The brilliant Michael O of the Literary Saloon sends the following from his secret location. Discussion continues this week.
Only a few early scenes of Paule Constant's White Spirit are set in France, but it seems more the France of classical French fiction than that familiar from the newspaper reports of suburban rioting and immigrant tensions of recent times. White Spirit is a post-colonial novel, and much of it deals with the aftereffects of French colonial rule in Africa, but it begins in a very old-style France. Town life is quiet and simple, the old rules still apply. It could almost be the 19th century, as much as the 20th. Africa is almost beyond the imagination: it is not something the innocent Victor dreams of, it is simply an opportunity (and he has few others); his grandmother's world is still one where the rural/urban divide is the one most difficult to bridge, and so it's hardly surprising that to
her: "Africa seemed less terrifying than Bordeaux."
The Africa Victor winds up in is not quite a heart of darkness, but one of very dreary bleakness. Race is an issue, whiteness something to be aspired to -- though in fact at this time and in this place it offers only little real advantage. Still, there is that desperate longing for whiteness: Ysee, who runs the brothel, requires: "her girls to be white, classy, and distinguished", for example, -- ridiculous ideals for their situation -- and there is the caustic `white spirit' powder. Whiteness still offers limited privilege at this time, but a position like the one Victor finds himself in suggests many of the aspects of the colonial heritage have long been bankrupted. Good riddance to most of them – but Constant suggests the damage caused lingers fatally on: white spirit has infested everything (long before the powder appeared …). And the embrace of whiteness (symbolic and real) continues to spell disaster.
In this backwater gone largely to hell there is little hope (for most of the novel) for any of the characters, regardless of race. Constant also effectively makes this a novel about social class (though that too is of far less significance once Victor is in Africa) and especially of capitalism. White Spirit is a book full of trade, yet almost all of it farcical: Victor's African Resource can barely call itself a store, and Queen Mab's miniature market in front of it is similarly absurd. And the country is literally a banana economy -- in a world where no one wants these bananas. (It is a book suffused by the rotting, useless bananas, which I could practically smell for the entire book.)
I'm curious as to the reception of this book by our audience. Is it doubly foreign, this rather distinctive French approach to the (post-) colonial novel ? How (if at all) is Constant's humor appreciated – much of it of a very black sort ? And what, more generally, of this strange world Constant presents ? And finally – something I admit I still haven't fully figured out – Constant's choice to make many things American a touchstone in the novel: as Betsy Wing notes in her introduction, there are many English (and specifically American English) terms in the novel (`White Spirit' is, for example, also the title in the original), and there's what Wing calls the "final burst of Hollywood optimism" that seals the novel, the chapter entitled "Happy End" which stands in marked contrast to the way
things have been going all along …..
Returning to the book repeatedly since I first selected it, I continue to find new points of interest in it. A few weeks ago it was White Spirit as a commentary on globalization that really grabbed me. Now I'm again wondering about the culture-clash aspects – French, African, and American (including all those Hollywood references), subtler (or at least more pervasive) than I'd first realized. I hope that aside from the simple entertainment value, readers also finds as much in it as I have.