“I must kill memory once and for all
I must turn my soul to stone,
I must learn to live again.” from the poem The Sentence by Anna Akhmatova (translated by Judith Hemschemeyer)
One of the reasons I started blogging was with the idea in mind that I’d pick up some great recommendations along the way, and that happened recently when John Self over at the Asylum recommended a book I’d never heard of, Hugo Wilcken’s Colony. I just finished the novel and I’ve one word to say SUPERB!
Colony is set in 1928 and begins just before a shipload of convicts arrives at the French penal colony of Saint-Laurent. Saint-Laurent is the port in French Guiana at which “selection” takes place and convicts are sorted and shifted to other locations. The bulk of the story is told through the eyes of Sabir, a 30-year-old WWI veteran, and in spite of the fact he’s survived the trenches, he’s quite aware that surviving in a penal colony is another matter entirely. Sabir keeps a nervous eye on fellow inmate Bonifacio, a Corsican jewel thief who holds a position of unassailable power on the ship. Apart from his threatening physical presence, since Bonifacio escaped from a penal colony and made it back to France, he knows what awaits the convicts and knows the basic geography of the area, and this makes Bonifacio a valuable, yet difficult, source of information.
Sabir is an excellent observer and a quick learner, and he rapidly and falsely manages to gain a coveted job as a gardener. He’s sent to Camp Renee where he becomes the convict pet of the deranged camp commandant.
If you tend to have a fondness for Joseph Conrad (like me) then just a very basic plot outline of Colony should have you dashing out of the door for the nearest bookshop. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed in this intense novel and its examination of colonialism, freedom, and identity.
One of the fascinating aspects of Colony is that the book takes a slightly different view of the old colonial paradigm. Whereas most fiction books on the subject of colonialism focus on a) the mistreatment of the native/subjugated population and/or b) the corrosive taint of colonialism on the dominant culture, Colony fascinates by its focus on how exactly a dominant world power, France in this case, spews out the debris of empire on the distant shores of French Guiana. In Colony, while the white men are still on the top of the heap, the book focuses on how other men who are outcasts of French society fit into the schema. Some of the convicts (Sabir and Edouard) are WWI veterans, but that fact certainly doesn’t ameliorate their sentences.The natives remain noticeably (and sensibly) in the background while the French masters exploit their fellow citizens–underlings for the most part who’ve fallen foul of the French legal system for a range of reasons.
It’s interesting to note that preceding chapter one there’s an appropriate quote from Dante’s Inferno: “I did not die–yet nothing of life remained.” Oddly enough, in my desire to begin the novel I didn’t see this quote until later, and yet the Inferno came strongly to mind for the first few chapters of the novel, but the quote that I recalled was “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.” When Sabir arrives, it would seem that he’s arrived in hell–hell on earth, that is, and the only escape is death. Just as Dante describes the various levels of hell, Sabir discovers that life on a penal colony is also composed of variations of hell: arrival is just the bridge to the next level–the best level of hell is acquiring a job as a house servant for an official, and the worst level of hell–the level to be avoided at all costs–is life at the forest camps where disease, hunger and drudgery await. Here again I thought of another quote–but this time the quote wasn’t from Dante: it was from Nazi death camps, such as Dachau & Auschwitz : “Work Shall Set You Free.” (Arbeit Macht Frei). It’s a particularly sadistic, twisted and sickly ironic turn of phrase, isn’t it?
One of the greatest scenes in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness describes the futility of a French man-of-war “firing into a continent.” This sort of lunacy exists in Colony mainly through the Commandant’s futile efforts to recreate a French country mansion–complete with an Orchid garden–in the middle of the jungle, using convict labour. The Commandant’s strange form of jungle megalomania assumes the shape of incredibly detailed plans for the future, and the Commandant plays with scale models while he drinks himself into oblivion.
While on one level Colony is a marvellous story that takes place within a French penal colony, on another level the parallels within the rich text allow the reader to make subtle connections and in the process engage in a meditation on the subjects of freedom and identity. The convicts who are all “judicial objects[s]” arrive stripped of any personal possessions, and all that remains are their names and sometimes their crimes, but even the crimes they committed form a type of identity. Thrown out in the jungle in a dehumanizing system where the strong, the crafty and the savage survive, identities morph and become as useless as other trappings from society.
Parallels can be drawn between WWI and the sentence at the penal colony. In the strict hierarchy of both systems, orders are given and must be obeyed as lives are thrown away, and it’s no coincidence that memories of the trenches and memories of those who died begin to haunt Sabir. Parallels may also be drawn between the Commandant’s behaviour and the obsessive behavior of an orchid grower, one of the main character’s great-uncles:
“He was remembering his great-uncle’s house in Chiswick, with its greenhouse that took up most of the garden, and the reflections of the orchids that would bounce off the glass walls. The morgue-like stillness of everything inside was what had most impressed. Row upon row of little pots, each carefully numbered and labelled. He could see his great-uncle toiling away with his orchids, potting them, repotting them, feeding them, enveloping them in a fine water mist, lavishing his love on them, day in, day out, always the same, year after year….It was an existence that had been polished and finished until it was like a perfectly round, shiny pebble, with no irregularities, a life that admitted no way in and no way out.”
But is it necessarily negative to devote one’s life to obscure projects, obsessing on the trivial until the trivial becomes the essential? Is it a ‘bad’ thing to perfect one’s existence as the orchid grower does and find some sort of happiness and sense of purpose in such an endless task?
Wilcken seems to be saying that a sense of purpose, even an obsessive sense of purpose, can be a wonderful thing. The orchid grower continually cultivates and expands his garden while in contrast, everything the commandant undertakes fails. At one point in the novel, he imports dozens of boxes of orchids from France, but they rot en route, and the commandant moves onto another phase of his plan for the jungle, abandoning the notion of an orchid garden in spite of the fact that the jungle is laden with indigenous orchid plants.
Whereas the Chiswick orchid grower is content with his solo project, the Commandant requires others to make his fantasy complete, and perhaps therein is the problem–after all, Sabir makes his greatest errors when he decides the fate of others. The hierarchy of the penal system breeds violence, corruption and exploitation, and those in power inevitably abuse their position with direct cruelty or neglectful disinterest. The inherent unhealthiness of hierarchal systems pervades the novel–in the memories of WWI, in the treatment of the prisoners and by the vicious conflicts within the convict population.
In the case of some of the convicts, poverty brings a variation of enslavement on the inevitable road to crime. In many ways, Sabir’s situation is far better in Camp Renee than his former life in France. Is he more or less “free” in the penal colony? Was Sabir better or worse off as a soldier in the trenches of WWI? What does being ‘free’ really mean? In spite of Sabir’s privileged position with the Commandant, the idea that “freedom” exists outside of the borders of the penal colony gnaws away at Sabir until he becomes obsessed with escape and “inaction is no sort of option.” The notion of escape into the jungle is an insane venture, but in the treacherous echo chamber of ideas, the convicts begin to imagine that escape is possible. As the novel develops it becomes clear that we are all prisoners of our circumstances and confined by our characters and desires.