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
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.
Arts & Ents blogs
There is a good many moments in the second episode of this psychological thriller that deserve refle...
The opening titles squeal ‘Never Can Say Goodbye…’. Oh Lord how I wish I could heave this series off...
Even though there was a complete absence of our favourite odd couple Brienne and Jaime, we got anoth...
Coronation Street triumphs over EastEnders at British Soap Awards 2013
The Hangover III star Heather Graham: I'll miss playing a sexy stripper because my real life is pretty boring
Hollywood practices random acts of red-carpet kindness
Archaeologists uncover nearly 5,000 cave paintings in Burgos, Mexico
Cannes Film Festival 2013: And why exactly are vous here?
- 1 Exclusive: Woolwich attack suspect attended meetings of banned Islamist group - and were known by security services
- 2 'Sickening, deluded and unforgivable': Horrific attack brings terror to London’s streets
- 3 Grace Dent: I’m not sure how these people can avoid being called ‘bigots’. And the more ‘civilised’, the worse they are
- 4 Woolwich murder: They killed, then they performed - these men should be starved of our attention
- 5 Woolwich attack: The EDL will seek to exploit this evil crime for their own evil ends
BMF is the UK’s biggest and best loved outdoor fitness classes
Find out what The Independent's resident travel expert has to say about one of the most beautiful small cities in the world
Win anything from gadgets to five-star holidays on our competitions and offers page.