Colony by Hugo Wilcken (2007) Harper Perennial (2007) 345 pp
A few weeks ago John Self highly recommended Hugo Wilcken’s Colony, a book that, through no fault of its own, passed quickly into obscurity upon its release. Indeed, word is that the book “wasn’t so much published as dropped from a height.” I’ll take any recommendation from John, but this one was a bit more expeditious because it came with a blogger call to arms: resurrect Hugo Wilcken’s Colony through blog power! Which is really one of the best things about book blogs: many bloggers do not limit themselves to reviewing new books or new editions, and in a community of people with similar tastes they have the ability to bring back rewarding but otherwise lost books.
Colony is one of those rewarding books that should attract a variety of readers due to its masterful mixture of plot and what I’m thinking can be called anti-plot. On the plot side, I’m not one who requires a tight plot spinning faster and faster as I near the end of a book, but I had other things to do when reading the last fifty pages of Colony and kept finding myself avoiding those other things just to get a few pages closer to the end. It’s an exciting, tense book. But that’s not all. It wasn’t just the excitement of needing to know what would happen or even why things happened. I couldn’t wait to finish so I could start to ruminate on how things happened. Though the plot moves along clearly in limpid and direct prose, by the end we readers aren’t sure we’ve remembered things correctly. As straight forward as the narrative is, it subverts itself nicely and without being self-conscious. Up to the end (and, to be sure, even after), I was having the same trouble as one of the characters in that I “couldn’t quite seize it in its entirety.” (Even that bit of apparent self-consciousness fits perfectly in the direct story, so it doesn’t jar the reader coming across it).
I will follow the honorable lead of other reviewers and not give away much of the plot here. It’s worth discovering on one’s own. But here’s how the book starts, introducing us to the setting as Sabir, a French convict, arrives at French Guiana on a ship in 1929:
Lurid rumours abound about life in the penal colony. There are the labour camps where they make you work naked under the sun; the jungle parasites that bore through your feet and crawl up to your brain; the island where they intern leper convicts; the silent punishment blocks where the guards wear felt-soled shoes; the botched escapes that end in cannibalism. As the stories move through the prison ship, they mutate at such a rate that it becomes impossible to gauge their truth.
Sabir is a veteran of the Great War and his mind frequently (yet not so frequently that one feels Wilcken is trying to stretch connections) reflects on that time of captivity when he was tempted to desert. Now, he’s in a new form of captivity where “his only real hope is to become someone else entirely.” The atmosphere is tangible. I lived for quite a time just south of French Guiana along the Amazon, and Wilcken made me feel the afternoon heat and lethargy all over again, with all of its mind altering effects.
That’s about as far as I am willing to go into the plot, though, as I said above, the plot moves at a gripping pace. It is one form of irony in this book that it could be read almost as a form of escapist literature — just something with excitement guaranteed to keep your mind in the book and out of whatever else you’re doing. Escape is its theme, one of them at least. There are many forms of escape in this book, and most all characters are trying to escape or have escaped from something. Two of the most compelling threads, I found, were the ideas of escaping into and out of dreams and of escaping one’s self.
During the long, humid afternoon spent transcribing the impossible wishes of others, the realisation has grown in him that his old life is dead. That he can now never expect to resurrect it. That his survival — should he want it — depends on sloughing off this dead skin.
The book’s intelligent structure (I’ve alluded to it above) is another reason I was compelled to finish it as quickly as possible. See, somewhere towards the middle Wilcken has the reader second-guessing his or her reading, which is quite a feat for someone who writes so clearly and who moves the plot forward with little showiness. It’s one of “[t]hose moments. The tiny instants when, almost imperceptibly, one’s world tilts, then tips over into something else entirely.” This second guessing continues through the remainder of the book. Far from being an annoyance, this is part of the book, this sense of shifting reality and of shifting identity. It plays with our own memory of events, makes us question the impressions it just made on us. Though reading a book like this is like finding a forgotten treasure, it would be a shame Colony were allowed to drift into further obscurity.