by Hugo Wilcken
When Apocolypse Now Redux was released in 2001 the public had a chance to see many scenes which had been cut from the original film. In one of these Willard stumbled upon a French plantation, a hangover from Vietnam's colonial past, over dinner he and the family discuss the current conflict and the first Indochinese war, with most of them leaving angrily. Eventually Willard is left with Roxanne, a widow, who apologises for her family, shares some opium with him, before taking him to bed. At one point in her conversation she tells him "There are two of you, can't you see? One that kills, and one that loves". I mention this for a couple of reasons. The film's visual impact is such that I couldn't help but think of it when reading this book, particularly after Wilcken's mention of Heart of Darkness as an influence. But there is also something about the theme of identity and shifting states of reality that are part of both that film and this fascinating novel.
As has been mentioned it is difficult to say too much about the plot of this novel without spoiling its strengths as a book. It is set in 1928 in a penal colony in French Guiana where master criminals share time with those who have deserted or committed crimes of passion. Escape looks easy but is in fact almost impossible, even those who make it are only recaptured and returned at a later date. The settlement itself is incongruous, having 'the air of an unremarkable French village, miraculously transplanted to the South American jungle. Its little pink bungalows and spruce gardens look faintly ridiculous, cowed by this river and rainforest of unearthly proportions.' The Commandant has grand plans, beginning with the construction of his house, a replica of his home in France, the landscaping of its gardens by the convict Sabir who finds himself working there, extending into his wider plans for the settlement, which could be his own 'little kingdom', following the Australian model. This introduces one of the themes of the novel: the attempt to cultivate the land that surrounds them and the impossibility of that task in the face of a jungle which threatens to destroy and devour any attempt to civilise it. Fecundity combines with decay making the very fabric of the jungle terrifying. And this theme extends to the convicts in the camp of course, almost all of them armed, loosely guarded, the threat of exploding violence never far away.
For Sabir the strains of convict life come from within as well as without. We know that each of these men has a story and that none of them is innocent, the wish to escape the colony is the same as the wish to escape their past, a murky place indeed.
Memories. . . Stay still for long enough, deprive your brain of stimulation for long enough, and they'll always assault you. Faces from the past, people you haven't thought of in months or years, some still alive, but most dead. Men from the prisons, men from the trenches, they all crowd together in the theatre of Sabir's mind. Strange how you can forget names, forget almost everything about a person, but somehow the face remains.
That sense of limbo which permeates Apocalypse Now is what makes Colony such an atmospheric and unsettling read. After such a strong recommendation from John I'll be absolutely honest and say that for parts of the book I was disappointed, not so much by the book but by my own reaction to it; why wasn't I loving it? The writing is unshowy, the characters for the most part uncomplicated but slowly I found myself being caught up in that atmosphere, Wilcken's writing demands and rewards the efforts of the reader to wrestle with what's on the page. Like those first moments on waking from a dream, it can be a fight to grab hold of what's real. All of this has I think helped it to linger in my mind long after putting it down.
The past is dead, the future stolen away, the present an endless desert - so you retreat into a fantasy world, where finally you're in control. Among the lifers he's known, Sabir has seen the syndrome time and time again. You lose yourself in grandiose plans, unrealisable dreams, until life becomes a mirage. And escape can be the worst dream of all.John is spot on to mention Damon Galgut whose The Impostor featured as one of my books of last year. The two share that sense of unreality but also give a single female character extraordinary power over the men. The wife of the property developer in the new South Africa, the wife of the Commandant in colonial South America or the widow and colonial relic in a dream-like pocket of time during war. Each has the power to use a man to effect change and to hold up a mirror to him and expose that duality reflected back. One that kills, and one that loves.