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Book Review: Grand Circle Diego

Book Review Grand Circle Diego By Cyril Costilhes Reviewed by Colin Pantall Let’s start at the back of the book. The text sets out the story. It begins eleven years ago, as Cyril Costilhes attempts to get into the head of his troubled father and the expat excuse of a life he is leading on the Indian Ocean.

Grand Circle Diego. By Cyril Costilhes.
Akina, 2014.
Grand Circle Diego
Reviewed by Colin Pantall

Grand Circle Diego
By Cyril Costilhes
Akina, London, England, 2014. 144 pp., 81 color illustrations, 6¼x9".

Let’s start at the back of the book. The text sets out the story. It begins eleven years ago, as Cyril Costilhes attempts to get into the head of his troubled father and the expat excuse of a life he is leading on the Indian Ocean.

Diego Suarez, Tuesday the 26th August 2003

‘My father is riding his motorbike back home. He just had lunch with friends on a idyllic beach of Diego Suarez, far north of Madagascar…’

‘Was he thinking of “Le Grand Cercle De Diego,” his casino business, his associates, scams, whores, flies on dead meat. Maybe worried about the son he wished he had, the daughter he loved so much, or feeling remorse about the failed marriage.’

We flick forward to the next day. We’re in France. The phone rings. Costilhes answers.

Saint-Raphael, Wednesday the 27th of August 2003

Mom sobbing: It’s your daddy, he had an accident, he’s in a coma…

And then we’re into the recent past. Costilhes is in Madagascar and he’s making pictures. And the purpose of everything that came before becomes clear.

Diego Suarez, Sunday the 16th of December 2012

I sometimes fantasize about ending it for my father. It would be a relief to everybody. I have this crazy idea of transforming this suffocating situation into something positive, something that would give sense to all this. Turn the ugly into beautiful.

First night in Diego, having a drink at La Vahinee bar, a beautiful girl sits at my table, looks me straight in the eye. “J’aime la bite.”

“J’aime la bite” means “I like cock.” And that’s what the book is about on one level; about sex and the undercurrents of life as an outsider in a Madagascan tourist town. But mostly it's about getting in the head of his stricken father, melding his coma with the sweat, sex, alcohol and sunsets as experienced by a European man in Africa. What was this place he was living in, what was the soul he was living with? Like father like son; Costilhes goes to the place, real and metaphorical, that his father was living in.

Grand Circle Diego. By Cyril Costilhes. Akina, 2014.

It’s all very Heart of Darkness. But whose heart is it? This question is mirrored both by the Conrad quote at the beginning of the book and by the picture emblazoned across the matte black cover. It might be a heart, but then again it might be a lot of things. It looks like one of Araki’s flowers gone wrong, visceral but not sexy. It is probably the innards of a creature, but hold it at a distance and it looks like a sculpture of mutant red cabbages.

Who knows what it is? What matters is that the stage has been set. Open the book and the first picture is of a man (Costilhes’ father?) lying on a hospital bed. A series of pictures of mangrove vines lit by hard flash follow and then the book proper starts with a fish skeleton. It’s all printed on black paper so we know we are in the territory of super darkness. It’s the Heart of Double Darkness, served up with an intense invention. Costilhes is taking no shortcuts here with lame introspection and wooliness. He’s telling a story and he’s making the story happen through pictures that are not easy, in a story that is not easy.

Grand Circle Diego. By Cyril Costilhes. Akina, 2014.

It’s a good story too, a B-Movie Schlock-Horror Afrosploitation Fest. Continue through the book and the night becomes claustrophobic and threatening. It’s a living hell where figures are silhouetted in doorways, horn-like hair announcing exactly where you have ended up.

Go outside and overexposed buildings stand bleached white against the darkened nights. What looms in those shadows, the depths of the unconscious? Disfigurement, disease, bones, mortality, death and decay.

Grand Circle Diego. By Cyril Costilhes. Akina, 2014.

There are graveyards and a decrepit toy train stuck on the end of a loop of track, a hooded figure standing by lit foreground of the picture. A white hound, loose-limbed and ragged, paces the night garden, a strange child sucks at a mother’s stretched out teat.

Everything goes in a circle in the book. The women prey on the men who prey on the women. The men are part of nation that preyed on the continent. Corruption begets corruption, lust is never fully sated, as everyone preys on each other and we end up trapped, just as Costilhes’ father is trapped now in his coma state, as he was trapped in his earlier living life, seduced by the veneer of easy sex and a warm sea. But beneath the veneer, the totality of his life, of history, of power and conquest, lay rotting like the sides of meat that are constantly shown. The Voodoo Chile, Black Widow narrative is blatant, but it make sense when we fit it into a view of how myths are created, lived and perpetuated, by the father and, in consciously in turn, by the son.

Grand Circle Diego. By Cyril Costilhes. Akina, 2014.

Grand Circle Diego is not a quiet book. It’s quite glorious in its abandoned use of the symbols of the predatory and the dark. The edit could be tighter in some places (it’s a book where the literal takes away from the symbolic) and do we really need another book about Africa that starts with a Heart of Darkness quote? How dark is the Heart of Darkness? In Grand Circle Diego, it’s really dark. And is possibly served with the bitter irony that what goes around comes around. Life is a Grand Circle.—COLIN PANTALL

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COLIN PANTALL is a UK-based writer and photographer. He is a contributing writer for the British Journal of Photography and a Senior Lecturer in Photography at the University of Wales, Newport.

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