Was Georges Simenon the greatest ever Belgian? He was certainly the most prolific both in his literary output and his apparently inexhaustible sexual appetite. Best known for his Maigret novels and short stories, he also wrote standalone novels. One such was Le Petit Homme d’Arkhangelsk, first published in English in 1957. This new edition, translated by Siân Reynolds (who is the former Chair of French at the University of Stirling) is, like most of Simenon’s books short – just 185 pages – but as powerful a story as he ever wrote.
We are in an anonymous little town in the Berry region of central France, and it is the middle years of the 1950s. Jonas Milk is a mild-mannered dealer in second hand books. His shop, his acquaintances, the café, bar and boulangerie he frequents are all like spokes of a wheel, and the hub is the bustling Vieux-Marché. Jonas appreciates his neighbours, such as Le Bouc behind the counter in his bar, Gaston Ancel the butcher, with his booming voice and bloodstained apron, and the Chaignes family in their grocery shop. Jonas values these people or, to be more precise, he values their acceptance of him, because he is an outsider. Sure, he has been in France since he was a small boy, his family – from the port on Russia’s White Sea coast – having sought refuge in France during the Revolution. They have all returned to their homeland, and Jonas does not know if they are alive or dead. He is also a Jew, but because of his fair hair and complexion he survived the attention of the Nazis during the Occupation.
Jonas Milk has a wife. Two years earlier he had converted to Catholicism and married Eugénie Louise Joséphine Palestri – Gina – a voluptuous and highly sexed woman sixteen years his junior. No doubt the frequenters of the Vieux-Marché have their views on this marriage, but they are polite enough to keep their opinions to themselves, at least when Jonas is within earshot. But then Gina disappears, taking with her no bag or change of clothing. The one thing she does take, however, is a selection of a very valuable stamp collection that Jonas has put together over the years, not through major purchases from dealers, but through his own obsessive examination of relatively commonplace stamps, some of which turn out to have minute flaws, thus making their value to other collectors spiral to tens of thousands of francs.
Gina has had her flings before, though, seeking physical excitement that Jonas does not provide. He has born his shame in silence, and it has never occurred to him to challenge her. This time, however, when he makes his morning purchases – his croissants, his cup of espresso – and is asked where Gina is, he makes a fatal mistake. Perhaps through embarrassment, or irritation perhaps, he tells a small lie.
“As a rule, Gina, in bedroom slippers, often with her hair uncombed, and sometimes wrapped in a flowery dressing gown, would do her shopping early on market days, before the crowd.
Jonas opened his mouth and it was then that, in spite of every instinct telling him not to, he changed the words he was going to say.
“She’s gone to Bourges.”
Four words. Each of them harmless on its own, but together, something entirely different . What happens next is a masterpiece of brilliant storytelling, as in just a few days, the world of Jonas Milk begins to unravel. Simenon’s ability to describe profound events while framing them with little inconsequential moments of observation – a blackbird pecking at crumbs in a back garden, a café owner turning his face away from the steam of his coffee machine, a wife not cleaning up the frying pan after cooking herrings – is astonishing.
You will probably read this book in a couple of sessions. Yes, it’s a short book, anyway, but my goodness, what an impact it makes. The Little Man From Archangel is published by Penguin Modern Classics, and is out on 1st April.