March 26, 2012 by markstani
Bernardo Atxaga’s Seven Houses In France (pub. Harvill Secker), longlisted for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, is a darkly compelling and by turn bawdy, bleak and violent novel, with more than a passing whiff of a Boy’s Own adventure gone terribly, tragically wrong.
If at first the broad conceit may seem conventional bordering on the outdated – Colonialist forces high-jinking it up in untamed Africa at the expense of the downtrodden so-called savages, whom they entrap and enslave at will – the reality is anything but.
In the expert hands of both Atxaga, who translated his own work from its original Basque into Spanish, and longtime collaborator Margaret Jull Costa, who switched it to English, ‘Seven Houses In France’ is an engrossing and uproarious read, which defies the logic that a story staffed with so many truly despicable individuals cannot possibly succeed. It can, and it does.
It is 1903, and Belgian troops, under the command of Captain Lalande Biram, are stationed at the back-of-beyond settlement of Yangambi on the bank of the River Congo, ostensibly to plunder the region’s vast resources of rubber, mahogany and ivory.
Alert to the dangers like tse-tse flies and black mambas, not to mention the barbarous rebels upriver, the officers pursue a debauched kind of escapism involving drunken shooting matches, in which they pick apples off the heads of local children, and the imprisonment and rape of native girls, who must first undergo a demeaning virgin test if being prepared for Biram, who is paranoid about contracting syphillis.
Biram fancies himself as a poet and artist, covets the cafe culture of Paris and despairs, without a hint of hypocrisy, of the uncouth behaviour of his colleagues; but this all changes with the arrival of the mysterious Chrysostome, a dead-eye shot whose refusal to embrace the camp’s tumultuous, macho culture raises suspicions and hackles, especially in the schizophrenic second-in-command, van Thiegel, and the sleazy Donatien, who aspires to return home to run a brothel.
Chrysostome Liege signed a contract to serve in King Leopold’s Force Publique at the beginning of 1903 and reached his posting in the Congo in August of the same year, having travelled by packet-boat from Antwerp to Matadi, by train as far as Leopoldville, and then, finally, on a small steamship, the Princess Clementine, to the garrison of Yangambi. It was not exactly the last outpost of civilisation because, as they said in the Force Publique, that honour belonged to Kisangani, some one hundred and twenty miles further upstream, but it was certainly a very long way from anywhere anyone had heard of.
Underpinning it all is the ambition of Biram’s wife Christine back in Paris, who yearns to own the eponymous seven houses – one for each year Biram has spent at Yangambi – and thus convinces Biram that one last, mighty deal will realise her dream and lift Biram out of the God-forsaken jungle for good.
With the consequences of Christine’s epic ambition raising tensions all round, the last thing the officers need is aborted talk of a visit from King Leopold himself: instead, he sends a bishop with a giant stone statue of the Virgin, designed to spread prayer to the whole of the Congo. Call it divine intervention, whatever: with these guys in charge, the natives are going to need all the help they can get.
‘Seven Houses In France’ is a pitch-dark comment on human avarice in its many different forms, but for all Atxaga’s deliberate grotesquery, it is a strangely affecting one. You could go as far as to see it as a devastating critique of imperialism, but I’m not convinced Axtaga intended to go that far. Whatever it may be, it’s a weird and wonderful book, all the better for leaving its reader feeling slightly bewildered by the final page.
The graphic nature of some of its descriptions – and Atxaga’s clear intention to coax humour out of the blackest, most brutal circumstances – mean this is not going to be a book for everyone. Personally, I think it’s fantastic, and ought to be a shoo-in for the shortlist.