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Seven Houses in France: A Novel Paperback – September 4, 2012
When family friends become bitter enemies, the consequences are deadly. Learn More
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Biran is involved in smuggling mahogany and ivory, in cahoots with his lieutenant nicknamed Cocó and, back in Belgium, an adviser to King Leopold II. The racket has made all three men rich and they are close to realising their dream of a comfortable retirement back home.
Into this seedy world of Yangambi comes Chrysostome Liège, a taciturn officer who quickly impresses everyone with his marksmanship. But he does not mix well and avoids the company of women. Cocó is convinced that Chrysostome is homosexual and conspires with others to prove this. He is very wrong, which only fuels his jealousy and anger towards the newcomer. We learn that Chrysostome's aversion to women is born of an obsession with purity and a devotion to religion. Neither purity nor religion goes down well here. For the other officers such things have long since rotted away in the heat and isolation.
Biran becomes excited by the prospect of a visit to Yangambi by King Leopold, but the visit is progressively downgraded and Biran sees his hopes of fame and favour with the king fast receding. In the end a small and undistinguished delegation comes to erect a statue of the Virgin Mary upriver, and a journalist in the party observes the endgame for the leading players.
There is much casual violence, and Bernardo Atxaga writes about it in a matter-of-fact style that communicates how unremarkable killing and mutilation of Africans was for the colonial masters. The outpost and its surroundings are full of Africans, but only two of them are ever named. Livo is the aged bartender in the officers' mess who is smiling and modest on the surface but who has a deep anger within. Bamu is a young and very beautiful girl with whom Chrysosome eventually falls in love. All the other locals are an undifferentiated mass. When the soldiers have a shooting contest to blow off the heads of baboons, you sense it is no different to when they shoot runaway workers from local rubber plantations.
Life in the jungle is corrupting and boring. The focus on extracting wealth for the empire and oneself. Happiness is postponed for another day and another place, both far away. It is a way of life where the future can seem more dreamlike than real. King Leopold is referred to as a lion, and Biran at one point composes a poem about a fight between two lions, the king and a jungle cat, with the king victorious. At the end of the novel the lion that arrives in a cage by steamboat is lame, deaf and about to die a sad death. Perhaps that is a metaphor for empire, but much slaughter and misery will occur before this or any other empire falls.
Bernardo Atxaga is a Basque writer. This novel originally appeared in Basque, then in Spanish (translated by the author and another). This English version is translated from the Spanish. So does it capture the original flavour? I don't know, but this is a very well-crafted story with convincing characters and a good eye for the daily inhumanity that is part and parcel of the imperial way. In the end we see a modicum of justice meted out, but you know that its antithesis is alive and kicking.
For the soldiers in Leopold's Force Publique, especially those assigned to remote areas like Yangambi, where Chrysostome will be working, an outside social milieu does not exist. The soldiers obey the obvious protocols of the military, but there are only seventeen Belgian officers at the garrison, and with no active rebellion by native groups to keep them occupied, at the moment, they have far too much time on their hands. Might makes right here, and once they have performed their assigned duties, they enter a world which truly becomes a "jungle"--drinking, gambling, pursuing women, shooting animals for fun, and even, in some cases, smuggling ivory and mahogany back to Europe, where the profits will allow one wife to own "seven houses in France" in seven years.
When the King plans a visit, bringing a famous dancer from Philadelphia, whom he plans to make Queen of the Congo, all garrison activity is organized to promote this. Henry Morton Stanley will accompany the King and will attend the coronation of the new Queen beside Stanley Falls. Later the garrison learns that the King will be sending a statue of the Virgin, created by the "new Michelangelo," so that it can be installed permanently beside Stanley Falls as "The Virgin of the Congo." No one finds this ironic.
Author Bernardo Atxaga, whose previous works have been set in his native Basque country in Spain, provides only basic information about the rule of King Leopold II, spending little time on the grand scale of the atrocities committed historically against the native population. Instead he focuses on the behavior of the individual officers in the Force Publique as they respond to their long duty in the jungle. Atxaga's sense of narrative flow reflects his experience with the much longer novels he has written in Basque, and the novel moves quickly, enhanced by intriguing and vibrant details about the time, place, and main characters. Many events are filled with dark humor. Much credit is owed to prize-winning translator Margaret Jull Costa, whose work translating the novel into English is flawless, her ear for dialogue, particularly fine. Though this novel is, in a sense, a kind of morality tale, the author conveys his themes without didacticism, focusing on ordinary characters facing crises, often of their own making. The facts speak for themselves here, and Atxaga lets them.
If that tickles your fancy, you may enjoy this beautifully constructed, exquisitely translated yarn. I did