Thursday, July 14, 2011

Book 70, Réunion: "The Last Colony" by Michael Steane

Don't buy this book. Seriously. It cost me US$0.99 via Amazon Kindle and I still feel like it wasn't worth the money. As Dorothy Parker said, "This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force."

But of course The Last Colony: An Experience of Reunion Island isn't a novel; it's a memoir, written by a British electric technician who spent three years there as an English teacher en route to migrating to Australia. A bit like With Sword and Chain in Lusaka, only in this case the author's an utter nobody, who can't even write that well - he even admits as much in his intro, when he apologises for how disjointed the book is, utterly contrary to the advice he used to give his students.

Truth is, I can deal with the disjointedness. It's actually pretty interesting to read the details Steane gives about culture on the island: the drunkenness, the high prices, the overlapping of Islam, Catholicism and Hinduism, the mendacious marabout shamans from mainland Africa, the violent crime, the beauty of the Creole girls, the skills of the pickup artists and the scandals and corruption of the politicians.

What I can't deal with is:

1) The fact that most of the book is about his struggle with French bureaucracy, and how contrary to the principles of the newly inaugurated European Union all this is (he migrated in '91 and couldn't find a job because he was British and jobs were reserved for Frenchies). Truly, he's got nothing good to say about the French - he claims their greatest contribution to civilisation was giving Henry VIII syphilis thus leading to the English Reformation. Reading an anger-filled screed against foreign civil servants is not much fun.

2) Really odd grammar. He's made the conscious decision to narrate most of the book in present tense, despite the fact that most of the events are long behind him, thus necessitating frequent shuttlings between present and past tense. Combined with the jumbled sequence of events - well, really, there's no story in the end. No recurring characters, barely any dialogue - it doesn't have to be genuine: A Trip to the Beach made up half its sequence and it still leaves you with a sense of joy in life.

Gah, the guy just can't write well or just isn't trying. Couldn't even tell "principle" apart from "principal". Don't think that was a typo.

What's really weird is the fact that he confesses to having really loved certain aspects of the island: the gorgeous nature, the volcanoes, the children, the ladies (not one of whom has her character elaborated upon - did they just not stick around long enough to find out?). He even closes the book with a bunch of tips on tourist attractions. But after having read such an irritable travelogue, who would want to visit?

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

(I'd want to, actually. The Indian Ocean Regional Poetry Slam is held there, and Singapore's sending a representative there following our own slam finals on 21 July. Benjamin Chow deserves to go as our best champion, but it'd be so freaking cool to attend!)

If you're looking for alternatives to this book, there's a whole tradition of littérature réunionnaise you can look up yourself, but none of it seems to have been translated into English.

Representative quote: Farewell Reunion. Forgive me for my anger. Forgive me for the book I am going to write.

Next book: J.M. Clézio's The Prospector, from Mauritius.


champacs said...

I see we're on the same wavelength about this book. I've just come across your review, but here's mine:

Ng Yi-Sheng said...

Thanks for linking back to me!