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Why you should re-read The Colonial Exhibition by Erik Orsenna

Why you should re-read The Colonial Exhibition by Erik Orsenna

THE BEST OF THE GONCOURT PRIZE – “Time, thank God, has not ‘tamed’ this book of immensity: it has left it intact, just as inventive, insolent, incendiary as in the days of its birth”, writes the novelist and screenwriter Didier Decoin.

Didier Decoin is a novelist and screenwriter, author notably of John HellPrix Goncourt 1977, and The Maid of the Titanic (1991). He was elected to the Académie Goncourt in 1995, he has been its president since 2020.


L’Colonial exhibition of 1931, the second event to be held in Paris (others had already taken place in Lyon, Rouen, Rochefort, Marseille or La Rochelle), was inaugurated on May 6. The least we can say is that it was spectacular! The leaders of the IIIe Republic wanted, through this exhibition, to persuade public opinion of the validity of the colonial conquests and to show to the nations the “fraternal and affectionate” attachment of France to its empire, and vice versa; links which earned it the appellation contrôlée of “Grande France”.

Despite the weather, which was looking shabby and despite the sickest lily of the valley that year, the mood was good and the rosettes of the Legion of Honor flourished like never before on the lapels of the frock coats. It must be said that we had put the small dishes in the big ones: reconstruction of an Angkor temple in the Bois de Vincennes, a permanent museum of the colonies at the Golden Gate, construction of a replica of the Great Mosque of Djenné, jewel of Mali. Thousands of extras – Annamese dancers, Arab riders, fetish sculptors, musicians, storytellers, animal trainers, etc. – welcomed the approximately three hundred thousand visitors who flocked each day.

It was not a success, it was a triumph!…

However, don’t expect to find an echo of it in Erik Orsenna’s novel: in fact, for this author who still hasn’t finished surprising us, The Colonial Exhibition, it is a title. A hell of a good title, no doubt, one of those titles that make one think of those absolutely enormous Venetian keys, chiseled like cathedrals, enriched with treasures of precious stones, and intended to open very small chests (Lilliputians or Pygmies, it’s at choice!) but containing more than a treasure: the little secrets of happiness.

This is the philosophy of the Orsennas (yes, of the two Orsennas: Erik, the author of the novel, and Gabriel, its main character, because they share the same surname): you have to learn to make your life a colonial exhibition…

Didier Decoin

Because such is the philosophy of the Orsennas (yes, of the two Orsennas: Erik, the author of the novel, and Gabriel, its main character, because they share the same surname): you have to learn to make your life a colonial exhibition…

But what is a colonial exhibition? Well, let’s say that in its “model of life” sense, it’s a bit like a sherbet Tutti Frutti, or a soufflé, a tart, a Bonne-Maman fruit cake. Armed with this principle, our Gabriel, who claims to resemble the Bibendum, the round and rounded muse of Michelin tires, our Gabriel, therefore, will succeed in loving, and being loved, by two women at the same time, Ann and Clara, two sisters, one blonde and the other dark-haired, who wouldn’t have spoiled a film by François Truffaut, like The Two English Girls and the Continent. He will travel aboard a breathtaking ship that sails both on the glaucous waters of the Amazon River and on its banks, among the rotting trees, just under the peaks where invisible monkeys howl, he will practice a thousand and one trades, preferably in relationship with rubber, a material for which Gabriel is “fall in love», as Quebecers say – for him, the world is a big ball ofhevea brasiliensis which bounds and rebounds incessantly, like the ball of foam which does not leave the bottom of its pocket.

In truth, we are all Gabriel Orsennas.

Jean Cayrol, of whom Erik Orsenna was one of the “children” (strictly literary filiation, which Cayrol preferred to disciples), said it willingly: we believe we live one life, in fact we live a thousand, a thousand lives superimposed on each other. , which, inevitably, makes a bit of a mess. But, added Cayrol, isn’t disorder the finality of the novel? In other words, doesn’t writing a novel consist in disorganizing things in order to put them together differently? To spray to restructure? “The novelist must learn to break his toysCayrol told me one day when we were talking about Erik Orsenna. And he added:This is what the poet does: he annihilates the concrete in order to better dream it. We call that “taking liberties”, I call that creating.”

This hymn to disorder should not frighten you, nor above all dissuade you from jumping on this book (probably, let it be said in parentheses, the only novel whose presence the postman Cheval would have tolerated in the library of his Ideal Palace, this monument to the glory of the disparate, the charivaric, the variegated, the dissonant, this castle both brilliant and absurd that Cheval took thirty-three years to build, alone and with his bare hands, and which he baptized the Ideal Palace)

Didier Decoin

This hymn to disorder should not frighten you, nor above all dissuade you from jumping on this book (probably, let it be said in parentheses, the only novel whose presence the postman Cheval would have tolerated in the library of his Ideal Palace, this monument to the glory of the disparate, the charivaric, the variegated, the dissonant, this castle both brilliant and absurd that Cheval took thirty-three years to build, alone and with his bare hands, and which he baptized the Ideal Palace).

Well, echoing the work of Joseph Ferdinand Cheval, responds in a certain way to the masterpiece of Erik Orsenna.

Because The Colonial Exhibition is not a form of masterpiece: it’s just a masterpiece, a leaping and bouncing masterpiece. Ride it, throw yourself like Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Baron of Münchhausen, on his cannonball, and you will see…

Almost halfway through the book, Orsenna offers us a long, magnificent moment that he titled Rainforest Notebooks. Open it, open your nostrils wide, breathe with Gabriel: “O the smell of smoked gum, puffs of the immense forests, all you had to do was close your eyes, yawn your nostrils and we would go there, far from the mists Auvergne, oh Brazil of all the aromas.» What a beautiful and unique way to travel on the air we breathe…

Although wearing the Prix Goncourt crown, The Colonial Exhibition puzzled some readers. Nearly seven hundred pages, and not the least, at a time when everything has to go faster than fast, when everything has to be rushed? Devil, I understand that sometimes we didn’t understand. Time, thank God, has not “middled down” this book of immensity: it has left it intact, just as inventive, insolent, incendiary as in the days of its birth. If you’ve never read it, treat yourself to the joy of discovering it. And if you’ve already tasted it, reopen it to taste it again: like the rubber ball, each time you read it, it bounces differently…

Flight. 10: Erik Orsenna – The Colonial Exhibition. ISBN 978-2-8105-0952-2 Public price: €12.90 – 640 pages. Publication on newsstands on July 15, 2022 on newsstands.

»» You can obtain this book from the collection « Le Meilleur du Prix Goncourt » at the price of 12.90 euros.


SEE ALSO – Erik Orsenna was the guest of the morning Radio Classique – Le Figaro

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