Seven houses in france by Bernardo Atxaga

Seven houses in france by Bernardo Atxaga

Basque fiction

Translator Magaret Jull Costa

Bernardo Atxaga is one of my favourite writers I ve read a couple of his other books the Accordionist’s son and Obabakoak both of these were set in small villages in the basque region that he comes from ,he also writes some of his books in basque and is an ambassador for Basque culture .Now this his latest novel to be translated into english sees him shift to Africa and also a historic story set in the Belgian Congo .

I ve been looking forward to this novel as I had enjoyed his other books as he has a real knack of quirky characters and unusual situations but was a bit weary after I read Jackies review she found this book very savage .Now the bases of the story is a a garrison deep in the Congo in 1903 .A group of solders and I suppose this is where this book will be compared to Conrad’s heart of darkness and it has a lot in common with that book the garrison is rather like the station that Kurtz lives at in that book a place of decay and loose morals . But I also find this book maybe is a bit like Buzzati’s Tartar steppes as the men in the Garrison have so little to do so have gone rogue and like the main character in that book Biran has dreams of a different way via his poems and now the fact King Leopold is on the verge of visiting it has come to light .also a new arrival sets up the story .

Together the walked back towards the village and Donatien gave him a brief rundown on the garrison .In Yagambi there was a total of seventeen white officers,twenty black non commissioned officers ,and one hundred and fifty Askari – volunteer black soldiers – all of whom were under the command of captainn Lalande Biran a highly cultivated man ,well-known in belgium as a poet , an excellent soldier ,and most gifted of all the officers who had passed through Yangambi .

The new officer Chrysostome arrives and soon finds out all is not as it seems .

Chrysostome arrival is a catalyst as it turns out he is a moral man in this slowly if not completely immoral garrison we discover how each of the white officers has gone rogue raping locals ,tie up and shoot animals also enslave the locals as they destroy the local area to bring the riches of the land to Belgium .Chrysostome seems uninterested in the local women and the raping of them that his fellow officers do, this leads to him becoming a target for his fellow officers as he may be gay or to religious to be there he wears a cross .I see what Jackie hated about this book it is barbaric ,but I feel this book maybe like a holocaust novel needs to show the horrors of empire. We all have ideas of what happened during Empire but sometimes, we need a reminder of the horror society can be driven to when they have no real barriers .This is a situation I ve seen examined before in the film The exterminating Angels by the Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel which shows how a group of dinner party guest end up as savages as there trapped and this is part of what happened here these 17 now 18 white officers are trapped in the dark side of the Congo jungle have gone savage even more so than the locals .

Chrysothome had never forgotten the words he heard as a child from the parish priest in Britancourt .

“cleanliness is the greatest of the virtues ” the priest told the children after their chance meeting with a syphilitic man who lived in one of the caves near the village .”If a christian keeps himself clean inside and out ,he will develop an iron exterior that no enemy sword can penetrate .

An insight into the new man at the garrison and why he is at odds to the rest .

For those you aware and having read his works you won’t be disappointed as there is the usual assortment of odd characters and a midget as there seems to be in his other books .The title is a reference to mthe fact that the Garrison captain wife a beautiful women in france now has seven houses in france one for every year he has been in the Congo .Margaret Jull Costa has again showed why she is on the top table of spanish language translators ,as it has warmth and humour kept from the original which was in Basque then translated into spanish by Atxaga and Asun Garikano ,then into English .When compared with other books done like this say the Kadare’s which have been via french translation this works so much better than they did .

March 2012


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