“The People Opposite” by Georges Simenon (published by Penguin Books)

1984 in 1933 not 1949, and now again in 2022

Belgian author Georges Simenon (1903-89) lived in four countries and travelled worldwide but details of his visit to the USSR in the early 1930s are sketchy. What’s remembered more today is that the visit gave birth to this novel, considered a singular effort among the 400 or so he wrote, being seen as his most starkly political work and even as something of a precursor to George Orwell’s monumentally dystopian “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, published in 1949.
9. April 2022 13:48

The opening pages of this latest paperback publication tell us “About the author”, and it is helpful to know that “In the spring of 1933, Simenon travelled through the Soviet Union, including a politically formative eight-day sojourn on the Black Sea port of Odessa, where he found out about the famine that was raging in Ukraine. He then went to Turkey where he interviewed Trotsky. Upon his return to France later that year, Simenon would write The People Opposite – an explicit critique of the poverty and corruption he had witnessed. He also published one of the few pieces by Western writers that exposed the reality of Stalin’s famine.”

It’s useful information, as Simenon biographers Fenton Bresler (“The Mystery of Georges Simenon”, 1987) and Patrick Marnham (“The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret: A Portrait of Georges Simenon”, 1992) offer few facts about this particular time when Simenon, a man in his early 30s still on his way to becoming a world-famous writer, had moved from his hometown Liege to Paris and travelled as a journalist and photographer on assignment for various French magazines, including Voilà and Paris Soir.

Pierre Assouline (“Simenon: A Biography”, 1997) called the author’s subsequent “Russian” novel “anti-communist”, and it’s an apt description, for Simenon lays it on with a trowel. Neither did he waste time: the book was published that same year, 1933, in its original French as “Les Gens d’en face”, which means “The People Opposite”. The book was translated into English in 1951 but, in the peculiar way of publishers, it was titled “The Window over the Way”. (The English version has also appeared as “Danger Ashore”.)

Now, in 2022, “Les Gens d’en face” reappears not only with its correct English title but also in a brand-new translation. This is by Siân Reynolds, one of the team who re-translated Simenon’s 75 “Maigret” novels from 2013-2020, and we trust that her work is surely more precise than our copy of “The Window over the Way”, translated by Robert Baldick in 1966. This also was published by Penguin, which must now see it as failing to capture some Simenon style.

But to the plot… the novel depicts conditions in Batumi, Georgia, population 30,000, a sun-baked port on the Black Sea in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, as seen through the eyes of a foreigner, Adil Bey, the new Turkish consul. The opening line, “Oh my word! You have white bread!” immediately highlights how most people have only lesser-quality black bread.

Batumi has three consulates, the Turkish, Italian and Persian. The Soviets prefer consuls who don’t speak Russian, and Bey doesn’t know a word. “That’s one point in your favour, at least,” he is told – don’t buck the system, play the game and survive without attracting attention. Bey is single, the other two are married and there is John of Standard Oil, so merely six expatriates, “doomed to live together for months”, says Nejla, the wife of the Persian consul, Amar.

“It’s a hole!” she says. Behind the harbour are narrow streets, unevenly cobbled or not paved at all, mud-lined like drains. Houses seem abandoned, never repainted, with windows missing panes, eaves dangling down and water falling from broken gutters. Doors open on to dark entries. The air is hot as an oven and smells of oil from a refinery.

Bey witnesses how the inhabitants suffer continual deprivation and constant surveillance. Poverty and hunger abound, undernourished people and beggars “swarm in the dust or sit on their bags of rags”. Everyone earns the same wage, and accordingly everyone is poor.

Not counting all those sleeping outside, each house has one or two families per bedroom.  And “what could they be doing? Yes, what did they do in all those bedrooms with beds and mattresses strewn all over the floor? The women weren’t cooking since they had nothing to cook. They weren’t sewing either, or hardly at all, for they always wore the same dress.”

Mornings, at least 200 people line up outside the co-operative store until a notice goes up saying there are no more potatoes, or flour, or cereal. The alternative, the State-run market, requires hard cash, gold or jewels, which are beyond most residents.

Electricity is cut off officially every day at midnight. Water is often shut off as well, and when it does come back on, long lines of people form at the faucets. Since drinking takes precedence over washing, everything is filthy. Bey must get water in a pitcher from the common tap on the landing outside the grimy rooms that are his consulate and apartment.

The street outside Bey’s bedroom window is not wide and he sees into the single-room flat directly opposite, and vice-versa. Three people live there: Kolin, who is head of the maritime OGPU, the harbour security police, plus his wife Nadia and his sister Sonia. Sonia also happens to be Bey’s secretary, and he comes to rely on her heavily amid the corrupt bureaucracy, surveillance, suspicion and spying, the denunciation, arrests, imprisonments and executions.

Expatriate American John, the Standard Oil man, has been in Batumi for four years and is always drunk. He warns Bey: “ Just don’t ask any questions at all, get it? If your parcels arrive with half the contents missing, don’t mention it! If you get robbed, don’t mention it! If you’re attacked in the street and your wallet stolen, just go home without making a fuss. If someone dies in your office, wait for them to come and take him away. And remember this, if your telephone doesn’t work, that because it’s meant not to work.”

Finally: “Have a drink! Let the time go by hours, days, weeks, months. Maybe one day your government will remember you and send out a replacement.”

Bey is worn down by it all: the stares in the street, his Turkish banknotes are a problem, it would compromise locals to talk to him, he can’t find anyone to do his housework. What was the cause of death of his predecessor, who had never been ill before? “I don’t remember,” says the doctor. “I’d have to check my records.” An OGPU agent shoots a man in the street. His consulate attracts peasants, people so filthy, so primitive, so uncivilised, that he wonders where they came from every day. Etc, etc.

He starts an affair with Sonia, attracting attention from the authorities that will eventually prove calamitous. Shades, then, of “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, of Big Brother, of Orwell’s ill-fated Winston and Julia. “The People Opposite” is similar too to works by Graham Greene, who also tackled sin and moral ambiguities in political settings and seedy locales.

As noted, Simenon wrote fast, usually a couple of weeks per book, with occasionally slapdash results, though perhaps sometimes the early translators can be blamed. He didn’t always work out his plots in advance, and they can display a knocked-off nature. Still, he trails clouds of glory and the current Penguins contain an impressive roster of illustrious names extolling his skills.

The fellow contains to fascinate and to entertain.

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