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Pietr the Latvian

a review by Andrew Walser

In his Crime and Mystery: The Hundred Best Books, H. R. F. Keating calls Georges Simenon the “inventor of the story in which the detective is seen as a writer”. I would suggest, however, that the detective is every bit as much a reader in the Maigret novels, as is made immediately clear in Pietr the Latvian, newly translated by David Bellos.

The first of the Maigrets opens with a number of evocations of reading, decoding, decryption. Opening telegram after telegram – the first comes in IPC, the “secret international police code” – Inspector Maigret tracks Pietr the Latvian on paper, from Krakow to Bremen to Amsterdam to Brussels. The physical description of Pietr arrives in a numeric code, and the description itself is also a kind of cipher, allowing someone who is properly trained (like Maigret) to visualize the face as if he had seen it. A more familiar example of this phenomenon is the “huge map” that lets the Inspector predict the precise position and destination of the Étoile du Nord, Pietr’s train. Everything is symbolic, and translation is the only constant.

Such a density of semiotic detail can make Pietr the Latvian seem oddly prophetic, a harbinger of certain aspects of French philosophy and 20th-century avant-garde literature. A remarkable early scene, for instance, should resonate with anyone who has read Paul Auster’s City of Glass, often described as a “postmodern detective novel.” In both works, a detective waits in a train station for the arrival of a man named Peter, only to find two eerily similar candidates, one prosperous and the other shabby. Surely Auster – a Francophonic minimalist who wrote a pseudonymous mystery called Squeeze Play – would have known this crucial moment in a landmark Maigret. Could it have shaped not just his plot, but also his thinking about the mysteries of identity and the uncertainty of knowledge?

Again and again, episodes in the novel dramatize the instability of the self. At the Hotel Majestic, the prosperous Pietr becomes Oswald Oppenheim, involved in some kind of shady business with an American couple called the Mortimer-Levingstones, while in Fécamp he appears as a Norwegian fisherman with a wife and daughter – the “spitting image of Pietr the Latvian!”, Maigret thinks, even though he can hardly have a reliable image of the man. Somehow this low-key Norwegian metamorphoses into a drunken Russian, bitter and philosophical, and leads Maigret on a wild goose chase back to Paris. All the while, the Inspector is looking for the “crack in the wall . . . the instant when the human being comes out from behind the opponent”. But this is not easy with a human being as variously cracked as Pietr the Latvian.

Often in the Maigret novels a point comes when the Inspector realizes – or, rather, acknowledges – that, however the case ends, “justice” is the least likely outcome. Here he not only suspects that Mortimer-Levingstone and his “aristocratic grandeur” are beyond the reach of the police, but also that his suspicions about Pietr are too intuitive to translate into an arrest. The Inspector does manage to reconstruct the intricate chain of events by which Hans Johannson, submissive twin to Pietr, came to kill his brother in the toilet aboard the Étoile du Nord – but, by the time he gets the story straight, he has lost all interest in making an arrest. “[R]esigned, or rather, indifferent”, he takes the despondent Hans back to a hotel, where the two men sit in front of a fire in ill-fitting bathrobes, drinking rum. Perhaps Maigret is thinking of some alternative to justice when he motions to where his revolver lies on the bed and allows Hans to blow off his own head with it.

The novel ends as it began, with another translation – a rendition of the events of the narrative into the language of the police. Now, however, the emphasis is not on the miraculous way in which the real can be mapped into words, but on the gap between the official account – “The 6 mm bullet traversed the palate and lodged in the brain. Death was instantaneous” – and what actually happened. This is the gap within which the other 74 Maigrets will do their work.

Simenon, Georges. Pietr the Latvian. Trans. David Bellos. London: Penguin, 2013.

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