World Literature Today, printemps 1999, par Maria Green, University of Saskatchewan
The Melanesian small islands, discovered by Cook in 1774 and annexed to France under the name of New Caledonia in 1853, played the same role for the French as Australia did for the British. Napoleon III deported criminals to the islands, and Alsatians settled there after the 1870 defeat. Arriving along with the criminals and settlers were the missionaries, who quickly hid attractive breasts under mumus. The handsome and gentle natives had the reputation of being cannibals. The blurb of Nicole Vedre’s play Les Canaques claims, for instance, that the natives are anthropophage son a small scale.
In his twenty-third novel Didier Daeninckx is inspired by an actual event that took place at the 1931 Parisian Colonial Exhibition, where the Kanakas had to play the role of cannibals by baring breasts and teeth and emitting threatening sound to attract visitors. The author takes the reader back and forth from 1931 Paris to the islands, in the pivotal year of 1984, when the Kanakas in revolt claim independence from France and attempt to establish self-government. This narrative technique with its interplay of subdued natives of the thirties and self-assured revolutionaries of the eighties becomes awkward at times. The reader, immersed in the political atmosphere of the thirties, is suddenly jerked to the island of stern revolutionaries who believe that white men are, by definition, evil. The protagonist and narrator, wrapped in one, proves the opposite when he reveals that upon his brutal arrest by the organizers of the exhibition and the police, a French visitor raised his voice on his behalf and was thrown in jail along with him.
The most interesting part of Cannibale deals with the narrator’s night-time escape with the best friend from the exhibition site to a railway station to rescue his fiancée from being shipped to a German circus with a few natives. They are exchanged for crocodiles, who all died mysteriously the night before the grand opening of the exhibition. The friends refuse to take the subway. The underworld belongs to the dead, and their spirit ought not to be disturbed.
The reader learns a great deal from this short novel about a far-off islands, the problems of colonialism, and the danger of blanket statements.