I thought Seven Houses in France would be a political allegory about Europe. The author, Bernardo Atxaga, is from the Basque Country, and he writes in the Basque language, Euskara, which has only 715,000 speakers. Those are good reasons to have a chip on your shoulder—to feel a need to correct people’s assumptions about your little corner of the world.
So why is Atxaga writing about Belgian soldiers in the Congo in 1903?
At the height of the Belle Epoque, King Leopold II of Belgium cavorts on the French Riviera while his soldiers—the Force Publique—are stationed in the Congo, drinking Veuve Clicquot, raping village girls, and whipping the slaves who harvest the king’s rubber from the jungle. In clean, candid prose that sharpens the absurdity and brutality of the historical moment, Atxaga tells the story of three Belgian officers and one African servant whose sedentary lifestyles are interrupted by the arrival of a new comrade. But it’s less Heart of Darkness and more Beetle Bailey.
Atxaga draws his characters with the strong, clear lines of a comic strip. There’s the captain, Biran, who condones all sorts of crimes against the Congolese while writing lyric poetry about the glories of Africa; Donatien, a dimwitted orderly who fetches virgins from the jungle for the Captain to rape; Van Thiegel, an alcoholic brute; and Livo, the long-suffering native guide.
Wait, did I just say the captain fetches virgins from the jungle and rapes them? Yes I did. The captain—whose blue eyes are flecked with gold, just like the blue field and yellow star of the Force Publique flag—rapes a different virgin every Thursday, because he is afraid the regular girls will give him syphilis. Before he rapes them, he makes them stand nude while he draws them. Because he is a gentleman and an artist, just like his hero Baudelaire.
Into this jungle comes Chrysostome, an impossibly perfect soldier—devoutly Christian, stubbornly professional, and the best marksman in all of Africa. Chrysostome wears a blue ribbon and a gold chain on his hairless chest as reminders of his commitment to chastity. Naturally the other soldiers abhor him, especially the lazy and vicious Van Thiegel.
His long years in the Congo had taught him to value cheerful companions, friends who enjoyed drinking and gambling. He didn’t care of they made mediocre soldiers. […] Better a happy soldier than a disciplined one.
Van Thiegel can think of no better way to ruin Chrysostome than to spread a rumor that he is a “poofter.” And so the die is cast. (As the pretentious Captain Biran likes to say, ”alea jacta est.”) The rumor leads, eventually, to a violent rape, a deadly shooting, and a pretty cool assassination by means of a black mamba. Seven Houses in France is essentially about the journey of that one word, “poofter.” If you read it quickly, you might think this tautly written quarrel among the officers is all the book is about.
Bernardo Atxaga speaking Euskara, the Basque language
Like the colonial powers that hashed out their European vendettas at the expense of the natives underfoot, Atxaga focuses on the psychodrama of the Belgian officers while almost ignoring the atrocities that are commonplace in the Belgian Congo. If an officer needs to kill a slave worker, he must cut off the slave’s hand, cure it (by smoking it), and mail it to his superiors in Belgium for accounting purposes. For target practice the officers place fruit on the heads of local children. Donatien has so many virgins to keep track of that he builds a cage in his room.
The radical aspect of Seven Houses in France is how casually Atxaga passes over these horrific details. He barely mentions them. Which places the reader in the morally untenable position of having to read about—and care about—the white officers, while disregarding the lives they destroy. It almost makes you laugh. A ship arrives from Belgium carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary, and Captain Biran momentarily stops raping the virgins of the Congo in order to kneel at the feet of the Virgin of the Congo.
Atxaga’s previous novels have been more pro-Basque and magical realist. I was expecting the same with Seven Houses in France—a partisan allegory about the Basque people. But Atxaga has gone bigger, framing his issues on a global and historical scale. My edition of the book was written in Euskara, translated into Spanish, and then translated into English; the characters speak French and a few Bantu words. The Force Publique flag, with its blue field and yellow star—like the captain’s eyes and Chrysostome’s blue ribbon and gold chain—has become, today, the flag of the European Union. There is plenty that Atxaga does not say in this coiled snake of a novel. But he notes the sound of monkeys screeching in the jungle like an aggrieved Greek chorus. One of Captain Biran’s poems begins, “The jungle swallows everything and gives back only the cries of monkeys.”
– Brian Hurley
Seven Houses in France is translated from Basque to Spanish by Asun Garikano and Bernardo Atxaga, and from Spanish to English by Margaret Jull Costa