During my all too brief youth I read a story that impressed me tremendously at the time and then faded into oblivion until about six months ago. Title, author, original language, the anthology in which it appeared all was forgotten. It took me 44 years to track down that story, and when I did, I found it was just as striking as I remembered it, but for entirely different reasons.
The first time I read it, in 1949, I was taking a break from a barely launched career in journalism to sell textbooks and encyclopedias on the instalment plan among the villages of Guajira [Colombia]. Actually that was just a pretext to get acquainted with the part of the world where my mother was born (and where her parents later shipped her back in order to put a few miles between her and a certain telegraph operator in Aracataca). I wanted to compare the reality with what I’d been hearing about it since childhood, and also to explore the area on my own account because I sensed that it was here that my roots as a writer lay.
The book business left me so much leisure time that, after working through my personal stock of reading matter, I started in on my sales samples. I whiled away long hours in seedy wayside hotels studying surgical technique, law, bridge building and, when I got really desperate, an illustrated encyclopedia in ten volumes. From time to time people lent me other things to read, and somebody I don’t remember who gave me a collection of detective stories, which I devoured on the edge of my chair at a hotel operated by Victor Cohen on the square in Valledupar.
The story in question, as I remembered it, involved a suspected criminal who was shadowed relentlessly day and night through the streets of Paris by a team of detectives. They were waiting for him to make a break for home, where they expected to uncover proof of his guilt. As always when I read a crime story, and for that matter in real life, I identified not with the pursuers but with the pursued.
The bookselling venture turned out to be a failure, and I had to give Victor Cohen an IOU for a couple of months’ stay at his hotel. I also left him my samples, which were of no further use to me, and two or three other books that I’d finished reading. I’m pretty sure the detective story collection was among them.
Six years later, now established as a journalist and with my first novel in print, I found myself at a loose end in Paris. It was a lazy autumn day and the city was at its most picturesque, with a lowering gray sky, the tang of roasting chestnuts in the air, whole pigs decorated with paper carnations hanging from the eaves of butchers’ stalls, and the accordions of summer giving out their last dying whimper. A blast of chilly wind across the Pont St. Michel drove me into the nearest café.
The place was bright and cozy, like a scene out of Hemingway, with couples whose endless kisses were repeated endlessly in the mirrors, and old soldiers stirred up by the latest news from Algeria. Sitting down at a window table to read a newspaper, I got more interested in the barges maneuvering up and down the Seine like floating cottages, with diapers hanging out to dry and mangy dogs barking at the gargoyles of Notre Dame. Suddenly I had the distinct impression that somebody was watching me. I glanced back over my shoulder, and there he was a tough-looking customer with three days’ growth of beard, dressed like a tramp, staring fixedly at me from a remote corner. I went back to my paper and pretended to read some more, but when I looked up again he was still there, motionless, watching.
Of course he wasn’t really watching me at all, but for a few moments I had known the panic of the hunted even more intensely than when I had read that story. Now that I got to thinking about the story, I couldn’t remember how it ended, so I decided to find it and read it again.
I knew the book in which it appeared had at least 400 pages, but I had no idea who had lent it to me or whether it was in fact among the ones I’d left at the hotel. Like most of the books available in Colombia in those days, it had probably been published in Buenos Aires very likely (because of its large format and clear print) by Santiago Rueda. Given the genre, the presumptive country of origin, and the time period, I guessed that it was one of many anthologies edited by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares. The only other detail I could remember was that the book also contained a story by Guillaume Apollinaire about a sailor with a parrot on his shoulder. Nobody I talked to could put me on the track of that book.
Oddly enough, by that time I had read a number of Georges Simenon’s novels, but never made the connection between him and the story I was trying to trace. He was already a figure of legend, not only because of the material he had published but also because of his writing methods and his almost incredible output. They said he finished a new book every Saturday...that he had turned out several while sitting in a window so that the public could see for themselves how fast he worked... that he was traveling round the world on a yacht... that he was planning to increase his output to a novel every day.
Move ahead from Paris and revolution in Algeria to tropical Mexico, 1965. There I happened to read a story and see a name that made me leap right out of my chair: Maigret! With a flash of inspiration twelve years behind schedule, I now remembered that that was the name of the police inspector who had dogged the heels of the fugitive in my story. The obvious inference was that Simenon was the author of the story.
Of course that was just a start, because looking for a story by Simenon without knowing the title was like dredging the ocean floor. I consulted experts on his work, including Alvaro Mutis, who once tried to get up a petition to have Inspector Maigret’s salary increased. Nobody recognized the plot, which I kept repeating like a broken record. Alvaro Cepeda Samudio, tired of hearing about it, said, "Write it yourself, for heaven’s sakes it’s a corker of a story, just waiting to be put on paper."
I dug through book lists and library catalogues in the hope of reasoning backwards from plot to title. That didn’t work. Eventually three people who had heard me outline the plot were sure they recognized it and sent me copies of three different stories by Simenon, none of which was the one I was looking for. I was beginning to wonder if, after all, the story might be by somebody else.
One spring afternoon in the ’70s I was waiting for a friend at a café in Geneva. A man of about 70 in a light raincoat and soft hat, with an umbrella tucked under his arm, sat down at a nearby table. The waiter who was serving me couldn’t wait to whisper, “That’s Simenon, the writer.”
Peering over the top of my paper, I saw him reading a paper of his own while gnawing at a burnt-out pipe. I never would have recognized him from his pictures, because he had the same anonymous Belgian face that he gave Maigret. Although he’d recently announced his retirement from writing, I saw no signs of aging or of the wear and tear of grinding out hundreds of books during the past 30 years. Never had I been so close to the solution of my puzzle, but I just couldn’t bring myself to approach him, even though I knew we had friends in common. Would Simenon himself remember a fugitive piece from so long ago?
In April 1983, during a music festival in Valledupar, I arrived at the home of some friends to find all the guests watching an elderly man whirl a beautiful young lady around the floor like a professional dancer. He was impeccably dressed in white linen, with a particularly stylish straw hat, rimless glasses, and white suede shoes with black trim. It was Victor Cohen, at age 93 giving one of the most stunning exhibitions of dancing I’ve ever seen in my life.
As soon as the music stopped he came over to me and, his patriarchal bearing softened by a twinkle of humor, handed me a slip of paper. “There’s a little present for you,” he said. It was the note for 900 pesos that I’d never paid off.
That turned out to be the sensation of the festival. To this day they’re still talking about it in Valledupar. Even before thanking Cohen for his act of unparalleled generosity I asked him if, after 34 years, he still by any chance had some of the books I’d left behind. In his small but select library we found three not, however, the one I was looking for.
Julio Cortázar brought me a step further in my quest on a night of violent storm in Managua. We had been talking for hours about tales of pursuit, a favorite genre of his, when suddenly I thought of the Simenon story. To my amazement, before I could even finish outlining the plot he announced, in his melodious baritone with rolling r’s, “The title is ‘L’homme dans la rue.’ It’s part of a collection called Maigret et les petits cochons sans queue.”
I felt so sure that I could easily put my hand on the story now that it never occurred to me to ask for further details. Big mistake. When, some while later, I picked up a Spanish translation of the book at a clearance sale, the story wasn’t there! Instead of trying to find a copy in the original French, I just assumed that Cortázar, who had passed away in the meantime, must have been mistaken, and once again abandoned the quest. (Now that I’ve seen the original edition I know that it contained nine stories, of which only six appeared in the pirated Spanish version.)
Fast forward another ten years. Barcelona, the spring of 1993. Beatriz de Moura [founder and literary director of the publishing house of Tusquets] was telling me of her mammoth project to bring out, for the first time in Spanish, the complete works of Simenon in 214 volumes, starting that year and finishing up sometime after the millennium. I got so excited that she said I ought to write an introduction for one of the volumes. I realized later that she was only joking, but what I said then was in dead earnest.
“I’ll write one for you,” I told her, “if you find me a Simenon story called ‘L’homme dans la rue.’ ”
That was at eleven p.m., after dinner at La Balsa, Toni López’s restaurant on the heights of Bonanova. At nine o’clock the next morning I had the story in my hands. The puzzle that had seemed insoluble was solved. Just as Cortázar had said, it was one of the nine stories in Maigret et les petits cochons sans queue.
I read it immediately, on the spot. A one-sentence synopsis of the plot, very much in the Simenon manner, appeared on the third page: “Thus began a chase that would go on for five days and nights, among pedestrians absorbed in their own affairs as they scurried along the sidewalks of Paris, a chase from bar to bar and from bistro to bistro on one side, a man alone; on the other, Maigret and his crew, who threw themselves into the pursuit with such energy that by the end of it they were as worn out as the man they’d been tracking.”
There it was, the lost story at last. And yet the enigma of so many years’ duration contained within it an even greater enigma. Because although the story was basically as I remembered it, there were important differences. It wasn’t told from the point of view of the hunted man, as I had thought, but from that of Maigret, the pursuer, and as I read it a second time I could feel my sympathies changing direction. In addition, the resolution of the plot wasn’t as straightforward as I remembered it. Like so many of the greatest works of literature, it involved a sacrifice made for love.
Here was a case of the passing years reworking the very essence of a half-remembered story as the insights and experiences of real life supplied the deficiencies of memory. For the sake of that epiphany I suppose it was worth losing track of the story for almost half a century.
Cartagena de Indias, 1993
(translated by) John H. Dirckx