Seven Houses in France

Written by Bernard Atxaga Margaret Jull Costa (trans.)
Review by Jeanne Mackin

The Belgian occupation of the Congo was one of the bloodiest, cruelest events in modern history, a fact reflected in the title of this cryptic and powerful novel about colonialism. Captain Biran, commander of a post on the banks of the Congo River in 1903, has already bought six houses in France: one more, in the most expensive city in France, will complete his wife’s ambitions. How those homes are purchased provides the heart of this novel: not just with proceeds from the rubber industry and its dependent slavery, but with additional corruption and graft aside from the profits of the formal military occupation.

All is proceeding well, at least by Biran’s viewpoint, until newcomer Chrysostome Liege arrives. A superior marksman (important for dealing with the runaway slaves), Liege is a mystery to his peers: he doesn’t drink to oblivion, rape or forage for loot. The reader wants to like Liege – someone has to be humane and likeable, right? That he is named “Golden mouthed” (as in St. John Chrysostom) is promising, but ultimately a blind lead. Liege is not much more moral than his cohorts, just less noisy.

The events of the novel are constructed around the arrival and installation of a statue of the Virgin Mary, an event that becomes as anti-climactic as the promise of Liege’s name, but also contrasts frighteningly with the violence against woman in this novel.

Atxaga, a prizewinning novelist whose work has been translated into 22 languages, is a formidable writer. This novel gives us historical fiction that provides not just events but cause and effect. Landscape, culture and life itself become part of a monstrous machine that destroys much more than it provides, including the humanity of the participants. This is as important a piece of political writing as I have ever read.