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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

White Spirit

Paule Constant

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To purchase White Spirit

Title: White Spirit
Author: Paule Constant
Genre: Novel
Written: 1989 (Eng. 2005)
Length: 172 pages
Original in: French
Availability: White Spirit - US
White Spirit - UK
White Spirit - Canada
White spirit - Canada
White spirit - France
White Spirit - Deutschland
  • French title: White spirit
  • Translated by Betsy Wing

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Our Assessment:

A- : well-observed, dark African comedy

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 24/4/1997 Matthias Grässlin
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Summer/2006 Thomas Hove
World Lit. Today A Summer/1990 Danielle Chavy Cooper

  From the Reviews:
  • "Der gute Europäer hat keine Schwierigkeit, die zivilisationskritische Botschaft dieses Szenarios zu entschlüsseln -- sie ist dick genug aufgetragen. Zu dick, möchte der deutsche Leser meinen, der freilich die Tradition des französischen Kolonialromans nicht kennt, gegen den Paule Constant mit parodistischem Elan anschreibt. (...) Um Aperçus und farbige Bilder, um grausamen Kitsch und Situationspathetik ist Paule Constant nicht verlegen. Auch verfügt sie über eine assoziative Beweglichkeit des Stils, der es gelingt, die Intrige mit kunstvoller Gedankenprosa zu verweben. Doch da der Held des Melodrams davon kaum profitiert, fließen Sprachwitz und Einbildungskraft ins Dekor." - Matthias Grässlin, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Yet despite that catastrophe and several other brutal but darkly humorous cultural clashes, the narrative wraps up in classic Hollywood style. This unexpected "happy end" for the two loveable main characters satisfies in a purely melodramatic way. But Constant makes it interesting by leaving many gnawing ironies and social tensions unresolved." - Thomas Hove, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "White Spirit is a spirited novel, brisk, loaded with corrosive satire, showing, in a matter-of-fact way, blacks and whites squirming in unison in a cruel, absurd world, somewhere in black Africa today. Its author sumptuously weaves many different threads together, in a baroque proliferation of silhouettes and subplots, with characters larger than life but taken from life, viewed by a critical eye and a sharp mind. (...) Behind all the barbs of irony and satire, White Spirit shines with creativity, verve, and intensity of feeling. A touch of class in the contemporary French novel." - Danielle Chavy Cooper, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Victor was raised by his grandmother. Armed with his diploma he's ready to face the world -- or not quite. His world seems always to have been a relatively small one, and he hasn't been exposed to much. His grandmother works for the Favre family, the local bigwigs, and it's this world of knowing your place (whereby his and his grandmother's is a fairly lowly one) that's all he knows. So perhaps taking a position in Africa for a French import-export firm is a bit too big a leap for a first job.
       Free passage and the title of director and it sounds too good to pass up; certainly grandma is impressed. Victor likely would have been overwhelmed anywhere he went, but he certainly can't have been expecting the black comedy he finds himself in. In what seems to be the last backwater in what is literally a banana republic, Victor finds himself running a store, African Resource. It's location describes it exactly:

     The village terminated at African Resource; it stood at the end of the road
       Far from offering any resources, African or otherwise, it offers only the very last dredges and cast-offs of civilization:
Mainland France, and the whole rest of the world as well, unloaded their manufacturing mistakes onto Mégalo. And Mégalo, after having skimmed off what seemed the best, dumped the rest on Port-Banane, then Port-Banane did its own backassed choosing to make sure that the Model Village got its weekly share of rejects.
       And it all comes "in ridiculous quantities". And, needless to say, it's useless junk that doesn't make for a promising enterprise. Worse yet, Victor needs to pay in part on delivery; not having any cash he immediately has to borrow from Queen Mab, who keeps shop in front of African Resource (and actually sells real food -- albeit in minuscule quantities). She has her eyes on the shop, too .....
       Other local spots of interest include the Sunset, the local brothel run by a former French actress who sets way too high standards for her girls (practically all of which are lost on her less than discriminating clientele), as well as the banana plantation that is the economic engine for the area (not that the banana business is doing too well either).
       The colourful cast of characters includes the plantation foreman, Guastavin and his monkey-companion (whose child is eventually adopted by Victor), the prostitute Lola, also lost in this world, Victor's shop-assistants, B and B, and a Brother Emmanuel.
       The White Spirit of the title is also one of the products from African Resources, a caustic substance that can whiten skin -- an idea that is of enormous appeal to many of the locals. B and B set an enormous price on the substance:
Why ? asked Victor. Because it's White Spirit. White Spirit is more expensive than lemon-rub. And why is that ? asked Victor. Because of the name, Boss. And what does that change ? It changes everything, they said.
       The powder only plays a fairly small (though quite spectacular) role in the novel; indeed, the 'White Spirit' of the title refers also more generally to the corrosive colonial influence that is still felt everywhere, a spirit suffusing the local air.
       Constant doesn't offer straightforward anti-colonial (and post-colonial) satire. Rather, she presents a bleak (yet also horribly funny) picture of one distant outpost that encompasses so much of what has and does go wrong. She's just as sharp in her brief social satire in the few scenes set in France (where Victor's grandmother is a charming if completely misguided figure), but she pulls out all the stops in Africa and the banana-infested locales there.
       The narrative jerks around some -- Victor is the central character, but most of the most dramatic episodes unfold without him, or with him in only a peripheral role -- and Constant's strength is in the penetrating descriptions, as she mercilessly describes (and, generally, skewers) the characters and situations in a few lines. There is a narrative arc, and she opts for a 'Happy End' (so the title of the final chapter), but it's in the vivid pictures along the way that the real strength of the novel is found.
       Disturbing but effective fun.

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White Spirit: Reviews: Other books by Paule Constant under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       French author Paule Constant has won numerous literary prizes.

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© 2006-2021 the complete review

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