Why you should reread Erik Orsenna’s The Colonial Exhibition

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

Didier Decoin is a novelist and screenwriter, most notably author of John HellPrix ​​Goncourt 1977 and The Maid of the Titanic (1991). He was elected a member of the Académie Goncourt in 1995 and has been president of the Académie Goncourt 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 By means of this exhibition, the Republic wished to convince public opinion of the merits of the colonial conquests and to show to the nations the “brotherly and affectionate” attachment of France to its empire, and vice versa; left which earned it the appellation contrôlée of “Grande France”.

Despite the bad weather and despite the sickest lily of the valley that year, the mood was good and the rosettes of the Legion of Honor bloomed on the lapels of the frock coats like never before. It must be said that we 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, Arabian horsemen, fetish sculptors, musicians, storytellers, animal trainers, etc. — welcomed the roughly three hundred thousand visitors who flocked each day.

It wasn’t a success, it was a triumph!…

However, don’t expect an echo of it in Erik Orsenna’s novel: in fact, for this author who still hasn’t surprised us, The Colonial Exhibition, it’s a title. A damn good title, no doubt, one of those titles reminiscent of those absolutely huge Venetian keys, chiseled like cathedrals, spiked with treasures of precious stones, and meant to open very small chests (Lilliputian or Pygmies, it’s by choice!) but with more than one 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, the main character, because they have the same last name): you have to learn to make your life a colonial exhibition. ..

Didier Decoin

Because that’s the philosophy of the Orsennas (yes, of the two Orsennas: Erik, the author of the novel, and Gabriel, the main character, because they have the same last name): you have to learn to make your life a colonial exhibition. ..

But what is a colonial exhibition? Well, let’s say it’s a bit like a sorbet in the sense of “life model” Tutti Frutti, or a soufflé, a pie, a Bonne-Maman fruitcake. Armed with this principle, our Gabriel, who claims to resemble the Bibendum, the round and round muse of Michelin tires, will therefore manage to love and be loved by two women at once, Ann and Clara, two sisters, one blonde and the other dark-haired, who wouldn’t have ruined a François Truffaut film, like The two English girls and the continent. He travels aboard a breathtaking ship that sails both on the glaucous waters of the Amazon River and on its banks, among the decaying trees, just below the peaks where invisible monkeys cry, he will practice a thousand and one professions, at preference in relation to rubber, a material for which Gabriel is “fall in love», as Quebecers say – to him the world is one big ball ofhevea brasiliensis that bounces and bounces incessantly, like the ball of foam that doesn’t leave the bottom of its pocket.

In reality, we are all Gabriel Orsennas.

Jean Cayrol, of whom Erik Orsenna was one of the “children” (strictly literary lineage, which Cayrol preferred to disciples), said it willingly: we believe we live one life, in fact we live a thousand, a thousand lives on top of each other. . Others. , which inevitably makes a bit of a mess. But, Cayrol added, isn’t disorder the novel’s finality? In other words, isn’t writing a novel about disorganizing things in order to put them together differently? Spraying 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 destroys the concrete in order to dream it better. We call that “taking liberties”, I call that creating.”

This hymn to disorder should not deter you, and especially not prevent you from jumping on this book (probably, let it be said by the way, the only novel whose presence the postman Cheval would have tolerated in the library of his Ideal Palace , this monument in honor of the disparate, the charitable, 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 that he christened the Ideal Palace)

Didier Decoin

This hymn to disorder should not deter you, and especially not prevent you from jumping on this book (probably, let it be said by the way, the only novel whose presence the postman Cheval would have tolerated in the library of his Ideal Palace , this monument in honor of the disparate, the charitable, 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 that he christened the Ideal Palace).

Well, following the work of Joseph Ferdinand Cheval, responds to Erik Orsenna’s masterpiece in a way.

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

Almost halfway through the book, Orsenna offers us a long, beautiful moment when he takes the title ” Rainforest Notebooks. Open up, open your nostrils wide, breathe with Gabriel: “O the smell of smoked chewing gum, clouds of the immense forests, you only had to close your eyes, yawn your nostrils and we would go there, far from the mists Auvergne, oh Brazil of all aromas.» What a beautiful and unique way to travel with the air we breathe…

Though he wears the Prix Goncourt crown, The Colonial Exhibition surprised 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 misunderstood. Thank God time has not “immersed” this book of immensity: it has left it intact, as inventive, brutal, 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, open it again to taste it again: like the rubber ball, every time you read it, it bounces differently…

Theft. 10: Erik Orsenna – The Colonial Exhibition. ISBN 978-2-8105-0952-2 Audience Award: €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.


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

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