The following is from Anne of the blog, Fernham (all format problems are my own):
It's common in African literature, even today, to find writers "writing back" to Conrad's Heart of Darkness, now over a century old.
Still, I was surprised to find a contemporary French writer so engaged with Conrad. Constant's is an elegantly constructed, darkly comic novella.
As Michael mentioned in his initial post, there's something very old-fashioned about the France—and the Africa—of this book. Victor's France, where he lives with his provincial grandmother, seemed a
combination of Proust's Combray and the Belgian offices Marlow describes in the book's opening. The black suit his grandmother insists upon—a terrible idea for an African sojourn but so much what a
certain kind of grandmother would insist upon as part of a young man's launch—also seems like a detail from Conrad or Proust.
One of my favorite little episodes in Heart of Darkness is Marlow's encounter with the lonely, mad Russian, dressed in motley and extolling the wisdom of Kurtz. This mood is evoked several times in White Spirit. For example, Victor feels that "the Jesuit library was the only thing that gave him any peace, opening a book to reassure himself that the language existed, though under cover. He
would carefully close the book again and slip it back between the others… What's that you're fucking with? asked the Jesuit librarian, whose language wasn't all that nice either." I love the dry comment
after the Jesuit's profanity: it so elegantly pops the mood of what's come before, breaking the spirit of somnolent bibliophilia.
When Marlow gets to Africa, he finds his riverboat rotting along the banks of the river, apparently beyond repair. Constant takes that notion of a place just beyond the reaches of commerce where the
workers are too sun-stricken to work very hard and where the order from the hardware supplier never arrives. In White Spirit, an epidemic wipes out much of a town some years back, but as a memorial "all anyone had been able to find were military statues: soldiers from the First World War raising bugles to their lips." And the supply depot over which Victor presides is a wasteland of surplus goods, unwanted and defective, useless and even poisonous. This satire of the dangerous excesses of global capital reminded me of George Packer's great New Yorker essay following his t-shirt from a thrift shop on the Upper East Side through the vast global gray market of used clothing resale to an open-air market in Africa where a man buys it only because Packer, eager to finish his essay, puts it on top of the pile. Having been touched by a white man has now, it seems, made it "lucky."
This example of internalized racism—the African man who overvalues a white man's touch—makes me queasy. I think it makes most Americans queasy. But I'm not sure we should therefore ignore the phenomenon. Constant faces it head on: a major subplot of the book revolves around a mulatto girl bleaching her skin, striving to be white. So I think it's interesting to pause and be disturbed when Constant writes: "blondness and blue eyes evoked in her a submissiveness coming from deep in her belly, a resigned and happy abandon."
In the treatment of women, Constant has the most fun with her Conradian predecessor. Conrad is not all that interesting on women: he offers us the standard pair of supposed opposites: the earthy native
lover in Africa and the urgently virginal "Intended" back home in Europe. If Conrad's racism is mildly interesting for coming out of his experience in the Congo, his sexism is simply schematic and
Constant, by contrast, gives us richer schemes to play with. There is the imperious Queen Mab, who counters poor Victor's desperate "I have a contract" with "Men write when they have lost speech," the madam in the port's brothel, whose collection of old Hollywood beauty
magazines inspires the bleaching campaign, and, finally, Lola, Victor's counterpart in naivete, the mulatto girl who desperately gobbles beauty advice about becoming a blonde.
Though there are events as shocking as the attack on the riverboat that kill Marlow's pilot or the skulls on pikes that line the river in the heart of darkness, in White Spirit the tragedy of Heart of Darkness repeats itself as farce. It's an odd, elegant, and spare novella with powerful modernist resonances.