Bernardo Atxaga has written the perfect book for deep winter reading. His latest novel, Seven Houses in France, takes you to the steamy Congo in the year 1903. Here you will join a cast of characters belonging to the Force Publique (a sort of military gendarmes) and ruled by King Leopold II of Belgium. The King apparently thought this spot in the Congo was his for the taking and dispatched his men to develop the area as well as take advantage of its rubber, mahogany, and ivory. Atxaga’s novel chronicles a collection of 17 white officers, 20 black non-commissioned, and a crew of 150 “askaris” (volunteer black soldiers). This conglomeration of characters is as diverse and as exotic as in any Shakespeare play. Their interactions are the meat of this novel.
The book opens with the arrival in the Congo of Chrysostome Liege, who provides the momentum for the plot that follows. Chrysostome quickly proves himself to be an excellent marksman and explorer. But sometimes those who are overly skilled in certain areas are sadly lacking in others. Chrysostome fails to be one of the boys as he doesn’t seem to care much about the local pastimes, gambling and womanizing. His aloof nature gives rise to the rumor that he is gay, or as his cohorts put it, a “poofter.”
The Force Publique in 1903 was not a very PC clan. Live mandrills were tied to trees for target practice, native virgin girls were kidnapped from the jungle for the sole use of the white officers, and when a photographer comes to document the dedication of a Virgin Mary statue, the “less attractive” natives are detained in a camp so they won’t get in the way. (And don’t forget the homophobia.)
Enter Captain Lalande Biran, veteran of the Congo, poet, and painter, as well as enabler of his wife’s house-buying habit back in France (she is currently stalking her seventh purchase, thus the book’s title). There is also Donatien, the Captain’s orderly, who has the ability to see the colors of everyone’s aura, and the dubious Van Thiegel, who suffers either from too much time in the sun or the later stages of syphilis. Atxaga weaves the myriad lives together in a masterful way. His writing has hints of the humor of Graham Greene and sometimes Waugh, along with the atmosphere of a Joseph Conrad novel. The compelling storytelling layers a slow-motion train wreck that begins to build as Chrysostome is put to the test by his cohorts to determine his true relationship to the fairer sex. It is discovered in time that he is not impervious to women when an orderly reveals a romantic, though apparently platonic, relationship between Chrysostome and a light-skinned native girl to whom he has given the gift of emerald earrings.
Van Thiegel’s hallucinatory obsessions increase, fueled in part by too much sun, palm wine, and corkscrew bacteria in his brain. He embarks on a mission to investigate the light-skinned beauty, and when she turns up dead but without the earrings, the guano hits the fan.
Atxaga paces his story in such a way that you can’t help but wonder what his characters will do next. There are cinematic moments that I could imagine being filmed by Herzog or Coppola. When the story was all said and done, I was sad to leave this word behind and return to my world of winter. As flawed as some of the characters were, I was drawn to them, perhaps because of their humanity. I suggest you visit Seven Houses in France if you are in need of a gratifying vacation.