Georges Simenon

The People Opposite

""...a well-written, political book that cries out to be read.""


The time is the 1930s, and Adil Bey has been appointed Turkish consul in the Soviet (now Georgian) city of Batumi on the Black Sea after the mysterious death of his predecessor. He speaks no Russian, and is out of his depth, being treated with animosity and suspicion by the people of the city. A member of OGPU, the Soviet security police, lives in an apartment opposite with his wife and sister. Adil Bey awakens one morning to discover that the sister, called Sonia, has been appointed as his secretary, and is sitting at a desk in his office. She is beautiful, but cold and unfriendly. He is suspicious, and believes that Sonia has been sent to spy on him.

The city has two other consulates - Persian and Italian. But they too remain cold towards him, and eventually the Persian consul returns home, leaving his wife behind. Then the Italian consul and his wife also return home, leaving Adil Bey to the mercy of the unfriendly Batumi citizens and AGPU.

However, a rapport of sorts develops between Adil and Sonia, and she becomes his lover, even though he still has his suspicions. Eventually he falls in love, and makes plans to return to Turkey with Sonia. He turns to John, an alcoholic employee of Standard Oil who lives in the city, for assistance. A plan is hatched. But will it work? Is Sonia all that she seems? Will she betray him? And what of Sonia's brother, and Nejla, the Persian consul's wife?

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This is an overtly political book, part mystery and part thriller. Batumi is a real seaport, now a thriving and bustling modern city, but in the 1930s, when Stalin was General Secretary of the Communist, it was run-down, ugly, and poor. Simenon no doubt knew that Stalin himself wasn't Russian, but Georgian, and used this to accentuate the grinding poverty of Batumi's city. Adil Bey is beautifully presented as a man who is a stranger in a strange land - totally out of his depth. Simenon presents Sonia as cold and unfriendly, but still with a hidden warmth and depth that is perceived by Adil Bey. Many of the other characters - the consuls and their wives - John the alcoholic - Adil Bey's housekeeper - are ciphers, there to highlight Adil and Sonia' awakening, but nevertheless interesting. All the suspicions, coldness, and ugliness of the city in the 1930s is starkly but simply laid bare. Food shortages, rationed electricity, mysterious disappearances and open poverty are dealt with in an almost off-hand way. This is a well-written, political book that cries out to be read.

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