“The impossible suddenly breaches the dykes of everyday life.”
Kees Popinga is a respectable middle-aged Dutch businessman who works in the office of a major shipping company. Popinga is extremely smug about his boringly predictable life and is particularly proud of his material possessions–“the best that money can buy.” One evening, chance intervenes in Popinga’s life, and he sees his employer Julius de Coster inside a bar getting drunk.
In a few startling minutes, Popinga learns that the company he works for is bankrupt, and that his boss is about to abscond with what’s left of the money. Popinga’s boss urges his employee to do the same. Stunned, Popinga returns home and goes to bed.
Whatever motivating factors have kept Popinga on the straight and narrow are suddenly absent. At first, he takes to his bed and refuses to leave, but then he develops a plan of escape, and abandoning his family, he goes to Paris. Popinga steps out of his respectable businessman skin and soon goes underground in the criminal underbelly of Paris. Amongst the fences, thieves and prostitutes of Paris, Popinga tries to lose himself, and discovers that in this fringe society, he is easily accepted. He masquerades with the “new personalities people kept finding for him.”
The Man Who Watched Trains Go By follows the adventures of Popinga as he eventually becomes an internationally sought murderer. Author Simenon keeps his usual clinical distance from his characters, yet at the same time enters the mind of the deranged, egomaniac Popinga. By revealing Popinga’s innermost private thoughts and fantasies through a series of hilarious letters sent to the newspapers telling ‘his side’ of events, Simenon creates a masterful, fascinating portrait and case study of a true psychopath. Simenon keeps tight control of his text while exploring the bizarre cat-and mouse game Kees plays with the Parisian detective hot on his tail. As Popinga tries to evade the police, episodes from his past reveal odd traits of behaviour that explain his sudden moral derailment. Popinga’s predicament and his grandiose perception of his brilliance merge in this novel to create a surprising, delightfully ironic and darkly humourous tone that remains to the very last page. I have read a number of Simenon novels, and The Man Who Watched Trains Go By is one of the best ones I’ve read so far.