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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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Filed under Atxaga Bernardo, Fiction