Down to earth view of French colonial decay

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 May, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 May, 1993, 12:00am

LOVE AND EMPIRE, by Erik Orsenna, translated by Jeremy Leggatt (Vintage, $72).

IF YOU witnessed Catherine Deneuve's insufferable performance in Indochine and took offence at the film's lamentable depiction of imperialist nostaglie, your unwillingness to countenance another document of French colonial decay is understandable.

But Erik Orsenna is a novelist of the first rank and Love and Empire is France's A Passage to India - except that it is far wittier and a good deal more saucy.

And as a comparative testament of French colonialism, there is a gulf between Love and Empire and Indochine - though the latter no doubt had punters queuing for tickets from Clermont Ferrand to Dieppe, wallowing in the glory of the imperial years, before Dien Bien Phu put a smart stop to the revelry.

Orsenna's prose embraces both intellectual dexterity and frank farce.

It is unsparing in its burlesque mockery of French colonial pretensions and of the distortions such pretensions perpetrated on the French psyche, yet it reads with wit and verve.

His tone is not sarcastic laughter but a mannered guffaw, head shaking in cultured disbelief and it is by this means that Love and Empire is deftly neither a fashionable mea culpa for France's imperial past nor a nationalist apology, holding with bravadoa median ground between the two camps.

The author's strategy is to explore his subject by its minutes. Love and Empire offers a geo-political sweep not of noble themes but of trivia.

Covering the years between 1883 and 1954, the story's protagonists are an eccentric French family of precocious (and promiscuous) intelligentsia - the Orsennas (we are not told whether they are fictionalised ancestors of the author or real ones), who though empire fanatics are impotent to realise their abiding passion of settling in ''the colonies'' because of the father Louis Orsenna's phobia of tropical diseases.

In frustration, grandmother Marguerite becomes successively a fascist and an American immigrant, while son Gabriel begins a career in rubber, the riotous pursuit of which allows him to roam an ever-dwindling empire.

He also meets and develops a lifelong passion for two English sisters, with whom he lives in harmonious, de facto bigamy.

In his declining years, Louis Orsenna finally summons the courage to emigrate to Vietnam (just as the French hold on that territory is being loosened by the Viet Minh), and undergoes a political conversion, covertly aiding the communists.

His son Gabriel lands in Saigon in search of him, and becomes implicated.

He is brought before a magistrate in France and Love and Empire takes the form of Gabriel's voluminous affidavit and brief to his attorney.

For this novel, Orsenna has already won the Prix Goncourt.

Though it is his fourth book, Love and Empire (originally L'Exposition Coloniale ) is the first to be published in English and this is an initiative that the literary world applauds.