Seven Houses in France by Bernardo Atxaga

Something about the title Seven Houses in France from Basque author Bernardo Atxaga caught my attention and the plot description sealed my decision to read the book. The setting is not France but 1903 in the Belgian Congo–hell on earth for the native people and a jolly good time for the 17 white officers stationed there whose main problem is boredom.  The officers on contract assigned to the garrison at Yangambi are there to oversee rubber operations for King Léopold, and there in the jungle, far from their wives and families, some standards of behaviour are maintained, while others are not. The result is a society organised by the white officers acting as overseers with enforcement by the askaris–“soldiers recruited from Zanzibar and from among the cannibals in northern Congo.” Military discipline is lax–raping and pillaging the locals is ok and even encouraged, but it is important to keep one’s uniform jacket buttoned.

The plot concerns the relationships and tensions between a handful of white officers at the garrison. The seven houses in the title exist primarily as a gilded carrot for commanding officer Captain Lalande Biran, officer for Léopold, and part-time poet who originally hailed from Brussels. Biran agreed initially to work in the Congo for 5 years with the plan, concocted by his long-distance wife, that they buy seven houses within those 5 years. But 5 years has become 7 years and now Biran’s wife, Christine,  is in the middle of purchasing the seventh house. She writes letters demanding more money for the latest house, and this translates into Biran and his cohort Lt. Van Thiegel making extra shipments of their lucrative sideline in elephant tusks and mahogany which is sent to their business partner, the mysterious Monsieur X, a corrupt official in the court of King Léopold. 

She was always demanding more: more ivory, more mahogany, more effort. Not content with being the owner of six houses in France, one of them a villa in Biarritz that had once belonged to a Russian Prince, she wanted another, a seventh house, in St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, one of the most expensive places in the civilised world. And the price he paid was to spend seven years in the Congo, two more than the five they had initially agreed. 

There’s the sense that this woman will not stop at the number seven, and her appetite for houses is reflected in the letters she sends to her husband in which she urges him to increase exacting plunder–elephant tusks and mahogany–from the jungle. While the Force Publique squeezes rubber quotas from the local natives, Biran and Van Thiegel do some additional, profitable, secret squeezing of their own, so that we see this direct pipeline which bleeds off the resources of the Congo at great cost to the local population, the wildlife and the environment. All this in order to satisfy the whims of a randy, aging Léopold and a frivolous woman who wants to own more houses than she can possibly live in.

Van Thiegel, an eleven-year veteran of the Foreign Legion, has spent 9 years with Force Publique, and most of his pay is sent home to his widowed mother in Antwerp. While Biran focuses on his poetry and his wife’s endless appetite for real estate, Van Thiegel keeps track of a different sort of booty: women

Ever since his days as a legionnaire, Van Thiegel had kept a notebook entitled Mon histoire sentimentale, in which, in blunt military manner, with no embellishments, no beating around the bush, he kept a note of all the women he had known: where they came from, how much he paid for them, and where the act had taken place. After accompanying the hunters as far as the palisade, he returned to his office and took the notebook from the desk drawer in which he kept it.

The last entry stated that there had been 184 women and girls: 155 blacks and 29 whites; 159 free and 25 paid for.

Van Thiegel begins fantasizing about number 200, planning to pay prostitutes so as not to ‘waste time’ in order to get to that special number 200. Being in the jungle, far away from any brothels, however, doesn’t stop the soldiers from racking up sexual partners. Regular runs are made to the native villages to capture women, and the easy access to women is, Van Thiegel admits, “why most of us put up with being here.” Biran, however, won’t rape just any woman. Ever considerate of his rapacious inconsiderate wife, he insists on only raping virgins in order to avoid syphilis. Biran’s orderly, Donatien has a standing Thursday appointment to capture a virgin from the jungle and deliver her to Biran, and when Biran is finished with her, sneaky Donatien, whose goal is to open a brothel, is getting plenty of career experience with a cage handy in his quarters in which he can stash the Captain’s leftovers.

Yes, Yangambi is a charming place for the white officers who are free to do pretty much whatever they want with the locals, and into this cesspit arrives a strait-laced and devout young officer from Britancourt, Chrysostome. Chrysostome, who happens to be an expert marksman, acts as a catalyst in the unfolding drama. Problems between the officers begin on the first day of Chrysostome’s arrival with a celebratory shooting contest of Mandrill monkeys sporting red fezs and tied to trees. Chrysostome’s perfect performance ousts Van Thiegel from the garrison marksman role. Chrysostome is rewarded with a huge number of bullets (a valued commodity in the Congo), and Van Thiegel seethes with resentment which builds into rabid hatred as the hot, boring days at the garrison continue. Compounding the problem, Chrysostome dislikes gathering women for Biran’s Thursday rapes, and Van Thiegel labels the new officer a “poofter.”

One of the biggest questions I had about the novel prior to reading it was just how the author would handle describing the treatment of the native population. Author Atxaga took the subtle route; atrocities against the local population occur in the background with a casual, low-key nonchalance. The massive cruelty of the white officers is shown to not be particularly sadistic and intentional as much as casual and almost distracted. But this rancid display of human cruelty is no less revolting for its lack of maliciousness.

If they were to use a cartridge to kill  the gorilla, that would mean having to use the butt of their rifle or their machete as a way of subduing or breaking any uncooperative workers and, worse still, being obliged to tell a lie and report that the missing bullet–which was not theirs, but the property of King Léopold–had remained lodged in the body of the rubber-tapper in question. Fortunately, the higher-ups in Léopoldville did not demand to see the whole corpse as proof, being satisfied with a hand or even a finger, small objects which, once smoked, could safely be sent in the post in an ordinary envelope.

There is no one likeable here. All of the characters–even Chrysostome (who is the closest we get to a hero of any kind)  are brutalised in some way or another. Biran chews over the delicacy of poetry lines in his head in order to replace the atrocities in front of his eyes, but no one seems to find the slaughter of natives or monkeys to be particuarly extraordinary or even very interesting.  Atxaga creates a poisonous situation that is no less revolting for the casual nature of the violence and a situation in which masculinity is measured by one’s ability to accept dehumanisation and brutality: the William Tell shooting contest held with native children, the casual rapes which are seen as one of the perks of the job, and the thoughtless starvation and treatment of the natives. While the white officers worry about being ambushed by the mostly invisible natives who hide in the depths of the jungle, the biggest threat of violence seems to be from each other.

I’d not read Bernado Atxaga before, and my impression was that his books weren’t dark enough for my tastes. In this case, at least, I was wrong. I’m hoping that someone buys the film options to this book, and I’m picturing some of my favourite actors in the lead roles….

Review copy. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

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25 Comments

Filed under Atxaga Bernardo, Fiction

25 responses to “Seven Houses in France by Bernardo Atxaga

  1. Brian Joseph

    Based upon your comments this one seems dark indeed. I also think that it is fairly rare that I book that none of the characters are really likable. I find the idea of reading a book with such characters oddly appealing.

    I have heard Conditions in the Belgian Congo of this era were horrendous. A book about this time and place, King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild has been gathering dust on my shelf for a few years but I have not yet read it.

    • King Léopold’s Ghost is an excellent book on the subject–although it is a very dark subject matter. I wasn’t sure how Atxaga would blend in information about the atrocities against the native population in a fictional story, but it was seamless.
      Léopold said that every bullet belonged to him and had to be accounted for, so when a runaway was shot, the hand (or finger) signified a spent bullet. Hands were chopped off for a failure to make rubber quotas too.

  2. leroyhunter

    I read one of his others, Obabakoak, a while ago and thought it was superb. Parts of that explored some dark situations alright – madness, murder, bullying, taboo sex. That book is a kaleidoscope of different stories though, and his others all seemed more straightforward by comparison.

    This sounds heavy-duty. Given the setting, Conrad obviously comes to mind.

    • Good to know, Leroy, as once I enjoy a book by a new-to-me author, I start wondering about the backlist. It’s funny how you can get an impression about an author’s work without ever opening a book and actually taking a look inside. Unfair really.

      Yes, I agree, Conrad comes to mind, and the funny thing is that this book ties into the Thomas Cook book I recently read, The Crime of Julian Wells. in that book, the fictional author, Julian, writes about the atrocities committed by Paul Voulet and Klobb who was sent out to arrest him…

  3. It’s funny how this reminds me of Bel-Ami again. I was surprsied to read so much a bout the colonies in it. And that one incident where they go on a raid an three Algerians die but Georges and his friends think it was the funniest event ever.
    I always thought of Atxaga as rather dark but couldn’t tell you why. Possibly Richard reviewed him. This is a bit too bleak for me right now. Where are his other novels set?

  4. I’ve read two of Atxaga’s novels, Obabakoak (pre-blogging) and The Lone Man (which I also reviewed: http://liburuak.wordpress.com/2012/05/10/bernardo-atxaga-el-hombre-solo-1993/). I really enjoyed Obabakoak, but felt quite conflicted about The Lone Man. He’s indeed quite dark, but somehow this only came to me after having read your review. I’m not sure why that is, it just never occurred to me.
    To Caroline: Obabakoak is set in the Basque Country, and The Lone Man is set in Catalonia. Not sure about his other ones.

  5. King Leopold’s Ghost was a great book, and I was tickled at it’s discussion of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Proto-Freudian exploration of man’s Id? Allegory of the individual’s search for peace in the universe? No…a precise description of what Conrad saw there!

    Is literary criticism for those who can’t take reality?

  6. Count me as another fan of King Leopold’s Ghost.

    This sounds tremendous, though heavy-duty was a phrase that occurred to me too. I’ll definitely add it to my TBR pile, though I suspect I should read Heart of Darkness first. Great quotes, but I can see all that ugliness making it an almost bruising read, particularly given Atxaga can clearly write.

  7. Nearly £9 in Kindle edition, that suggests it’s quite new with the hardcopy perhaps still being in hardback. Is this a new release Guy?

    • I thought over the heavy-duty possibility and you know, it really isn’t. All the bad stuff against the natives happens in the background, and while the white officers are terrified of going into the jungle, they have a lot more to be worried about in the garrison from each other. As a reader you can see this–and they can’t.

      And yes, it’s brand new. I think Sept 4 over here was the publication date.

  8. I haven’t read Atxaga (yet) or King Leopold’s Ghost, but I’m fascinated by how Conrad’s Heart of Darkness still – more than 100 years after it was written – seems to be the “go-to” novel about European involvement in Africa. Of course it’s about much more than that, but it’s difficult to avoid referencing it when discussing Europeans in Africa since the end of 19th century (and even before). It’s the first thing that came to mind for me when I read Angel Ganivet’s Conquest of the Kingdom of Maya, which was indirectly inspired (provoked, rather) by Leopold and the Congo and came out just 2 years prior to Heart of Darkness.

    • I read somewhere that the case of Voulet influenced Conrad, but then someone else said that that wasn’t possible as the Voulet case broke around the time of the publication of Heart of Darkness.

      Yes the Heart of Darkness really is the seminal novel on the subject, amazing really.

  9. This book reminds me of Orwell’s “Burmese Days” and Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. I’ve never read anything by Axtaga before but your review made me curious to try.

  10. I have in mind that Belgian Congo was hell. I haven’t explored books about European colonisation in Africa or Asia. I should read some.

    Mémoires d’une vache intrigues me. Now that I’ve bought Je suis un chat by Sôseki, I’m thinking about an animal reading month :-)

  11. Emma,

    Regarding Algiers, it is noticeable how countries generally fail to include their more questionable wars in their school history syllabuses. In Britain nobody studies 1950s Kenya for example.

    • Certainly. In France’s school programs (back when I was in school) were a bit odd: It’s Waterloo and suddenly it’s WWI and we have an empire. In the meantime, we learnt basic date (1848, 1870…), talk about the industrial revolution and vaguely mention the Dreyfus Affair and that’s it. Nothing about the colonies, Napoleon III, the Commune…
      Did you learn about the Boers War for example?

      • My school actually had a very odd approach to history, and we basically studied nothing – I suspect we weren’t compliant with national requirements. God knows how anyone went on to do exams in the subject.

        Generally though my impression is that history in UK schools is mostly about how “we” won World War II. Happy for anyone better informed to update me on the point.

        There is of course a real issue that any history course must pick and choose, and history is innately political. You can’t cover 2,000 years of a country’s history in any sensible depth during a school course, but what do you choose? The national narrative, which will please politicians? A period which interests the teacher, which nobody else may care about? A mixed narrative of proud and shameful moments (but who says what’s proud, what’s shameful)? It’s tricky territory.

        There’s even a question of what counts as relevant national history. Schools in England tend to study English history, which is then treated as becoming British in the 18th Century, but Scottish history is British history too, so is Welsh and up to a certain point Irish. Arguably so is much Caribbean given how much the Afro-Caribbean population has become inextricably part of who the British are and of British culture. I can see a genuine argument for example for covering 1950s Jamaica in a course on British history, or dealing with the partition of India which has a huge impact on why a great many Britons’ grandparents came to the country (I think, I’m far from an expert).

        If I ever become a teacher I’ll steer well clear of all that, and teach something like English literature which is nice and easy (though even then, do we include Scottish writers? Welsh language as part of our culture? What about the Caribbean again?) – hm, perhaps film studies actually. That was after all one of my favourite subjects.

        • Max & Emma: we were through on history which was traced through the kings and queens, various pretenders and uprisings etc. But it got weird after the Industrial revolution, and suddenly, as Emma says, there was an Empire (the Pink Bits) with US in charge. Nothing really on how that happened or what England did to get those bits. No I was never taught about the Boer War.

          You grow up, leave school and then when you read on your own, you realise that history wasn’t quite that simple. The bastards left out the murky stuff!

          • Same thing here, murky stuff were left aside, but not as much as the generation before. (my mother never studied the war in Algeria, while I did, for example.)

            If I were in high school now, I wouldn’t even have history classes in the two last years. For students who choose math & science as a major (like I did, yes, it’s odd, I know) and thanks to our previous government, science & math graduates don’t have history classes anymore. What’s the use, right?

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