Thursday, July 30, 2009

book review - The Colony - Hugo Wilcken

There are some books that echo in your mind because they retread paths taken by others. So it is with Papillion and a bit of Heart of Darkness that you start to get pulled into The Colony.

First impressions are of a writer confident enough to describe a world that he hasn’t experienced in a period that has been clearly well researched. You quickly believe in the proposition and want to know how the plot will develop.

The story focuses on a couple of characters with the first, Sabir, being introduced as he waits on a prison ship to land on the penal colony in a remote forgotten outpost of the French empire.

You are sucked into a bleak world of suffocating heat and little prospect of escape. The most they can hope for is to escape from their minds but there are fears of murder, losing what little comfort you have.

For Sabir it is to lie and get a role as a gardener working directly for a commander with dreams of creating a new penitentiary in the jungle. He is failing but doing so sharing his mind and drink with Sabir.

But the prospect is to escape and for the former solider who fought in the trenches of the first world war the desire for liberty is much stronger than that for the cushy number as the gardener. Most of those questions hover around Sabir’s old comrade from the trenches Edouard one of the main drivers behind the escape. Very little about him tallies up and you suspect that underneath all the lies there is one about desertion.

The question of desertion from the war and desertion from the Colony are both inter-twined and Sabir does have regrets as he leaves behind a life as a gardener and the fantasies of the Commanders wife, who is shortly to arrive to try and validate the paradise the dreamer is building.

There is a great deal of description about location but most of the barriers are mental rather than physical. But as the story moves to the post Sabir escape the focus moves back to the Colony and picks up the story with another character. Again Edouard is the connection with an old solider and fellow deserter coming to find him. The relationship between Manne and Edouard seems to be a strange one with it more based on mutual respect than friendship.

Manne retraces Sabir’s footsteps and finds himself with the commander and his wife in a strained relationship. He then follows the convict to the same position of escaping for his life. They are almost the same person with Manne carrying out Sabir’s fantasy of sleeping with the commander’s wife and staying around the garden.

What does it mean to be a prisoner and at what stage do you give up your liberty? When do you know that your ideas will never come to fruition? How do you carry on in situations when it would have been better to have died?

Those are the things I will be trying to fathom out following this because those are the big questions that emerge from what on the face of it appears to be a relatively straightforward story with a select cast of characters.

In many ways this feels like a film in the sense that your imagination is called on to roll out the scenes of jungle captivity and this would be one of those movies that left you debating it and thinking about it from the minute the lights came up.

This is not about heroes and villains or even so much about the physical idea of captivity but for me it is about the idea of being a prisoner to your own fears and thoughts whether they come to you in a trench or on an island prison miles from home.

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