Category: Hugo Wilcken

book review – The Colony – Hugo Wilcken


There are some books that echo in your mind because they retread paths taken by others. So it is with Papillion and a bit of Heart of Darkness that you start to get pulled into The Colony.

First impressions are of a writer confident enough to describe a world that he hasn’t experienced in a period that has been clearly well researched. You quickly believe in the proposition and want to know how the plot will develop.

The story focuses on a couple of characters with the first, Sabir, being introduced as he waits on a prison ship to land on the penal colony in a remote forgotten outpost of the French empire.

You are sucked into a bleak world of suffocating heat and little prospect of escape. The most they can hope for is to escape from their minds but there are fears of murder, losing what little comfort you have.

For Sabir it is to lie and get a role as a gardener working directly for a commander with dreams of creating a new penitentiary in the jungle. He is failing but doing so sharing his mind and drink with Sabir.

But the prospect is to escape and for the former solider who fought in the trenches of the first world war the desire for liberty is much stronger than that for the cushy number as the gardener. Most of those questions hover around Sabir’s old comrade from the trenches Edouard one of the main drivers behind the escape. Very little about him tallies up and you suspect that underneath all the lies there is one about desertion.

The question of desertion from the war and desertion from the Colony are both inter-twined and Sabir does have regrets as he leaves behind a life as a gardener and the fantasies of the Commanders wife, who is shortly to arrive to try and validate the paradise the dreamer is building.

There is a great deal of description about location but most of the barriers are mental rather than physical. But as the story moves to the post Sabir escape the focus moves back to the Colony and picks up the story with another character. Again Edouard is the connection with an old solider and fellow deserter coming to find him. The relationship between Manne and Edouard seems to be a strange one with it more based on mutual respect than friendship.

Manne retraces Sabir’s footsteps and finds himself with the commander and his wife in a strained relationship. He then follows the convict to the same position of escaping for his life. They are almost the same person with Manne carrying out Sabir’s fantasy of sleeping with the commander’s wife and staying around the garden.

What does it mean to be a prisoner and at what stage do you give up your liberty? When do you know that your ideas will never come to fruition? How do you carry on in situations when it would have been better to have died?

Those are the things I will be trying to fathom out following this because those are the big questions that emerge from what on the face of it appears to be a relatively straightforward story with a select cast of characters.

In many ways this feels like a film in the sense that your imagination is called on to roll out the scenes of jungle captivity and this would be one of those movies that left you debating it and thinking about it from the minute the lights came up.

This is not about heroes and villains or even so much about the physical idea of captivity but for me it is about the idea of being a prisoner to your own fears and thoughts whether they come to you in a trench or on an island prison miles from home.

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The Colony – post V

Without giving the ending away this book raises questions like puzzles that you roll around the mind long after closing the cover.

What does it mean to be a prisoner and at what stage do you give up your liberty? when do you know that your ideas will never come to fruition? How do you carry on in situations when it would have been better to have died?

Those are the things I will be trying to fathom out following this because those are the big questions that emerge from what on the face of it appears to be a realtively straightforward story with a select cast of characters.

In many ways this feels like a film in the sense that your imagination is called on to roll out the scenes of jungle captivity and this would be one of those movies that left you debating it and thinking about it from the minute the lights came up.

This is not about heroes and villans or even so much about the physical idea of captivity but for me it is about the idea of being a prisoner to your own fears and thoughts whether they come to you in a trench or on an island prison miles from home.

A review will follow soonish…

The Colony – post IV

The murder of Edouard unsettles the camp and inevitable violence begets violence and Sabir finds himself alone. As he sits among some ruins miles from civilisation with his legs cut and swollen and fever rising he seems doomed.

So it is a clever moment for Wilcken to switch the focus back to the Colony and pick up the story with another character. Again Edouard is the connection with an old solider coming to find him. The relationship between Manne and Edouard seems to be a strange one with it more based on mutual respect than friendship.

As he retraces the steps more of Sabir than Edouard he comes across the commandant and his wife and is embroiled in a dying marriage. Does he help her escape? Does he try to find his old acquaintance Edouard who has disappeared into the jungle? What is he really there for? Again there are lies around lies like an onion that make it difficult to get a clear idea of what is really driving these characters and that is what keeps you reading.

The theme of escape is continual not just from the Colony and imprisonment but also the heat. The options range from the drink consumed by the commandant to the fantasies of some of the prisoners about saving their money to pay for transportation out of the dead end that is the islands.

More tomorrow…

The Colony – post III

The idea of escaping from captivity only to find yourself in another form of prison, one of fear, is the situation that Sabir finds himself in.

As the plan to escape flounders in the storm there are more questions than answers being provoked by the select characters being used by Wilcken. Most of those questions hover around Sabir’s old comrade from the trenches Edouard. Very little about him tallies up and you suspect that underneath all the lies there is a whopper.

The question of desertion from the war and desertion from the Colony are both inter-twined and Sabir does have regrets as he leaves behind a life as a gardener and the fantasies of the Commanders wife that might have become a reality.

There is a great deal of description about location but most of the barriers are mental rather than physical.

More tomorrow…

The Colony – post II

One of the positives of The Colony that emerges fairly early on is that the main character Sabir is not over bearing leaving you to wonder as a reader what you would do in similar circumstances.

As he befriends and takes advantage of the heavy drinking and idealist warden that hje is building a garden for he dreams of escape. But with these things so prone to failure should he sit things out and enjoy the reasonably good life that he has been able to attain in captivity?

Making that decision harder is the experience of one escapee who turns up in the middle of the night to make life difficult for Sabir. If this apparent escape specialist can find it difficult getting off the island then surely the same will be the case for Sabir.

But as more of the back story is filled in this also becomes a question about the individual and the reaction to war. As Sabir remembers the trenches was he not also a prisoner in a way part of a colony of men and machines? That thought starts to fill the mind.

More soon…

The Colony – post I

There are some books that echo in your mind because they retread paths taken by others. So it is with Papillon and a bit of Heart of Darkness that you start to get pulled into The Colony by Hugo Wilcken.

First impressions are of a writer confident enough to describe a world that he hasn’t experienced in a period that has been clearly well researched. You quickly believe in the proposition and want to know how the plot will develop.

The action starts on board a prison ship with the main character Sabir eavesdropping on his fellow prisoners as they head towards remote islands that act as an almost inescapable prison outpost in the French empire.

The sense of heat and trepidation comes across with Sabir not alone in hoping that once on dry land he will not be forced to carry out hard labour. He lies and tells the authorities he is a gardener and from there the tension increases because you know that he has no skill to produce the warden’s garden and his hopes of escape hinge on remaining away from hard labour.

More soon..