Bernardo Atxaga (2011) Seven Houses in France trans. Margaret Jull Costa; Harvill Secker, London; 250 pp.; ISBN 978-1-84655-447-6
Set in the opening years of the 20th century in a military outpost in the Belgian Congo, this novel is a lucid depiction of the cruelty and greed at the heart of empire. The soldiers in Yangambi are led by Lalande Biran, a captain and middling poet who is increasingly tired of his daily grind in the jungle. He works only to satisfy the demands of his Paris-based wife, who has a dream of owning seven houses in France. His lonely pleasures are poetry and having sex with young virgins that his soldiers bring back from raids on nearby villages.
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.