Colonial and Spy Literature: France and England

By Dantzig, Charles | Queen's Quarterly, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Colonial and Spy Literature: France and England


Dantzig, Charles, Queen's Quarterly


FRANCE has had a lesser colonial literature than England. This is probably because we have colonized less interesting countries. Algeria is no India. In fact, the most interesting stories from Algeria--the "bandits of honour" and rebel chiefs--we already had in Corsica. A writer like Prosper Merimee could have made much of the story of Abd el-Kader, the Algerian national hero, but chose his Corsican Colomba instead. Even the best French colonial novels are set in British colonies, such as Pierre Boulle's Sacrilege in Malaya (1951).

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Kipling, the great writer of the British colonies, strikes me as more interesting than his French counterparts, Pierre Loti or Claude Farrere. We French have a gift for staying at home--and why not: Versailles, a temperate climate? Our greatest literary critic is perhaps Vidal de la Blache, the geographer who shaped the conception the French had of France for the whole of the twentieth century. The last person who expressed it, and buried it along with so many other things, was Francois Mitterrand: "I do not have an idea of France, but rather a feeling, the feeling I get from a living being, its shape, its gaze" (Memoires interrompus).

National characteristics play a large role: the English, fleeing Handel's music, went off to found the British Empire. They weren't the least bit interested in the customs they found. And this gave rise to novels where "the locals" (as they say) are not the topic, but rather the Englishman's problems adapting to his strange new environs, etc., etc.--thus E.M. Forster and A Passage to India. The fiction contains everything: the facts, their criticism, and even the criticism of their criticism.

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In France, where everything is more partisan, there is more often the impression of doing a disservice in describing facts. Montherlant delayed the publication of his "anticolonial" novel La Rose de sable until 1968, and there was often self-censorship in any talk of the USSR during the communist heyday. What's more, a Frenchman is often not uninterested in his ego, and if he were to visit the moon he would speak of himself foremost, as did Barres in his Journey to the Levant.

Another possible reason for France's dearth of colonial literature is that the great French colonial period coincided with the time when the reconquest of Alsace-Lorraine preoccupied us more than the conquest of Tonkin. Without Germany, Peguy might well have written a book about Lyautey in Morocco.

Spy literature in France is confined to potboilers, no doubt because of the pitiable quality of our secret services.

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