Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
In the book Bartleby & Co., Enrique Vila-Matas chronicles all the writers with what he calls “Bartleby syndrome”: authors who prefer not to; successful authors who have given up writing. In the book, Vila-Matas names fellow Spaniard Bernardo Atxaga—prizewinning author of The Accordionist’s Son and Obabakoak—as having early signs of Bartleby syndrome. Vila-Matas claims Atxaga has grown weary from the changed nature of the literary world, which has too many conferences, conventions, interviews, and book launches. Vila-Matas’s Atxaga believes literary prizes to be “a joke and a deceit.” As a reaction to change, Atxaga says he will write one more book, and then retire. He will be again called Joseba Irazu, and no longer go by the pseudonym Bernardo Atxaga. If Vila-Matas is correct—and of course, Vila-Matas is always playing games—Seven Houses in France could be Axtaga’s final book.
Seven Houses in France does not take place in France. In fact, it has almost nothing to do with France. Like notable literary predecessors, the book takes place in the Belgian Congo at the time of King Leopold—perhaps the most disgraceful period of Belgian history. This dark, disturbing territory has been covered before; the evil of the Belgian Congo was immortalized in Joseph Conrad’s masterpiece Heart of Darkness, and its cruelties recently revisited in Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Dream of the Celt. Though the rhino-hide whips known as chicotes are in abundance, Axtaga’s Congo does not feature Roger Casement, and does not explore evil. The setting is where the Congo and Lomani rivers meet in Yagambi, a garrison of the Force Publique that is described as “certainly a very long way from anywhere anyone had heard of.”
The highest-ranking officer in Yagambi is Captain Lalande Biran, a successful Belgian poet, though he has not published anything for the six years he has spent in Africa. Six years, six houses; this is the deal he’s made with his wife, who lives in Paris. She wants to buy a seventh house in France, and so Biran must stay in Africa an extra year, harvesting more ivory and mahogany to sell in European markets, so he can come home and retire a rich man. All officers of the Force Publique take native girls as concubines, but as syphilis has reached the Congo, Biran has his servant Donatien steal virgins from the native villages; if the village doesn’t give up a virgin for Biran, the village chief gets forty lashes from a chicote, and will also lose a finger, hand, or limb. In the character of Biran, Axtaga has created an ideal symbol of Europe during colonialism; sophisticated and savage, creative and cruel. Biran shifts around Yagambi dreaming up lines of poetry in his head, while some of the most atrocious crimes in history happen under his approval.
The most interesting character, however, is Chrysostome. Raised in the religious town of Britancourt, Crysostome wears a blue ribbon of the Virgin around his neck; the way he struts round with his top buttons undone to show off the ribbon, and that he seems to be completely uninterested in women, causes his rivals to call him a “poofter.” But because Crysostome is an incredible marksman, no one calls Crysostome a poofter to his face, not even the drunk and jealous Lieutenant Van Thiegal. Crysostome’s marksmanship quickly becomes legendary in the Congo, and he is given many privileges. This brings him attention, and many believe he is an enigma. Why doesn’t he drink, smoke, or sleep with native women like everyone else? People can’t figure it out, even though, as his name suggests, Crysostome is simply a good Christian who wants to remain pure, inside and out. If his hypocritical peers were half the Christians they claimed to be, then they wouldn’t be so confused.
Though Seven Houses in France isn’t as haunting as Heart of Darkness or as explicitly violent as Dream of the Celt, the book presents colonialism for what is was: outright robbery. Europeans carved up Africa and amassed as much ivory, rubber, teak, and mahogany as possible through the most immoral of means, all in order to secure a wealthy retirement. The age of colonialism is long gone, and international companies can no longer force natives into slave labor with the threat of the whip, machete, and rifle. Instead, international companies now rob poor nations of oil, water, and other natural resources with the threat of the dollar. Is this form of neo-imperialism, perhaps, what Bernardo Axtaga is really writing about?
Either way, Seven Houses in France is a beautiful book, and Axtaga once again proves himself to be a beautiful writer:
“It was evening, and the palm trees lining the road that led down to the river were like drawings made in India ink; the sky was a sheet of greenish glass, the river Congo was the pressed skin of a snake, and the Lomani, a silver rope.”
Let’s hope Vila-Matas is wrong, and Axtaga continues to write.
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa
Graywolf, September 2012