This little book by the man behind the Maigret detective stories Georges Simenon has a victim and a death but they are not the ones that you expect after the scene is set out. In a tale of discrimination, paranoia and the loneliness of being left completely alone this is on one level a story about trust and on another something a great deal more profound.
The trust story reminds you a bit of that film How to Murder Your Wife starring Jack Lemmon where he plays the role of a cartoonist who enjoys the bachelor life and then draws a fantasy cartoon strip about killing his wife. She sees the cartoon and heads off to sulk but her disappearance and the cartoon sparks a murder trial. No body can be found that but does not stop the prosecution whipping everyone up into a frenzy.
The pace here is a lot more sedate but darker because there is no humour. Jonas Milk, a Jewish immigrant from Russia who runs a second hand bookshop in a French market square goes to bed one night to find his wife has left him. There is a 16 year age gap between them and he was forced into the marriage by her mother against the will of her father and brother, who never come to terms with Milk. She walks out and rather than admit she is off cavorting with another man Milk when asked over his routine morning coffee lies about her travelling to see a friend in Bourges.
He persists in the lies whenever asked by family and friends and sticks to it as he goes through the routine of a morning and afternoon coffee and buying the croissants for his and his wife’s breakfast. The problem is that the family suspect him of foul play and as he sticks to the lie it becomes harder for him to then change his story, which he finally has to do under police questioning. The breakdown of trust with the wife is complete when the police tell him that she was frightened of him, a revelation that crushes him.
But on a more profound level there is a story here about exclusion and the speed to which a community will close its doors to an outsider. You can be living alongside people all of your life but the minute there is even a hint that something is wrong you become different – a Jew, a Russian a jealous old man married to a beautiful young woman.
It is that wall of suspicion that finally drives Milk to break with his routine and close in on himself. The potential release comes when a woman tells Milk where his wife is proving that he did not kill her but by then it is no longer, if it ever has been for him, about her. He chooses to end his life rather than live anymore among people who cannot look him in the eye and so blatantly talk about him behind his back. The memories of abandonment that come back to haunt him from his childhood experiences emigrating from Russia return to haunt him and remind him of how he is alone.
The power of the book is wrapped up in the final stages when the emphasis switches from the wife to the husband and he emerges as the real victim and ultimately is killed by the community around him. Simenon has a way of describing the cruelty of people too frightened to stand up and speak unless backed by the crowd in a way that any of us who has ever had that experience, even for a fleeting moment in a school playground, can relate to.
This book has as much resonance today than it ever did because bullying continues and the question of how we treat immigrants is as topical as ever.
Version read – Penguin paperback