“The Little Man from Archangel” by Georges Simenon (published by Penguin Books)
Wayward wife brings community prejudice to surface
In fact, it is a theme already explored by Simenon in his books “Les Fiançailles de M. Hire” (English title “Mr Hire’s Engagement”) published in 1933 and “Chez Krull” (English title “The Krull House”) published in 1939, in both of which mob violence is sparked by the insidious influence of unfounded rumours, of social prejudice against people who have always been regarded dubiously because they “aren’t like us” and don’t conform to the local norm.
Of course, Man’s inhumanity to Man is an age-old scourge, an established part of the human condition. Remember innumerable dark periods of history. In 2021 it is Asian-Americans who are viewed with illogical suspicion and worse by certain of their ignorant fellow citizens who now spit on them and abuse them in the street. Six Asian women were shot dead just this month at a massage parlour in Georgia. This latest reissue of “The Little Man from Archangel” could be said to come at an appropriate time – but when isn’t?
In it we meet Jonas Milk, 40, an inoffensive man whose Russian-Jewish parents became refugees and brought him up in a little French town where he now owns a bookshop. This is squeezed between the food shops of the Vieux-Marché, the Old Market, and isn’t much to look at, full of worn and dirty second-hand volumes.
Milk has a regular piping-hot espresso coffee at Fernand Le Bouc’s small bistro and buys his croissants at the baker’s in the provincial town where the market is held every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday in a slate-roofed construction with no walls. His life is commonplace but basically carefree. His one problem is his wife of two years.
Gina is 24 and thus 16 years younger than Jonas. She is the daughter of Palestri, a greengrocer, and all in the town are agreed she is the most beautiful girl in the market, but some have reservations about her or put on a disapproving expression. Madame Milk is known around town as a good-time girl, with many lovers before the marriage and several adventures after.
As Simenon puts it: “She was beautiful, full of vitality, and he was sixteen years older, a dusty, lonely bookseller whose only passion in life was collecting stamps.”
Jonas is used to Gina going off with other men, and everyone in town knows what she’s like. Once she stayed away for three whole days before returning with no explanation. And Milk never asks for one. She had been his housekeeper and he married her as a supportive gesture, offering her some respectability. He doesn’t consider her a bad girl: “He was convinced she was doing her best to be a good wife, and that she was grateful to him for having married her.”
She had accepted him because he was the only man who never tried to take advantage of her, because her mother had long wanted to get her off her hands, and because Gina had rarely experienced happiness. Jonas would offer her something, at least.
Unfortunately, when she goes missing this latest time and people start to notice her absence and ask Milk if she is all right, he tells a small lie on the spur of the moment, partly out of shame and partly to protect her, saying she has gone to another town to visit a school friend. He also says she left on the morning bus, whereas in truth she hadn’t come home the night before after claiming to be going babysitting.
These lies by her husband gradually grow, within himself and without, among an increasingly suspicious community. “He was becoming caught up in a web of lies, which were bound to lead to others, and from which he would never be able to extricate himself.” People start to wonder, has the timid little man finally had enough and killed his wife?
The police become interested. As hostility to Milk mounts, his true position in the local society is revealed. He always thought he had been accepted but now he realises it doesn’t take much to become isolated.
Gina’s reappearance would naturally solve all, but this time it doesn’t appear that she will be coming back. Milk is also a stamp dealer and his most valuable items have disappeared along with his wife, so it seems she has planned to go for ever. Over time he had carefully amassed some valuable rarities, picking them up for good prices items that other dealers had overlooked, such as the French stamp of 1849 with the head of Ceres on a bright vermillion ground, and the Trinidad five cents blue of 1847 with the picture of the steamer Lady McLeod. Some ten million francs worth have gone.
“The Little Man from Archangel” was first published in French as “Le petit homme d’Arkhangelsk” in 1957 and was translated into English in 1964. It is one of the Belgian author’s romans durs, or “hard novels”, what we would call a psychological thriller. Simenon wrote more than a hundred of these “serious” books, as distinct from the 75 easier going and popular Maigret novels.
If we call it a typical Simenon, that shouldn’t diminish the skill involved: the placing of the reader in a colourful and busy French setting, then the delving into the mismatched marriage resulting in an average man being swept up in circumstances he fails to control, because he has tried to shield rather than condemn his promiscuous wife.
Who is the guiltier, him or her? Will it end in tragedy? With Simenon, we hardly need ask.
Penguin Books published “The Little Man from Archangel” and another Simenon novel “Monsieur Monde Vanishes” together in a single paperback in 1986, and the former was translated by one Nigel Ryan. This latest 2021 reissue of “The Little Man from Archangel” reiewed by The Budapest Times is a new translation by Sian Reynolds, with who we are familiar as one of the team of 11 or so people who retranslated the entire 75 Maigret novels by Simenon reissued one a month between 2013 and 2020.
Random examples from “The Little Man from Archangel” –
Nigel Ryan translation: “For the last two or three weeks, the children were to be seen charging about on roller skates which made a screeching sound for miles around, then, as if they had been given the word, they changed their game and took up skittles, spinning-tops, or yo-yos. It followed a rhythm, like the seasons, only more mysterious, for it was impossible to tell where the decision came from and the vendor at the bazaar in the rue Haute was taken by surprise every time.”
Sian Rynolds translation: “For two or three weeks, the local children would be seen on roller skates, making a noise that became unbearable as time went on, and then, as if they had all agreed, they suddenly switched to playing with marbles, spinning tops or yo-yos. The games had their own rhythm like the seasons, more mysteriously than the seasons, since it was impossible to work out where the change came from, and the shopkeeper of the all-purpose store on Rue Haute was always being taken by surprise.”
Fascinating, isn’t it?