels awkward addressing Sonia as tu. They are a model Simenon couple, passively following the routine they establish for themselves. And Adil Bey, who from the beginning has few discernible character traits, slips further and further into ennui:
Without even wanting to, he had become inert, as much as, if not more than, those around him. It was so easy. It required no effort. You carried your solitude with you, even when you went to see people . . . It was a protective cloud in which you walked along with an expressionless face.
It’s a description which could be applied to myriad Simenon protagonists, sleepwalking through lives given over to routine.
Later, Adil Bey discovers that Sonia has been slowly poisoning him with arsenic (as she had done to his predecessor) because his criticisms of the poverty under the Soviet regime have shaken her belief in the system. Despite this they are reconciled and Adil Bey arranges their escape on a cargo ship. Sonia disappears and Bey sails without her, knowing that she has been shot.
The grim setting and the cast of secondary characters are quite vividly realised and, despite the implausibility of Adil Bey and Sonia’s sudden devotion to each other (one day Sonia is poisoning him, the next she agrees to risk her life to flee with him), the final pages in which Adil Bey seeks news of Sonia before he sails achieve some tension. The novel’s chief flaw however is that the central character is not sufficiently realised. From the beginning, he does little other than observe his neighbours, wander the streets and fret about his health. When we learn that on a previous posting in Vienna he enjoyed dancing through the night and playing tennis, it is impossible to imagine. Neither the character nor his relationship with Sonia thus rouse much pity in the reader.
The Window Over the Way (1933) is one of Simenon’s earliest romans durs. It is unusual in both its setting and overt political overtones, but it contains several elements which would become familiar Simenon tropes – the protagonist who is condemned to be an outsider; the passive, emotionally numb heroine; the doomed nature of romantic relationships; the fear that one’s every action will be picked over by the powers-that-be. In this novel, it is the Soviet apparatus which both brings together and separates the couple; in later novels such external forces are dispensed with and it is the protagonists’ own flaws which make happiness unattainable.
First published as Les Gens d’en face (1933). Translated by Robert Baldick.
© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2013