Sunday, June 13, 2010

Georges Simenon – ‘The Brothers Rico’

        Simenon: When I did a commercial novel I didn’t think about that novel except in the hours of writing it. But when I am doing a novel now I don’t see anybody, I don’t speak to anybody, I don’t take phone calls – I live just like a monk. All the day I am one of my characters, I feel what he feels.

        Interviewer: You are the same character all the way through the writing of the novel?

        Simenon: Always, because most of my novels show what happens around one character. The other characters are always seen by him. So it is in this character’s skin I have to be. And it’s almost unbearable after five or six days. That is one of the reasons my novels are so short; after eleven days I can’t – it’s impossible. I have to – it’s physical. I am too tired. (The Paris Review Interviews, vol. 3, p. 28)
This intrigued me. It seemed a healthy mixture of popism and rockism – the work ethic of the latter, the ephemeral flourish of the former. Was a serious novel ever written in eleven days? Is an author justified in getting quite so intensely involved for a piece of pulp fiction? I like the idea that he ends up somewhere he didn’t know he wanted to be by a process of which he is not in control.

The Brothers Rico is mentioned in that 1955 interview as the one of his recent novels of which he is most proud. It is from 1954, so perhaps his memory doesn’t stretch back very far, but still. There are three brothers Rico: Eddie, Gino and Tony. Middle brother Gino is a hit man, elder brother Eddie runs a protection racket in Florida, and Tony is a getaway driver. The problems begin when Tony marries Nora Malaks, and word gets around that he might, if the police ‘gave him a chance and weren’t too rough on him’ (p. 57), give evidence in court against ‘the organization’. The organization cannot allow this to happen, and call in Eddie, the responsible brother, to track him down, ostensibly to warn him and get him shipped out to Europe. The allegation is curious because it is so vague. Nora’s brother Pieter is the one who makes it. An ambitious young man, an assistant manager at General Electric, with one eye on the chance of an eventual place on the board of directors, he goes to the police, presumably horrified by what his sister has told him of her new husband. Maybe it’s civic duty, maybe he sees that the higher he gets in his own career, the worse it is going to be to have a gangster for a brother-in-law. Tony’s complicity in Pieter’s second hand offer of a confession is never confirmed. Given that his wife is pregnant, it would seem the worst possible time to make a decision of that sort. This is something of a weak link in the novel’s plot, but it doesn’t affect the tension that gradually builds up around it.

Boss Sid Kubik lays out the facts for Eddie at a meeting in Miami, and his reaction to Pieter’s ambition is revealing:
Was this to imply that Pieter Malaks was the same sort of person as Eddie? Well, it just wasn’t so […]. He, Eddie, had never aimed that high. He was satisfied with his Florida setup, had never tried to make up to the bigshots. Didn’t Kubik know that? (pp. 55-6)
Eddie Rico is a pathetic specimen. He makes a virtue of always doing as he is told, and although his patch of the extortion network is relatively violence-free, The Brothers Rico shows how morally untenable this position is. He thinks he has done pretty well for himself, with a nice house, and a wife and kids to whom – unlike Tony – he never imparts compromising information. But this leaves him isolated in an underworld which does nothing but use him. He is proud of his status as a regional bigshot, but incredibly sensitive to over- or under- estimates of his importance. He wants respect without responsibility, and in a slightly autistic way he wants to fit into the organization’s jigsaw, not realising that everyone else is playing chess.

The novel builds to two great set pieces in chapters seven and eight, in the first of which Eddie finally catches up with Tony and confronts him. The movie version is quite close, though Tony and Nora seem more innocent. The tragedy in this scene is that it is of no consequence: all that matters is that Eddie has led the organization to Tony’s hideout, and in the subsequent chapter, back at the hotel, they place a guard on him and make him sweat it out.

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