The Vendée, perhaps 1944.
Occupation. Maquisards. A countryside of shortages. A rite of passage.
“He had been lying there for two hours without sleeping, his eyes fixed on a corner of the room where the moon illuminated the whitewashed wall, a black frame that contained a print, the posts of his sister’s bed. He could discern his father’s snoring in the neighbouring room. He had intentionally chosen a market night, because on those days his father would drink a few glasses of white wine and be sleepy.
He got out of bed, dressed silently, his bare feet sticking to the coolness of the tiles. He knew well, by the quality of the silence, that his sister wasn’t asleep – he sensed her tense nerves. He could nearly have foretold at what moment, as he took a step, she would reveal her wakefulness.
‘Are you going there?’
It was hardly a whisper. The vibration of the syllables just reached him, and, shoes in his hands, he approached her bed, touched with his lips a forehead moist with her scent.
‘I think this is it,’ he breathed. ‘Tomorrow, you will tell them …’
How had she guessed? And he, on his side, for several days, had he not been sure that she knew? She’d never said anything. Besides, she worked all day long as a maid for the butcher and she didn’t even take meals with them. It had always been like that – they hardly spoke and she knew. Only with him. You had to believe that there was a link between them that didn’t exist between other humans.
She didn’t cry, didn’t give him any advice. He moved away, opened the door and continued to feel her open eyes turned toward him in the blackness of the room. He left by the courtyard, jumped the hedge at the bottom of the garden and crossed the wet fields behind the church. Far enough from the village, he put on his shoes and tied them.
He was very quiet. He had thought through these movements so often that he accomplished them mechanically. A thick moon swam in the sky. A layer of moisture spread across the meadows and fields.
In that way he covered two kilometres, close to the river, the point that he had decided, and there, in the hollow of a dead chestnut, he located the shotgun.
Would he be lucky? Would he have to do this again another two or three nights? His father’s gun [fusil], that he had taken fifteen days before without his knowledge [the text says déterré: would his father have buried it or is this metaphorical?], was perfectly clean, without a trace of rust. In each barrel was a cartridge of buckshot, and three more were in his pocket, within reach of his hand. But would he have time to reload? Better not to count on it.
He got to his lookout, the site he had prepared, behind the hedge. He saw the road that came up toward him from the bridge. And, on the tarmac he had taken the precaution, this very day, to make a mark in chalk. When the motorcycle arrived at this mark, not before, he had to fire.
Afterward, everything would be changed. Now, he was alone, he was nothing. He was, in the night, a boy of twenty with cold-numbed fingers. The air was so still that he could hear, at more than hundred metres, the whisper of the river where there was sometimes a slight plop. A water rat? A fish?
More than a week before, nine days, he had gone to find them, over there in the forest, a dozen kilometres away, where he knew that they hid. In the middle of the day. He had advanced, hands in pockets, throat tight. He had always expected to see the gleam of the barrel of a submachine-gun [mitraillette], but they let him get to the farm. A big guy wearing dungarees and clogs sat on the doorstep, playing with a child.
‘What do you want?’
‘To see the chief.’
‘Where are you from?’
He had named his village and told them that he worked as a cartwright, and from the back of the room some boys emerged, spread them themselves around and watched him.
‘Do you think we should wake him?’
He slept in the straw of the barn, the chief. He was a very young boy too, curly hair, blue eyes, with a blue sweater with narrow red stripes and sandals. A Parisian. A mechanic. Bristling with golden straw.
‘You are well kind, my boy. But what the hell do you want us to do with you? We have one rifle for four and a couple of clodhoppers for two …’
That phrase he repeated to himself all along his path back …
‘… one rifle for four and a couple of clodhoppers for two …’
And he had presented himself with empty hands! He was ashamed of it now, as if he had committed some faux pas with very high-class people. Was it perhaps the desire to erase that shame, even more than the need to no longer be alone, that enflamed him while he waited behind the hedge?
There had been nights when, from his bed, he had heard motorcycles passing at all hours. Autos also, but he couldn’t think of autos. He heard one of then, very far off, that turned before reaching the river. Then silence. He wanted to smoke. The gun was truly frozen. Bells, those of his village, seemed to chase after him.
Then, suddenly, finally, a buzzing which could not be mistaken. He didn’t move, didn’t shudder … had maybe a little too much saliva in his throat. It was at first very slow. It seemed that the motorcycle would never reach the river. After that, it was very fast, very simple, nearly too simple. The machine, with its weak pink gleam, touched the chalk mark and he fired. The motor whined louder, as if to explode … the motorcycle rolled on about another twenty metres, with its rider dancing wildly, landing very close to the ditch, while the motor continued to whine.
He hadn’t moved. He waited. The man moved in the wet grass. He fired his second shot.
At that precise instant, hadn’t his sister shuddered in her bed? In any case, he thought about her, without knowing why. He put the shotgun back in the hole of the dead tree, slipped onto the road. First he had to stop the motor, to extinguish the light.
Then, calmly, without panicking, without forgetting a detail, doing what he had to do. He didn’t need to think. He knew. And he was without astonishment.
First, the Jerry. He had a carbine [carabine, a kind of long firearm] on his back and a revolver [revolver] in his belt. With the meticulous care of an ant he stashed the carbine in the tree, along with the ammunition. The boots? He wanted to take them, but he had not thought of that and he preferred not to depart in any way from his programme.
Some two hundred metres away there was an abandoned well into which he slipped the cadaver. It was no longer cold out, but very warm. He just had to drag the motorcycle into the meadow and take the tires. He had thought so well about all this that he had the tools in his pockets.
The machine, in its turn, toppled into the well.
In that way he would avoid reprisals to his village. Nothing was left on the road, not a shred of glass.
But there were still kilometres to cover, with tires on his shoulders. Dawn was about to break when he reached the door of the shoemaker in a neighbouring village whom he had seen three days earlier. A window opened up. A man in a nightshirt.
‘It’s you? At this hour?’
‘I’ve brought what I promised …’
Because the other had said: ‘Boots? I can’t give you boots. But then, if you could find me two motorcycle tires, I might manage to …’
He wore his slippers in the shop.
‘Aren’t you thirsty?’
‘No … I need you to lend me an old sack to carry them in … Four pair then …’
‘Small or large?’
‘Preferably large …’
The shoemaker was thinking, of course, but he preferred, he also, not to seem to think.
‘If you go home, tell your father …’
‘I’m not going right back …’
‘Good luck, then …’
He remembered: ‘Oh, the bag, you’ll have to bring back the bag …’
One could begin to see light in the cowsheds, women in the yards with buckets of milk.
It was a little after six o’clock when he reached the farm in the woods. Or rather, at fifty metres away a voice, ‘Stop! Come this way … On the left …’
He walked without seeing anyone and a man emerged, who felt the bag.
‘What do you have in there?’
‘Boots … new … four pair …’
Sweat poured off his forehead, his legs weakened. He was in a such a hurry now, to enter this house, to drop himself onto a bench, close to the others, that he blurted out quickly, in unintelligible words, all his treasure.
‘The two tires of the Jerry … don’t worry … he’s in the well … there’s a carbine in the tree … and this …’
A beautiful black automatic [automatique, ie the revolver], gleaming, that he produced in offering to the lookout, with tears in his eyes.
This time, he had come with his hands full.”
Georges Simenon, Les mains pleines, written in the Vendée in March 1945, published in the daily La Patrie, Brussels, No 39, June 7 1945, and in book form in the story collection La rue aux trois poussins, Paris, Presses de la Cité, 1963. In July 2000 I bought a reprint of part of that collection at a bookstall on the Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis.
This translation by Steve Trussel (the only one, and never printed) appears here, under the title Hands Full, at his Maigret website, although the story has nothing to do with Maigret. I have reproduced it with Steve’s permission and made some small changes, but the copyright remains with him.
Steve’s Maigret site is one of the richest on the web devoted to any novelist, though you have to dig a bit to get its full measure. It hides its secrets.
You couldn’t use this story to argue that Simenon was one of the great writers of the twentieth century, but that argument has been won in any case. I was saying this when his reputation in the English-speaking world was in a recession after his death in 1989. It started to return at his centenary in 2003. Now everybody is saying it.
But it is interesting as one of the few pieces of his fiction which deal with the Second World War. Two novels – out of a core list of 192 – do: Le clan des Ostendais (1947) and Le train (1961). I haven’t read the first, but The Train is not a full war novel even if it is about trainful of refugees moving south through France. One of his very finest books, La neige était sale (1948), is set in an unidentified town under occupation. He insisted that the setting was not France, but rather Austria or Czechoslovakia. The snow is a metaphor of the occupation. For other, minor references to the war in his work, go to this Trussel page.
Simenon lived in the Vendée, in the occupied zone, during the war, first at Fontenay-le-Comte, then at Saint-Mesmin-le-Vieux, and at the end at Les Sables-d’Olonne, where he wrote this story. Most of the Vendée, originally Bas-Poitou in the old province of Poitou (the provinces were abolished in 1790), on the coast of the Pays-de-la-Loire, had been the seat of a royalist uprising between 1793 and ’96, and sporadically up to 1815. Balzac published Les Chouans, which is partly about guerrilla fighting during this revolt (though the Chouans operated in Normandy, Maine and Brittany) in 1829, Trollope La Vendée in 1850, Hugo Quatrevingt-treize (Ninety-Three) in 1874. Marx used the word Vendée to refer to counter-revolutionary activities in various countries. Thus to “organise a Vendée”.
Les Sables-d’Olonne, however, supported the Republic. The departing German army destroyed the port during the night of August 27 1944.
The very young man, or adolescent on the edge of manhood, who transgresses, but whose heart is in the right place, is a recurring character in Simenon’s work. He exists in Balzac too. One of the people charged with investigating Simenon for collaboration in early 1945 was Jean Huguet, who is described by Simenon’s biographer Pierre Assouline as “a nineteen-year-old from Sables-d’Olonne, [and what] you might call a romantic of the Resistance”, though he was “more keen on literature than on political policing”.
Simenon’s record had not been spotless. He had not been an active collaborator, but perhaps an opportunist. He escaped further questioning by living in the US and Canada from ’45 to ’55. One wonders whether he wrote this story almost in self-defence, sensing what might be coming. Could its hero have been modelled on Huguet?
Rural resistance fighters during the war were called maquisards. Maquis is a type of high ground in Corsica covered in vegetation, like North American chapparal, where privateers used to hide. The picture at the top, from here, has the caption Un maquisard et sa sten. A sten gun is a submachine gun, not the simple shotgun which the hero in the story seems to have been carrying.
In July 1940 Churchill and Hugh Dalton formed the Special Operations Executive – “Churchill’s Secret Army” – a clandestine organisation whose purpose was to conduct guerrilla warfare against the Axis powers. It worked through espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance behind enemy lines. It helped local resistance movements in all the occupied territories, not only France.
The maquis bands relied on airdrops of weapons from the SOE. They were helped by agents who were parachuted in with wireless sets. They also used captured German weapons, especially the MP40 (a French resistance fighter, according to Wikipedia, said “they are as common as hookers on the streets of Paris, and they get about as much action”). They helped downed Allied airmen, Jews, and others to escape from the Vichy and German authorities. They relied on a degree of sympathy or cooperation from the local populace. The maquisards identified themselves to each other by wearing a Basque beret. It was common enough not to arouse suspicion, distinctive enough to be effective.
A famous British (or Antipodean) agent who helped them, Nancy Wake, died last year at the Star and Garter forces retirement home just outside Richmond. Obituary: Telegraph.
In March 1944, the German Army began a terror campaign throughout France. It included reprisals against civilians living in areas where the Resistance was active. Maquisards took their revenge against collaborators in the épuration sauvage when the war was over.
I met (as a family friend) Francis Basin (nom-de-guerre Olive, 1903-75), who worked in Section F of the SOE. He was based in London and conducted operations in France. He lost both his legs in a traffic accident after the war. He died in Paris. More on him.
MRD Foot, the historian of the Secret Army, died on February 18. Obituaries: Telegraph, Independent, Guardian.