Harvill Secker, £16.99, 250pp. £14.44 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Seven Houses in France, By Bernardo Atxaga, trans. Margaret Jull Costa
Friday 16 December 2011
Until now, Bernardo Atxaga's novels and stories, from Obabakoak in 1989 to The Accordionist's Son in 2003, have all dealt with the contemporary history of the Basque Country: its emigration and conflicts. The best-known Basque writer, Atxaga has often expressed frustration at being typecast. Here, in his latest novel, he breaks radically with this subject-matter, though it was written in the Basque language, Euskera, Atxaga's native tongue spoken by no more than a million people. Seven houses in France is set in the Congo in 1903-1904. Atxaga takes it for granted that Belgian imperialism was criminally responsible for this Heart of Darkness. Against this background, his main interest is to explore the feelings and behaviour of the group of white officers confined in the Yangambi garrison.
The novel opens with the young Chrysostome arriving on the weekly river boat for his first posting. Quickly, the other officers find he is proudly religious and does not want to get drunk, play cards or rape local women. He doesn't laugh at the other officers' crude jokes. These murderers in uniform despise him, but fear him too. They cannot understand his purity and, even more relevant, he is the best shot any of them have ever seen, capable of downing a moving monkey at two hundred yards. The outsider Chrysostome will be the catalyst that changes everything.
The dangers surrounding the jungle outpost are real enough: the threat of armed attack, of rebellion by the enslaved black workers extracting rubber, of disease and of snakes, especially the black mambas that live among the fronds of palm trees. However, it is the white officers' dreams and weaknesses that threaten their stability more than military attacks or tropical hazards. The white men's burden is themselves. Envy, ambition and cruelty corrode their community.
In all of Atxaga's writing, there is a warm and lucid narrative voice that lulls readers into feeling that the story is comforting and simple. This tension between style and content has not changed here It is as harsh, disturbing and complicated a story as his novels on Basque themes. He has added a satirical, grotesque tone, which accentuates the contrast between the calm style and the horrors of the story.
Atxaga catches with great skill the feelings of several different characters, though they are all men, all unpleasant and all self-deceiving.
Translated from the Spanish (Atxaga and his wife, Asun, translated it from Euskera into Spanish) by the excellent Margaret Jull Costa, Seven Houses is an enjoyable, somewhat frightening novel by one of Europe's best novelists. Don't be put off by its non-Basque theme: Atxaga is still the master of a complex story, told with deceptive simplicity.
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