RARA-AVIS: Simenon's _The Snow Was Black_

From: Jay Gertzman ( jgertzma@earthlink.net)
Date: 20 Jan 2004

This novel, recently reissued as _Dirty Snow_, is set in an occupied European city (Paris? The names are Germanic) during WWII (it was first published in 1950). I can certainly see it as a powerful portrait of a people under surveillance, living in poverty, going through a numbing routine of survival with no sense of getting control of their lives. Then, Paris, Amsterdam, Prague; today, Kabul or Bagdad. Is this the only way to read the novel? I do not think so.

There is no political resistance, no underground. No one speaks for the city or nation which is occupied. There are some citizens who Simenon shows knowing and offering love and mutuality. The authorities could be municpal police as easily as military secret police. The protagonist, Frank, a 17year old hoodlum, thief, and accessory to murder, is the son of a madam who lives with her girls in an apartment house. Frank is determined to test himself and his inner resources, and the way he chooses, maybe the only way available, is to prove he has the power to remain unmoved by various cruelties and evils he perpetrates. He does what he does by free, rational choice, in cold blood and without remorse. He's hard boiled to the core. And yet, clearly at the end of the book he punishes, and has punished, himself. He is in search of a father (Mr Holst) and a lover (Holst's daughter Sissy), and deliberately puts himself beyond the reach of them, or of any kind of life. He is under arrest, wants to be tortured, and sees himself as wanting and deserving death. I'm not sure exactly what happens to Frank at the end. He could have gotten out of custody, and enjoyed the love of the man he sees as a father figure, and of the man's daughter. Somehow Frank had defined all this as weakness, or perhaps as experiences shut off to him by the very fact that he is the young man he is. Puzzling, noir, and mysterious.

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