“He was a petit-bourgeois down to the cut of his jacket, the knot of his tie, and his manner of speaking–the epitome of provincial France, but transported suddenly to the other side of the world, and surrounded by people who, if one looked at them closely, were like supernumerary actors in some exotic stage spectacle. ”
Georges Simenon’s novel The Long Exile is the story of two young anarchists who become fugitives and flee from France to South America following the murder of a wealthy Parisian.
The Long Exile, with shades of Conrad and Graham Greene, is an excellent book, but its central figures Charlotte Godebieu and Joseph Mittel are problematic characters as anarchists. Joseph Mittel, a tragic, frail figure is the son of anarchist and Bonnot gang member Mittelhauser. While the state was unable to convict Mittelhauser of involvement in the Bonnot gang due to insufficient evidence, he is arrested during WWI for “passing state secrets to the enemy” and there commits suicide “having opened up the veins in his wrists with the handle of a spoon which he had sharpened on the edge of his plate over several days.” Still a child, Mittel is subsequently abandoned by his mother, and he later alters his name and is more or less adopted by the French anarchist community. Mittel, whose life story is similar to some of the details of the life of the French film director Jean Vigo, has TB, lived in a sanitarium, and worked in a film company. While Mittel doesn’t really espouse anarchist beliefs, it’s the only world he’s ever known, and anarchists are the only people who’ve ever helped him–finding him employment, and a place to stay. Without the anarchist community, Mittel realizes he would have starved.
Charlotte Godebieu, however, is an entirely different case. In reality, she’s a prostitute, a thief, and a blackmailer who’s learned that a veneer of anarchist beliefs lends a certain romanticism to her behaviour. Charlotte brags about her exploits and her sketchy beliefs, exaggerating details as she draws a crowd of male admirers. She justifies the blackmail and murder of her former employer as necessary in order to finance the publication of the newspaper La Liberte, but even Simenon doesn’t seem to take Charlotte’s proclaimed anarchism seriously. With Charlotte, the author creates a portrait of a very unpleasant character who steals from her own impoverished family.
With help from an anarchist bookseller, Mittel and Charlotte manage to get passage on a ship sailing to South America, captained by the renegade gun-running Mopps. Mopps very quickly becomes obsessed with Charlotte even though he has no illusions about her character: “She’s totally devoid of feeling. She gives herself because she has no choice, or because there may be something in it for her. She thinks of nothing but making herself appear interesting, and when she saw I wasn’t impressed by her freethinking notions, she dropped the subject.” Even though Mopps decides that Charlotte is “no better than a trollop,” he still becomes her lover.
On the long voyage to South America, the other crew members ask Mittel if it’s “true” that he’s an anarchist, and then the next question is whether or not Mittel has “ever thrown a bomb.” When Mittel replies “never” they are clearly disappointed and ask “what’s the point” of being an anarchist if you don’t throw bombs? While the crew is initially a little nervous about Mittel, he soon gains everyone’s respect and Captain Mopps’ affection.
At one point, Mittel admits to himself that “he was no anarchist, but that he was the son of an anarchist, and this made him a kind of aristocrat among aristocrats. He was forced to attend all their meetings as an example to the younger generation.” He feels as though there’s “no escape” for him, and that no matter where he travels “there were anarchist, groups, cells, only waiting to grab him and do him honor” as the “son of a French Martyr.” While Simenon’s use of the word “aristocrat” is jarring when describing Mittel’s position in the anarchist community, this is the author’s attempt to describe the anarchist community’s view towards the son of a deceased comrade. Simenon doesn’t seem to take Mittel’s complaints about the pressure from the anarchist community quite seriously. Mittel is seen as a sympathetic, yet weak lost character who lacks any ability to make decisions about his own fate. At several points in the novel, he remarks that he had “no choice” about his life, and indeed even his exile to South America with Charlotte is something that simply happens.
Charlotte and Mittel eventually land in Columbia where Mittel takes a job working in a remote mine that supposedly yields a large amount of gold. Trapped here with Charlotte and a Belgian geologist who may or may not be insane, Mittel becomes involved in a murderous scam and experiences human greed and corruption through his brush with a group of corrupt businessmen. Mittel’s weak character leads him into trouble when he’s finally forced to take a stand in the warring business community of Buenaventura.
Escaping from Columbia and the intricate politics of rival business interests, Mittel and Charlotte travel to Tahiti to join Mopps. Here Charlotte manages a bar for ex-pats, and Mittel who’s left to observe Charlotte’s flirtations and affairs, begins to mull over his life….
A surface examination of Simenon’s protagonists may lead us to the hasty conclusion that Charlotte and Mittel embody all the negative stereotypes of anarchism. But Simenon does not seem entirely unsympathetic to anarchism in this novel. Indeed Simenon’s creation of Charlotte and Mittel as anarchists illustrates the idea that all sorts may be attracted to anarchism, and that as the son of an “anarchist martyr” Mittel carries a legacy that no one is likely to forget. Even though Mittel is not involved in Charlotte’s crime, he immediately is linked to the murder by the press. Furthermore, Simenon makes it perfectly clear that while Mittel and Charlotte are labeled as anarchists for different reasons, neither of the characters are, in fact really anarchists at all. Charlotte’s acts of theft, blackmail and murder are arguably les reprises individuelles–acts committed by an Illegalist (although Simenon doesn’t go into such theories), but any such claim drops the minute Charlotte leaves France. Mittel at first sees Charlotte as a “militant anarchist” while he is “halfhearted at best” but by the time they are stuck in Columbia he realizes that they “are just a couple of pathetic little people.” While in the beginning Mittel admires Charlotte’s force of character, he later admits that she committed murder “not so much from devotion to the Cause as from bravado, because she wanted to prove she was something better than a servant.”
Simenon is a great favourite of mine, and The Long Exile is one of his best novels.