“There are things in life that sometimes you just have to do.”
Simenon’s novel Tropic Moon examines colonialism and how it corrupts those who wield the power–in this case the French residents in West Africa. Simenon presents a world of “ethical blankness” centered around a small town ironically named Libreville. A young, naive Frenchman, Joseph Timor begins to feel a vague disquiet when he arrives in the sweltering African heat. He’s supposed to take up a position stuck in the middle of the jungle at a merchandising outpost. When he arrives, Timor learns that the man he is supposed to replace has gone bonkers and is threatening to shot his replacement if one shows up. If this isn’t bad enough, the boat necessary to take him to the outpost is broken, so in the meantime, Timor heads to the town’s only hotel–the Central–until the boat is fixed.
Socially and culturally, Timor is unprepared for the Central Hotel and its inhabitants. It’s the local hangout for all the bachelors, and Timor soon discovers why when he meets the hotel owner’s notorious wife, Adele. Both Adele and her husband were white slavers in France who were sent in exile. While Timor is at first shocked to see how the French abuse the native population, a combination of constant whisky and Adele’s occasional nocturnal visit to his room soon conquer any scruples he once had. Unfortunately, Timor is too innocent to realize that Adele’s way of welcoming Frenchmen to West Africa is just another means of adding them to her coterie of followers.
As Timor’s code of ethics is washed away by the whisky he imbibes and by the knickerless Adele, he gradually becomes immured by the morals of the colonialists. He becomes disinhibited, and events that would have shocked him just days earlier soon seem perfectly normal and acceptable. When the murder of a young black man occurs, Timor sinks further and further into a moral quagmire until it’s almost too late.
Written in a minimalist style, Simenon doesn’t focus on the psychology of his characters–rather the emphasis is on the gradual desensitization of Timor to colonialism. Timor begins by noting with horror the social and cultural behaviours of the unleashed French, but a few bottles of whisky later, he’s joining in. Things he would have refused to do when he arrived, he grabs with gusto as his morality erodes. Simenon maintains a distance from his characters by not exploring their motivations, and this serves to illustrate that colonialism becomes almost an instinctive reaction for those who embrace its corrupting tentacles.