From the mid-19th century until World War II, French criminals were often deported to penal colonies in South America, such as Devil’s Island or other parts of French Guiana. Little more than slave encampments, these settlements didn’t include immigrants seeking to build a new country, as happened in Australia. Pretty much everyone at Saint-Laurent and the other sites were either criminals, guards, or prison administrators.
In 1928, this included Sabir, a small-time criminal who, thanks to some eavesdropping and quick thinking upon his arrival, is sent to a work camp upriver to be the gardener for an idealistic commandant with dreams of replicating the French countryside in the tropical jungle. In spite of this relatively easy assignment, however, Sabir has only dreams of escape. Tales abound about how few inmates survive the treacherous journey through the jungle, and most of those are returned by neighboring countries upon discovery, yet Sabir persists in his plans.
Colony is divided into three parts: each tells a part of the main story from a variant viewpoint. What the three parts share is the sense of how the lushness of the jungle actually causes everything imported into it (buildings, equipment, phonograph records, as well as people) to decay. Everyone there is trying to escape, from themselves if not from others; the tropical heat and humidity speed up the mental and physical breakdown, leaving the reader unsure of what is real and what is hallucination. Flashbacks to French battles in the Great War are interspersed with tales of the South American natives, making for a swirling, chaotic, and mesmerizing collage of identities and realities.