White Spirit Paperback – Apr 1 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Sad ironies illuminate this deftly mapped journey to the postcolonial heart of darkness, winner of the 1990 Grand Prix du Roman de l'Académie Française. Signing on for employment with an import-export company, working-class Victor boards a rickety boat called The Will of God and sails from France to Port-Banane, an outpost in an unnamed, contemporary African country. Also on board is the banana plantation boss, who's bringing along a beautiful, light-skinned black French prostitute, Lola. She's reluctantly hired at the plantation's brothel, called Sunset Boulevard, by a one-eyed madam who transforms all her girls into Hollywood-style platinum blondes. Victor, who's infatuated with Lola, is put in charge of the banana plantation's local store, filled with cast-off goods no one buys. With hacked, peroxided hair, Lola still aspires to whiteness, so Victor sells her a corrosive powder—the "White Spirit" of the title—that bleaches her skin. The remainder of the powder ends up in the hands of a fanatical African religious leader, who puts the substance to horrific use. With prose both dark and rollicking, Constant (also Prix Goncourt winner for Trading Secrets) chronicles colonialism's terrible absurdities and reverberating effects on both Africans and Europeans. (Apr. 10)
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*Starred Review* French novelist Constant, a Prix Goncourt winner, presents a whip-smart postcolonial satire. Victor, a penniless and naive young Frenchman, lands a dubious position running a weirdly stocked store on a gigantic African banana plantation. Unnerved by his strangely misshapen employees and intimidating business rival, the enormous and unflappable Queen Mab, and too nervous to act on his infatuation with a high-strung young woman of mixed race intent on passing as white, he finds comfort with an orphaned chimpanzee. But everything is off-kilter in this banana republic, where the indentured black workers are regularly drenched with insecticide, the brothel features women imitating old Hollywood starlets, and a religious sect based on mere smatterings of scripture threatens to run amok. Starving and desperate, Victor believes he has found salvation in the form of a violently toxic white powder. Dubbed "white spirit," it bleaches black skin and is soon in feverish demand. Constant's mordantly funny novel is at once a brilliantly imagined and rambunctious inquiry into environmental havoc, our close ties to our primate cousins, adulterated religion, the mystique of whiteness, and the persistence of racism, and a piquant tale of survival and longing. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Maybe I'm missing something, but isn't the idea of the "White Spirit," a powder with chemical effects so strong that they bleach a black native's skin white, and in consequence becomes in demand like tulips in Holland, isn't this idea on the face of it something that only a white person would dream up? The understory is that naturally everyone wants to be white and no one given a choice would want to be black. I suppose there's a long tradition in France of the white avant-garde setting its surrealist narratives in an enslaved Africa, from Raymond Roussel and Picasso on down, but by 1990 this conceit must have seemed pretty creaky, no? Truman Capote and Harold Arlen did the same thing as a musical back in the 1950s with HOUSE OF FLOWERS. WHITE SPIRIT's story itself is well told, with lots of room for Constant's own patented metaphors and similes (a true poet, everything is something else for La Constant--"Lola looked at the whores as enviously as a neglected child watching spoiled children who are so dreadfully used to happiness.") which I can never get enough of. English, I think, is implicated in Constant's search for meaning: even the title WHITE SPIRIT used to be WHITE SPIRIT in the original, as though it were chic to sport an English (or American) name.