Black Rain by Georges Simenon

“If things go on like this, take it from me, there’ll be a revolution.”

Author Simenon was an extremely prolific writer–producing over 200 novels and 150 novellas in his lifetime. He is perhaps best known for his Maigret series. However, many of his novels falls into the romans durs (‘hard novel’) category, and these psychological novels are–I think–the best of Simenon’s works. The novella Black Rain does not seem to fall into the romans durs category–it’s not hard-edged enough for that.

Black Rain is a reconstruction of a child’s memories. The narrator, Jerome, now an adult, recollects a specific period of time, when as a 7-year-old boy he lived with his mother and father in a small town in Normandy. As the son of shopkeepers, Jerome lives over the shop with his parents, and their collective lives are run by routine. Jerome is a solitary child, and his imagination is captivated by another little boy who lives nearby. The other boy, Albert, lives with his grandmother in a room above the seed merchants’ shop. Although the boys have never spoken to each other, Jerome, now an adult, can remember childhood moments when he saw Albert’s face “flattened against the window” staring out at him.

Jerome’s life of strict routine alters when his parents invite the corpulent and unpleasant Aunt Valerie to move in. Aunt Valerie is mired in a legal wrangle over a house she owns. Aunt Valerie hints that perhaps Jerome’s parents will eventually inherit the house, and this elusive promise acts as the stimulus for Jerome’s father to invite Aunt Valerie into their home. So Aunt Valerie moves in, takes over Jerome’s room and immediately begins dominating the household.

These are troubled times. The anarchist Francisco Ferrer is executed in Spain and news of his death reaches Normandy–a region already plagued with strikes and social unrest. Then the news breaks that the police are searching for Albert’s anarchist father, and the town seems to split in two–those who want him hunted down and killed, and those who sympathize. Aunt Valerie falls into the posse mentality while Jerome sympathizes with the poignant vision of the sickly Albert. Jerome tries to make sense of it all, and at one point asks his Aunt “what’s a strike?” She replies “it’s when workers won’t work anymore,” and “they throw things at policemen and go about with razors hamstringing horses.”

This well-structured novella charts Jerome’s memories of that period–recalled now in his adulthood and laced with his mother’s fragmented “falsified” memories and explanations. Jerome is just an innocent bystander in all this, but as children often do, he magnifies both his responsibility and his ability to affect events. Simenon shows, brilliantly, how traumatic incidents that occur in childhood–even if they are merely observed–can haunt us for the rest of our days.

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