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Colony by Hugo Wilcken
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Colony (original 2007; edition 2007)

by Hugo Wilcken

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342568,313 (3.75)2
From the author of the existential thriller 'The Execution' comes 'Colony', a novel set in French Guiana as the age of Empire draws to a close and anarchy beckons. The year is 1928. Sabir - petty criminal, drifter, war veteran - is on a prison ship bound for a notorious penal colony in the French tropics. Soon after his arrival in the bagne, as it's known, Sabir is shipped out to a work camp deep in the South American jungle but quickly comes to the realisation that his old life is dead, and return to France an impossibility. Yet, if he's to survive at all, he must escape the brutality of the bagne. Posing as a professional gardener, Sabir wins the confidence and protection of the camp's na#65533;ve, idealistic Commandant. With a group of like-minded convicts - including the secretive, enigmatic Edouard, a comrade from the trenches of WW1 - he soon launches his escape bid, across the seas in a stolen boat. Bad weather forces the men ashore, condemning them to a dismal, hallucinatory tramp through the jungle. As hunger and rivalry tear the group apart, Sabir understands he has scant chance of escaping into another life. In Part Two, Manne - deserter, itinerant exile - comes to the Colony in search of his deported friend, the same Edouard from Part One. With a false identity and cover story, Manne installs himself as a guest at the Commandant's house. There, he falls into an affair with his host's wife. Meanwhile, the Commandant is slowly unravelling, growing ever more suspicious of who Manne is and what he's doing in the Colony. Manne ends up trapped like everyone else in the bagne, and realises that he too must escape. The novel's two plot threads begin to merge - boundaries between dream and reality blur, bringing a surreal tinge to the dramatic climax. Both a page-turning adventure story, and a bold novel of ideas, Colony takes an historical background familiar to readers of Henri Charri#65533;re's 'Papillon', and twists it into a metaphysical journey. Brilliantly evoking an atmosphere of colonial decline in the tropics, the novel explores the shifting natures of identity, memory and reality.… (more)
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Wilcken accomplishes the strange trick of raising his novel's "subtext" and injecting it into the surface of his story. So there's something very puzzle-like about this book, but for the careful reader the puzzle pieces are all out there in the open. Will the man character - a penal colony prisoner - realize his ambition to "become someone else" in order to escape? Wilcken elaborates on this theme with a stunning number of instances of doubling, partnering, modeling, and replacing. - Adam
  stephencrowe | Nov 11, 2015 |
Colony, Hugo Wilcken's second novel, was published to scant publicity and little fanfare in 2007. The reasons why it has remained obscure start with a bland, forgettable cover design that looks like it might have been thrown together in ten minutes and cost the publisher a couple of pounds. Next, the novel itself is difficult to categorize, and in a marketing climate where any new product is defined using comparisons to already successful and familiar products, this spells doom from the get go. This is a shame because Wilcken is a talented writer and Colony is a gripping and suspenseful book that can perhaps best be described as a close examination of the fluid nature of human identity. It is 1928 and Sabir, a French veteran of the Great War, is being shipped out to a penal colony in French Guiana. Sabir is naïve but also smart enough to know that his survival depends less on who he is than on who he can become once he reaches his destination. Once in the colony he is able to adapt quickly as circumstances change, and with lies and cunning secures a comfortable position as gardener, working for the camp commandant. In the first part of the novel suspense builds as we approach Sabir’s escape attempt with several partners, one of whom—the enigmatic Edouard—is an acquaintance from Sabir’s time in the trenches. In the novel’s second part another French veteran, Manne, arrives in the colony on a mission to find his friend: the same Edouard. But Manne’s origins are as obscure as his intentions—he is already traveling under an assumed identity using forged papers and a bogus story to justify his presence in the colony—and he foolishly risks everything by forming an ill-considered alliance with the commandant’s beautiful but unreliable wife, agreeing to help her escape. This is a story that, scene by scene, conceals as much as it reveals, and by doing so suggests that trust between individuals is virtually impossible because in our heart we are all hiding the person we really are. Wilcken’s spare and coolly efficient prose is filled with profound observations on human behaviour, and displays true power in its terse evocation of lives being lived at the point where the struggle for survival intersects with the pursuit of something more. Readers will find themselves turning the pages to discover what happens, but also wishing to delay getting to the end because the reading is so pleasurable. It’s an exquisite dilemma. As of this writing (August 2014), both of Hugo Wilcken’s novels (Colony and The Execution) are available on BookOutlet.com. ( )
  icolford | Aug 11, 2014 |
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Epigraph
'I did not die - yet nothing of life remained', Dante, Inferno, Canto XXXIV.
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For Julie and Léon.
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Lurid rumours abound about life in the penal colony.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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From the author of the existential thriller 'The Execution' comes 'Colony', a novel set in French Guiana as the age of Empire draws to a close and anarchy beckons. The year is 1928. Sabir - petty criminal, drifter, war veteran - is on a prison ship bound for a notorious penal colony in the French tropics. Soon after his arrival in the bagne, as it's known, Sabir is shipped out to a work camp deep in the South American jungle but quickly comes to the realisation that his old life is dead, and return to France an impossibility. Yet, if he's to survive at all, he must escape the brutality of the bagne. Posing as a professional gardener, Sabir wins the confidence and protection of the camp's na#65533;ve, idealistic Commandant. With a group of like-minded convicts - including the secretive, enigmatic Edouard, a comrade from the trenches of WW1 - he soon launches his escape bid, across the seas in a stolen boat. Bad weather forces the men ashore, condemning them to a dismal, hallucinatory tramp through the jungle. As hunger and rivalry tear the group apart, Sabir understands he has scant chance of escaping into another life. In Part Two, Manne - deserter, itinerant exile - comes to the Colony in search of his deported friend, the same Edouard from Part One. With a false identity and cover story, Manne installs himself as a guest at the Commandant's house. There, he falls into an affair with his host's wife. Meanwhile, the Commandant is slowly unravelling, growing ever more suspicious of who Manne is and what he's doing in the Colony. Manne ends up trapped like everyone else in the bagne, and realises that he too must escape. The novel's two plot threads begin to merge - boundaries between dream and reality blur, bringing a surreal tinge to the dramatic climax. Both a page-turning adventure story, and a bold novel of ideas, Colony takes an historical background familiar to readers of Henri Charri#65533;re's 'Papillon', and twists it into a metaphysical journey. Brilliantly evoking an atmosphere of colonial decline in the tropics, the novel explores the shifting natures of identity, memory and reality.

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