Not surprisingly, I suppose, my choice was again for a work in translation, Paule Constant's White Spirit. I was not familiar with Constant's work, and one of the things that made me curious about it was the fact that she is apparently very well-known and highly regarded in France -- Prix Goncourt winner, etc. etc. Prize-winning doesn't necessarily mean all that much, but I find it interesting how the highly regarded in one culture translates (or doesn't) in another. (Several of Constant's books are available in English, but even I hadn't come across more than her name, which suggests to me a continuing obscurity.)
What attracted me to the book was also that it promised to offer a different look at the colonial experience. I certainly wasn't disappointed in that regard: White Spirit is a black comedy which doesn't try too hard to be 'about' colonialism but goes after and easily hits all the obvious (and some of the less obvious) targets along the way.
Among the biggest differences with American satire is in the approach to class and capitalism. We're used to consumer-excess satire in the US, but Constant puts the focus on a different level. The driving engine of the feeble economy in the book is the banana industry, though in Constant's world there is no demand for it abroad, leaving behind "a banana anarchy, a banana menace, throwing the ecology, the economy, and society into disarray". The exploitation of the plantation workers, and their final revenge is also nicely handled in the book, as one of the storylines running through it.
The store that the young innocent, Victor, is entrusted with running -- African Resource ! -- is worse than a joke, the last pit of capitalism, a garbage dump where what is not only useless but downright dangerous is unloaded on consumers willing to buy literally anything (because there is almost nothing else): capitalism simply for its own sake (and to the obvious detriment of the consumers caught in it). The contrast with the enterprising local, Queen Mab, who sets up her store under the overhanging roof, is also a clever one: she sells useful things -- but only in the smallest quantities: "flour by the spoonful, beans by the piece", etc.
Constant won me over with her opening scenes, the grandmother who raised Victor preparing him for his great adventure abroad. In these scenes -- the suit she buys, paying their respects to her employers -- she captures a specific ordered way of life that we, the readers, can see as misguided but that nevertheless works on some level -- the glue that holds this society together. Class is a big part of it, and one of Victor's problems is, of course, that his adventure promises to transcend these boundaries -- he's to be a director of a branch of African Resource ! -- but it's not that simple (and too good to be true). (I wonder how much of a barrier this is to American readers, who don't have these class hang ups (or consciousness) .....).
Constant's sweep is broad and relentless. I was worried that the 'White Spirit' idea (a caustic substance that whitens skin) would dominate too much, but it's really only a fairly small part of the book: the white spirit she's writing about is everything the Europeans have brought (and some of what they've left behind). And she brings it all together well, such as the religious influence -- the proselytizing Father Jean mutating into the abomination that is Brother Emmanuel (the priest's refusal to baptize Emmanuel leading him to take drastic action -- with all its perverse results), a white spirit (as the religion brought to the area was) turned on itself, adapted to a place it does not belong (leading, of course, to the baptism of the monkey ...).
I had some concern about the monkey (on the cover, and a prominent part of the book description), but I shouldn't have. There are two monkeys, actually, and while their fates are a bit hard to take (Constant doesn't let much of a sentimental streak show, and her 'Happy End' (so the last chapter) doesn't extend all that far) she uses them well. As with all her ideas she doesn't overdo it, not trying to milk an idea (be it the local bordello, African Resource, or the monkey(s)) to death. (Readers will also be happy to hear that Constant re-uses some characters in some of her other books, and Alexis is apparently released from his fate in another novel !)
Victor is perhaps too much of an innocent in this world (and book) -- too simple a character -- and Constant's approach too episode-based, but the resulting larger tapestry impressed me greatly: a different world and different perspective than I'm used to, and the detail and invention is very well done.