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Seven Houses in France

Seven Houses in France

by Bernardo Atxaga

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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


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.

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.

Product Details

Graywolf Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

Seven Houses in France

By Bernardo Atxaga, Margaret Jull Costa

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 2009 Bernardo Atxaga
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55597-623-1


CHRYSOSTOME LIÈGE SIGNED A CONTRACT TO SERVE IN KING Léopold's Force Publique at the beginning of 1903 and reached his posting in the Congo in August of the same year, having travelled by packet-boat from Antwerp to Matadi, by train as far as Léopoldville, and then, finally, on a small steamship, the Princesse Clémentine, to the garrison of Yangambi. It was not exactly the last outpost of civilisation because, as they said in the Force Publique, that honour belonged to Kisangani, some one hundred and twenty miles further upstream, but it was certainly a very long way from anywhere anyone had heard of.

The Princesse Clémentine docked at a wooden platform on the beach that served as a jetty. Chrysostome was met by a soldier, who advanced very slowly towards him. He was a young man and, at about six foot five, almost a head taller than him.

'Chrysostome Liège?' he asked.

The new arrival replied tersely: 'Yes.'

'I'm Donatien, Captain Lalande Biran's orderly,' said the officer. Then he pointed to the half-empty canvas bag Chrysostome was carrying and asked in a more relaxed tone: 'Is that all your luggage?'

Chrysostome replied equally tersely, this time in the negative.

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

'The Captain likes things done properly,' said Donatien. 'That's why he's prepared a reception committee for you on the firing range. Don't worry, Chrysostome, you'll soon feel at home in Yangambi, and the days will fly by.'

Donatien spoke very quickly, in bursts, running his words together. He said 'tutrouveratrebienci' when he should have said 'tu te trouveras très bien ici'. Sometimes, his Adam's apple moved up and down as if his salivary glands were working overtime and producing too much saliva for him to swallow.

'It's a shame they didn't build the village a bit closer to the river, though!' he said when they had gone some two hundred yards. 'Not the Captain's idea, of course. That was decided by the first officers who came to the region. The Captain has only been here for five years, same as me. I've been his orderly from the start. He really values me. He wouldn't want anyone else.'

They walked up the slope, stepping on the planks laid across the path to keep them from muddying their boots. When they reached the top of the hill, Donatien paused to get his breath back, and Chrysostome, like an explorer trying to orient himself, shaded his eyes with one hand and gazed around him. Ahead lay the first huts and a few European-style houses, all of which were surrounded by a palisade; lush palm trees grew on either side, and beyond was the imposing sight of the River Congo and a seemingly endless expanse of jungle.

The Congo was a powerful river. It cut straight through the jungle, although the vegetation, as if it continued to grow beneath the water, sprouted up again in the middle of the river in the form of small islands thick with trees and undergrowth. The Princesse Clémentine, the steamship that had brought Chrysostome, was still moored at the jetty. Two men were unloading the luggage and another two were carrying it to a building situated on the beach itself.

'That's the Club Royal, the officers' mess,' said Donatien. 'It is, in my opinion, the best place in Yangambi. I'm in charge of the storeroom there. My biggest worry are the mice. It's the same in every storeroom in the Congo, but they don't get their way in Yangambi. I finish them off before they can so much as take one bite of the sugar or the biscuits.'

Chrysostome appeared to have heard none of this and was still gazing down on the jungle. Several columns of smoke rose up here and there among the trees. The inhabitants of the villages or mugini were doubtless preparing their meal.

'How many savages live there?' he asked.

'Oh, thousands and thousands of them, all belonging to different tribes. But they don't often attack. Not, at least, at the moment,' answered Donatien.

'Do all those trees produce rubber?' asked Chrysostome.

'Not all of them, but many do. Around the Lomami, though, it's more mahogany than rubber.'

He pointed to the right. About half a mile away, you could see the line of another river — the Lomami. Its waters joined those of the Congo, slowing the latter's flow and creating the pool that served as a harbour opposite the beach.

'The rebels control the whole of this part of the Lomami. But, like I say, lately, they've been pretty quiet. Of course, as soon as they show any signs of activity, Lieutenant Van Thiegel is quick to put them down. He's not as intelligent as Captain Lalande Biran, but he's completely fearless. They say that even the lions shit themselves when they see him.'

Donatien set off again, laughing loudly to show that his words had been intended as a joke. His remark drew no response from Chrysostome, however, and so as they went through the palisade to the square — the Place du Grand Palmier — Donatien decided to say nothing more and to refrain from explaining which of the buildings were the residences of Lalande Biran and Van Thiegel and which was Yangambi's Government House; nor did he indicate the area or hut where Chrysostome would be living from then on. It was tedious trying to strike up a conversation with a tongue-tied novice.

Leaving the palisade behind them, they walked another five hundred or so yards to the firing range. When they arrived, they found the whole garrison waiting for them: the white officers in the front row, smiling, hands behind their backs; the black non-commissioned officers in the second row, also smiling, but with hands folded over their chests; and a little way behind them, divided into five companies, stood the askaris, the soldiers recruited from Zanzibar and from among the cannibals in northern Congo; they were standing to attention, left arms rigidly by their sides and right arms holding rifles. Opposite them, next to a dais, at the top of a flagstaff, fluttered the blue flag of the Force Publique with its single yellow star.

One of the white officers in the front row stepped forward.

'That's Captain Lalande Biran,' whispered Donatien.

He was a very handsome man, with blue eyes flecked with gold. He saluted Chrysostome, then ordered him to step onto the dais so that everyone could see him.

It was a ceremony in which military humour prevailed. Captain Lalande Biran began by presenting Chrysostome with the blue uniform and red fez of the askaris instead of an officer's pale brown uniform and white hat, a joke which caused everyone present on the firing range to titter, particularly his soon-to-be comrades. Frowning and resisting the desire of the Captain, the other officers and the NCOs to have their bit of fun, Chrysostome solemnly stuffed the trousers and shirt into his canvas bag and donned the red fez.

Large storm clouds were gathering. From one small clear patch of sky the sun was beating down.

'And here is your rifle!' said the Captain, handing him an eighteenth-century, barrel-loading musket, a hulking great thing, weighing at least twenty pounds. More tittering. 'It's loaded. The target's over there. Let's see what you can do.'

At the far end of the firing range, high up in a tree, a monkey appeared to be watching the ceremony with great interest. It was straight ahead, about a hundred yards away. That was the target.

The shot startled all the birds round about. The monkey fell to the ground like a stone.

'Well, if you can hit the target with that great thing, I can't wait to see what you'll do with a really good rifle!' exclaimed the Captain, his eyes still fixed on the place where the monkey had been.

Above the trees, the birds frightened by the shot were still wheeling around looking for somewhere else to perch. Any clear patches of sky were growing ever fewer, and clouds were covering the sun. A heavy rain shower was imminent. It was best not to prolong matters.

'The new soldier deserves a prize, Cocó,' said the Captain, addressing the man at the far end of the line of white officers.

Cocó was a robust, broad-shouldered fellow. He took a few long strides and planted himself in front of Chrysostome.

'I'm Lieutenant Richard Van Thiegel, but everyone calls me Cocó,' he said, handing him a rifle. Compared with the musket, it seemed positively delicate. 'For you, légionnaire,' he added. He had belonged to the French Foreign Legion before enlisting in the Force Publique, and, to use a common metaphor, his heart was still there. As far as he was concerned, all his comrades were legionnaires.

Chrysostome continued to frown, as if he found the jokes and the ceremony disagreeable. This wasn't because he was annoyed, however, but because he was studying every detail of the weapon he had been given. It was a real marvel. A twelve- shot, breech-loading Albini-Braendlin. When he held it in the firing position, the butt fitted snugly into his shoulder.

'There are twelve cartridges inside. You can check, if you like,' said Van Thiegel.

Chrysostome removed the chamber and counted the cartridges one by one.

'There are only eleven,' he said, replacing the chamber. The sounds the rifle made were equally marvellous. Clean and precise.

Lalande Biran was watching him intently. This new arrival was clearly no ordinary soldier. He had never known any other 'novice' at a welcome ceremony to check the number of cartridges. Even veterans, who had served in other armies, would never dare to doubt a superior officer's word.

'When are you going to give us a smile?' asked Van Thiegel reproachfully, handing him the missing cartridge. Chrysostome's expression remained unchanged as he weighed the cartridge in his hand as though trying to determine its calibre.

Lalande Biran noticed a strip of blue ribbon round the soldier's neck.

'What's that?' he asked.

'A medal of Our Lady, sir,' replied Chrysostome, raising his eyes for a moment to glance at the Captain, before turning his attention back to the rifle and the cartridges.

'Are you from a village in the provinces?' asked the Captain. He didn't run his words together like Donatien, but pronounced them precisely, modulating his voice: 'Vous venez d'une ville de province?'

'I was born in the village of Britancourt, sir,' replied Chrysostome. He had a country accent.

'We would be much better Catholics if we had been born in Britancourt, Cocó,' Lalande Biran said to Van Thiegel. He was from Brussels and the Lieutenant from Antwerp.

Chrysostome pulled back the bolt and removed the chamber. He inserted the twelfth cartridge, closed the chamber, put the rifle to his shoulder, and pointed at a monkey about two hundred yards away, then at the leaf of a tree further off, then he lowered the rifle and asked: 'How far can the bullet travel?'

'About three thousand yards or more,' said Van Thiegel.

On the horizon, the sky had turned black and was falling like a curtain over the jungle; closer to, the rounded clouds resembled the scattered beads of a necklace. Over Yangambi, the sky was still blue, but it was only a matter of time. Another quarter of an hour and it would start to rain.

'Come on, Cocó, let's go and have a drink. I don't want to get wet,' said Lalande Biran.

The Lieutenant gestured to the chief of the black NCOs, who, in turn, gestured to an askari. The blue flag of the Force Publique with its single yellow star was immediately lowered. The welcome ceremony was over.

Beyond the firing range lay an untidy collection of huts, cabins, chicken runs, vegetable patches and grain stores; and suddenly, noisy groups of askaris and black NCOs set off in that direction, laughing and joking, as if the lowering of the flag had lifted their hearts, prompting them to go and join their wives and children. In many of the huts, fires had been lit and meat and fish were being cooked. The smoke from those fires and, above all, from the bonfires lit to keep off the insects bothering the cattle, drifted over the whole area and added to the festive atmosphere.

In the European zone, however, such good cheer was notable by its absence. The white officers who had walked over to the Place du Grand Palmier — seventeen of them, not counting the new arrival, Chrysostome — looked as serious and tongue-tied as him, and as though they had nothing better to do than wait for the rain to start.

Opposite Government House, African servants were moving about among the different groups, serving glasses of Veuve Clicquot champagne. The officers accepted them carelessly and, just as carelessly, raised them to their lips, not even bothering to say 'Good health'. It was clear that the military humour Lalande Biran had attempted to inject into the welcome ceremony had cheered no one. This was due entirely to Chrysostome's refusal to collaborate.

Richardson was the third highest-ranking officer and, at over sixty, the oldest member of the Yangambi garrison. Seated in a rocking chair at the door of Government House, he reminded Lalande Biran and Van Thiegel of the various welcome ceremonies he had attended throughout his long career. There had been many amusing incidents; for example, it still made him laugh to think of young Lopes' antics with the musket before he eventually fired it. But no two people were alike, and some had no sense of humour at all.

'Today's ceremony was the most boring ever. This Chrysostome fellow is as miserable as a mandrill,' he declared.

The man in question was approaching, holding his rifle in one hand and his canvas bag in the other. Everyone fell silent. Lieutenant Van Thiegel strode over to him.

'Biran,' he reported, after a brief exchange with Chrysostome, 'our new colleague wishes to retire to his hut to rest. I don't know whether I should allow him to do so or not. Traditionally, he should come down to the club and buy a round of drinks for all the officers.'

'Tell me, Chrysostome, are you in the habit of drinking?' asked the Captain.

Chrysostome replied in the negative.

'And what about gambling, do you like that?'

Chrysostome again said 'No'.

Lalande Biran turned to his two colleagues:

'I thought as much, gentlemen. Our new comrade is something of a rara avis.'

Van Thiegel grabbed Chrysostome's arm.

'Did you understand what the Captain said? He means that you're a rare bird and that we're going to have to do all your drinking for you.'

Richardson laughed loudly, but no one else joined in. Lalande Biran pointed to Chrysostome's rifle.

'Even if it gets wet, it will still fire, you know. It's not like a musket.'

'Yes, Captain.'

As the name of the square would suggest, an enormous palm tree stood in the centre of the Place du Grand Palmier, and scattered around it were a few white benches that would not have looked out of place in a Paris park. Donatien, Lopes and a few other young officers were standing chatting near one of them.

'Ask Donatien to show you to your hut,' said Lalande Biran, looking at Chrysostome with his gold-flecked blue eyes — d' or et d'azur. 'If you want to stay there, do so, but tomorrow morning I want to see you in the jungle. We have work to do in the rubber plantation. Is that clear, Chrysostome? Reveille is at seven.'

This time Chrysostome replied vehemently: 'Yes, Captain!'

Lalande Biran remained silent until Chrysostome and Donatien had left the square. Then he took a glass of Veuve Clicquot from a tray proffered by a servant and set out his views on the new arrival to Van Thiegel and Richardson.

'He'll be a good soldier, possibly an excellent one. You saw what he did with the musket. He shot a monkey from a hundred yards off. He'll make a good guard for the rubber- tappers.'

It started to rain, and the three men went into Government House to finish their drinks in the vestibule.


Excerpted from Seven Houses in France by Bernardo Atxaga, Margaret Jull Costa. Copyright © 2009 Bernardo Atxaga. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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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