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Colonialism goes bananas

White Spirit is a bitterly funny novel about a world in which the roles of servant and master are interchangeable, and where both are obsessed with race and religion.

By PHILIP HERTER
Published April 30, 2006


WHITE SPIRIT

By Paule Constant

Translated by Betsy Wing

University of Nebraska Press, $19.95, 182 pp

 

White Spirit is a bitterly funny novel about a world in which the roles of servant and master are interchangeable, and where both are obsessed with race and religion.

French author Paule Constant, winner of France's Prix Goncourt for fiction, has a fine time portraying "the civilizing mission of a great culture" to its miserable extreme in this modern version of the colonial novel. Translator Betsy Wing renders her snappy prose crisply and idiomatically.

The story follows the fortunes of a French lad named Victor, a provincial innocent who is hired by an outfit called African Resource that sends him to its hellish plantation, Cape Banane. There, banana-picking coolies are subjected to a weekly crop dusting with insecticide, a practice they've grown to appreciate as a buzz cheaper than liquor.

At African Resource's Model Village, a wretched outpost where "the whole world unloaded their manufacturing mistakes," Victor is put in charge of the company store, where he discovers a barrel full of a mysterious chemical that turns black skin white. The chemical serves as an ideal metaphor for the nasty, brutish forces of civilization.

As foils for the naive Victor, Constant offers an entertaining cast of characters: Cesar, the impotent crop boss; Ysee, the one-eyed madam who colonizes her female charges just as surely as her patrons do; and Guastavin, a cruel overseer, sharing his bungalow with a pregnant monkey who makes him coffee.

And then there is Lola, a young mixed-race prostitute who dreams of having skin like Marilyn Monroe. Not surprisingly, Victor's bizarre discovery gains for him her affections.

Constant's White Spirit invites comparisons with Heart of Darkness, but Cape Banane is not Joseph Conrad's Africa. Rather, it's an electrified suburb of globalization, where locals' contempt for their "Uropean" employers is matched only by their hostility toward each other. When a psychotic local starts a messianic religious cult on the plantation, Victor finds his life requires "more than courage, it requires absolute resignation."

Constant's hilariously horrific vision of an Earth where nature is mechanized and exploitation is the only form of human contact not only updates the colonial novel. It tips it right on its head.

Philip Herter reviews literature in translation from New York. He can be reached at philipherter@ hotmail.com.

[Last modified May 1, 2006, 09:42:43]


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