Why you should read: The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, Georges Simenon
by Alptekin Uzel
“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.” --Joseph Campbell, Power of Myth
In recent years, George Simenon has been brought to the forefront of literature in Turkey with his novels being republished. If these translations are attracting more attention for Turkish readers, it is due, in part, to their having been translated by the most significant classic names from Turkish literature. Names such as Sait Faik, Oktay Rıfat and Nurullah Ataç are among these. In the Turkish literature of the early republic period, the importance of a French influence is well known, so, of course, it is not surprising that quite a lot of authors had enough of a command of the language to translate from French. To have a pulp literature crime novelist like Simenon named among these translations is a bit perplexing. On the other hand, this situation has resulted in the attraction of readers’ attention.
Although The Man who Watched Trains go By (L'Homme qui regardait passer les trains, re-titled by Sait Faik as Yaşamak Hırsı, or The Passion to Live), is not one of Sımenon’s most well known novels that feature police detective character Inspector Maigret’s adventures, it is one of his most famous. Because it is Sait Faik’s translation and given that Sait Faik would go on to create the character found in the story of Lüzumsuz Adam (A Useless Man), which is claimed to have been influenced by Simenon’s oeuvre, I’ve started with this novel. It’s not only a classic crime novel containing unexpected events following each other, but it is also a novel that portrays the depth of a certain character throughout.
Also having been adapted to a film in the 1950s, it tells the story of a Dutchman, Kees Popinga. Middle aged Popinga is a mundane man living a petit bourgeois life. In a small port town in Holland, he is the assistant manager of a firm involved in shipping. He has a routine life with two children and a wife. If you passed him on the street, he is one of those men who’d seem functional in life and who wouldn’t surprise you.
The novel has a surprising opening. For the reader, in a casual speaking manner, the narrator draws attention to how unaware Popinga is of the anticipated adventure ahead, himself. After that he describes as if with a magnifying glass the lethargic and uneventful evening following this wealthy family’s dinner. It is the book’s most slowly trickling and detail laden section.
Then everything starts with Popinga’s decision to leave, in the free evening hours, to check on things at the port. When he goes, he learns that their work has been interrupted and a large delivery has not materialised. He runs to find the boss, but he’s not around. He encounters him in a notorious public house. It’s hardly believable. But this honorable boss has been an imposter from the start, and he has brought everything to ruin and now he is also planning to escape. With his head reeling and without knowing what to do, Popinga eventually returns home. In the wake of that nightmarish night, he discovers that boss did actually disappear. After this point, as Popinga foresees his life being dragged down with his sinking business, he decides to flee.
Having always watched the trains longingly, he jumps on one of the passing trains and runs away from his family, his routine, and his old personality by first going to Amsterdam and then to Paris: “I was bored for forty years. For forty years of my life, I had my nose glued to the window of the pastry shop, I looked at the desserts that the others ate like a drooling boy. But now I know that the ones who deserved those cakes are the ones who went through the trouble to get them.”* After this, it is the story of how a man coming from mundanity “among us” slowly enters into the crime of the dark world.
It is a tough job to categorize Simenon’s narratives and to reveal their dominant factors. This is because it is the question of an extremely productive writer who wrote close to four hundred works. Insofar as I could read and analyze again, I can say that the common man’s or woman’s descent to crime is one of Simenon’s beloved themes. While telling of the slow formation of a criminal mind and its eventually taking action, the backdrop is usually Europe at the end of the war. The places in his stories are generally France and if it’s like this book, then we often face The Netherlands as well. The setting of Western Europe continues as though idling, free from political/economic turmoil. As for the foreground, it generally involves middle class people whose identities are determined by their economic class.
Throughout the book, we follow the ideas of the society and experts on Popinga with news extracts relating to “Dutch Murderer Popinga” coming out in newspapers. Here, we can also see more easily the central theme that the book has taken. Without anyone being maniacal or mentally ill, how could a man become a fugitive from society and a criminal? Popinga says in his own words that in spite of everything, he sees himself as a normal person (of course, he's the novel's protagonist, but still). However his actions tell us another thing. Who are we to we believe in this situation?
In a book titled, Delilik Nedir? (What is Madness?), Darian Leader discusses a category that is generally ignored. And this is “Silent Madness.” In brief, it is a madness that is not actualized, but It remains potential. It hasn’t yet erupted. In practice, it actualizes but it only dribbles like slowly leaking water; it is to an insignificant degree. It falls on deaf ears to society and those around the person. These individuals also succeed in hiding this in a crowd. It has been suggested that people can lead normal lives and still go crazy without technically going crazy; at least this is the perspective of mental health professionals. The close-up scene at the beginning of the novel which portrayed family life in the home all but lends itself to searching for the signs of this “Silent Madness.” Can we trace the decision-making mechanisms in the transformation to the dark world into which Popinga is about to fall in his immediate future? Where did the fissure start? Not much of a trace can be seen.
But the fact that we can’t see anything is also significant. This quote of John Cheever elucidates why we couldn’t see a thing:
When the beginnings of self-destruction enter the heart it seems no bigger than a grain of sand. It is a headache, a slight case of indigestion, an infected finger; but you miss the 8:20 and arrive late at the meeting on credit extensions. The old friend that you meet for lunch suddenly exhausts your patience and in an effort to be pleasant you drink three cocktails, but by now the day has lost its form, its sense and meaning. To try and restore some purpose and beauty to it you drink too much at cocktails you talk too much you make a pass at somebody’s wife and you end with doing something foolish and obscene and wish in the morning that you were dead. But when you try to trace back the way you came into this abyss all you find is a grain of sand. (The Journals of John Cheever)
While it is an eccentric crime story upon first impression, Yaşamak Hırsı is also a realistic novel in that it addresses everyone’s occasional desire to run away. In the parts of the novel where Popinga tries to vanish without a trace from the police or just when he's living in the city that bores him, he hops from this bar to that bar in the aimless afternoons. You can find in him quite a bit of what we know about city people who are alone and a little depressed. But if you look more carefully, you’ll even be able to identify the fissures of the man who spends time listlessly making himself comfortable surrounded by the contours of his home after dinner in the wintertime.
* This quote has been retranslated into English from Sait Faik's Turkish translation of the original: “Kırk sene canım sıkıldı. Kırk sene hayata bir pastanenin camekanına burnunu yapıştırmış, başkalarının yediği pastalara ağzının suyu akan bir oğlan çocuğu gibi baktım. Ama şimdi pastaların onları almak zahmetine katlananların hakkı olduğunu biliyorum.”
Alptekin Uzel is a writer and computer scientist living in Istanbul. His reviews are published in mediums like K24, Altyazı, Agos and Sol. He is currently submitting his first novel manuscript for publication.