Seven Houses in France


A brooding novel of colonial intrigue in the Congo, from the author of The Accordionist’s Son and Obabakoak

The year is 1903, and the garrison of Yangambi on the banks of the Congo is under the command of Captain Lalande Biran. The captain is also a poet whose ambition is to amass a fortune and return to the literary cafés of Paris. His glamorous wife, Christine, has a further ambition: to own seven houses in France, a house for every year he has been abroad. At Lalande Biran’s ...

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Seven Houses in France: A Novel

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A brooding novel of colonial intrigue in the Congo, from the author of The Accordionist’s Son and Obabakoak

The year is 1903, and the garrison of Yangambi on the banks of the Congo is under the command of Captain Lalande Biran. The captain is also a poet whose ambition is to amass a fortune and return to the literary cafés of Paris. His glamorous wife, Christine, has a further ambition: to own seven houses in France, a house for every year he has been abroad. At Lalande Biran’s side are the ex-legionnaire van Thiegel, a brutal womanizer, and the servile, treacherous Donatien, who dreams of running a brothel. The officers spend their days guarding enslaved rubber-tappers and kidnapping young girls, and at their hands the jungle is transformed into a wild circus of human ambition and absurdity. But everything changes with the arrival of a new officer and brilliant marksman: the enigmatic Chrysostome Liege. An outstanding new novel from the critically acclaimed and prizewinning author Bernardo Atxaga, Seven Houses in France is a blackly comic tale which reveals the darkest sides of human desire.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Atxaga has been compared to Conrad, but the writer’s captivating literary anthropologies don’t seek to edify or shed light on the human condition. In his new, shamefully enjoyable novel, set in the Belgian Congo in the early part of the last century, the arrival of a devout and taciturn young officer into a contingent of colorful colonial soldiers on a remote jungle outpost on the River Congo sets off a palpitating chain of events. Chrysostome Liège is the best marksman in the Congo, a fact that his commander, the highfalutin poet-officer Capt. Lalande Biran, decides to use to his advantage—first using Liège to restore order in the bush, and then for more personal reasons. Captain Biran’s beautiful wife wishes to acquire a seventh property in France, in fashionable St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, “one of the most expensive places in the civilized world,” forcing him to engage in a risky contraband scheme with his covetous subordinate, the psychotic Lieutenant Van Thiegel. Atxaga possesses an uncanny gift for details bordering on the forensic, and he breathes life into this bevy of invariably perfectly pitched characters—from Captain Biran’s cowardly orderly Donatien to the mysterious Club Royal bartender Livo, who finally decides to take matters into his own hands when Van Thiegel perpetuates one final, inexcusable outrage. Nearly impossible to put down, Atxaga’s thrilling colonial masterpiece pulses with a kind of elemental power, like the Congo River itself. (Sept.)
From the Publisher
“Atxaga’s novel is much more than a mere chronicle of the colonial era. Inevitably, the reader thinks of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. . . but Atxaga’s story focuses on more intimate corruptions, disappearances more personal and profound, on anxieties more in the spirit of Camus than in the author of Lord Jim.” —El País
Library Journal
Acclaimed Basque fiction writer Atxaga has written a number of complex character studies (e.g., The Accordionist's Son; The Lone Woman) that portray individuals complicit with politically motivated violence, and here he returns to that powerful theme. This masterly, deeply unsettling novel takes as its subject one of the darkest chapters in human history—Belgian King Leopold II's cruel and pitiless exploitation of the Congo in the early 1900s. This is ground Joseph Conrad explored in The Heart of Darkness, and Atxaga is obviously revisiting that famous novel. The primary theme is the evil power of political ideology and how it can fuel violence and create conditions that lead to atrocities. The Belgian army officers at the center of this novel blithely assume an absolute cultural and moral superiority—a belief that enables them to enslave and exploit the native population remorselessly. There is a warning here for modern readers about the dangerous link between ideology and catastrophic violence. VERDICT Chilling and unforgettable; recommended for fans of literary fiction.—Patrick Sullivan, Manchester Comm. Coll., CT
Kirkus Reviews
The title alludes to the brutal exploitation of rubber-tappers in the early-20th-century Congo, for Capt. Lalande Biran of the Belgian Force Publique has promised his Parisian wife seven houses with the proceeds of his licit and illicit dealings. Biran is one of many merciless Belgians in the service of King Leopold in 1903, yet in some ways he's the most urbane of them all, for he's a poet and a cultivated man of letters. Every week, however, he has his orderly Donatien procure him a native girl--and she must be a virgin owing to his fear of contracting a disease. (Biran's usual habit is to give the girl to Donatien after his carnal desires are sated.) Second-in-command is Lt. Richard Van Thiegel, who keeps a list of amorous encounters by the race of the girl he exploits. When Van Thiegel finds a picture of the captain's ravishing wife, he decides to make her number 200 on his list once he leaves the service. Introduced into this morass of corruption is Chrysostome Liège, a new soldier in the Force Publique, and one who doesn't fit the mold. He's a crack shot, is devoted to the Virgin Mary and doesn't seem to have an interest in the native girls, a fact that Van Thiegel begins to exploit by referring contemptuously to Chrysostome as a "poofter." Biran tries to speed up his ability to acquire his seven houses and is able to when the price of ivory and mahogany, both of which he illegally harvests, soars. Meanwhile, as a public relations gesture, Leopold is sending a statue of the Virgin Mary to the Congo, and the soldiers must prepare an adequate welcome. Like Heart of Darkness, with which similarities abound, this narrative is both tragic and traumatic.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781555976231
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press
  • Publication date: 9/4/2012
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Bernardo Atxaga is a prizewinning novelist and poet, whose books, including Obabakoak and The Accordionist’s Son, have won critical acclaim in Spain and abroad. His works have been translated into twenty-two languages, and he lives in the Basque country.

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