It seems impossible to write about Africa’s horrific colonial past without another return to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899)–especially when the venue is the Congo, which Belgium’s King Leopold II considered his private money machine. The recent invention of the bicycle and the need for rubber for bicycle tires assured Leopold’s vile profits, as Conrad and a host of subsequent writers have carefully documented. Thus, Basque writer Bernardo Atxaga may appear to be a strange bedfellow to add to the list. In Seven Houses in France, the original slant that Atxaga brings quickly clears up any confusion, confirming the old adage (new wine in old bottles) that all it takes is a writer with a fertile imagination.
At a Belgium garrison, named Yangambi, on the Congo River, Captain Philippe Marie Lalande Biran (who considers himself a major poet), presides over a motley group of flunkies collecting rubber which is sent on to Belgium. Captain Biran has been stationed in Yangambi for six years. He has earned enormous profits for himself by collecting and shipping ivory and mahogany back to the continent, where his wife takes the money and each year invests in another house in France. All of this is done on the sly. The plan is for Biran to hold out for one additional year so a seventh house can be purchased, a magnificent property that will cement his wife’s life in Parisian social circles.
Thus, to the rape of the Congolese, i.e., the violent tactics employed the keep thousands of workers collecting rubber for King Leopold, Atxaga adds the rape and destruction of the environment. Elephants must be slaughtered for ivory; trees must be cut down for the precious wood; additional men conscripted into the dirty work of destroying the lush environment. Lalande Biran is annoyed by his wife’s greed that keeps him wedded to a hostile territory that is slowly wearing him down. He wonders what will happen to his health by the time he can finally return to Paris and, more importantly, to the life of a poet.
“Seven years beneath that deserted sky, seven years listening to the screams of the mandrills and the chimpanzees. Her demand for more would mean another hunting party, perhaps not as grueling as the one he had just returned from, but it would certainly not be without its problems. Hunting parties were risky whether in the dry or the rainy season, and there were
always unforeseen incidents. He could not help thinking, too, that he wasn’t getting any younger, that he was not the man he was, and that three weeks in the jungle left him utterly drained. His body was covered in bites and scratches, and although they hadn’t encountered any tse-tse flies or red ants, he couldn’t be sure he had avoided catching one of the infinite diseases lurking in the jungle.”
So obsessed is Lalande Biran with catching diseases that each week he has his second in command, the debauched van Thiegel, enter the bush and return with a young virgin for Biran’s weekly sexual release. Enter into this charged atmosphere (illicit profits from contraband goods, sexual exploitation of young women, intense rivalry among the expatriates at the Yangambi camp) a total innocent: Chrysostome Liège, a brilliant marksman sent to assist Captain Biran in the management of the workers collecting the rubber.
It doesn’t take long for the other men at the camp to become suspicious of Chrysostome, whose skills as a marksman leave all the others standing in the dust. These lesser functionaries (racked with syphilis) are all scrambling to take over Captain Biran’s job at the post once his seventh and final year has ended,
once he has purchased the seventh house for his wife back in France. Chrysostome is quickly denigrated as a “poofter,” since he doesn’t exploit the local women. When he was much younger, he had observed the horrifying consequences of syphilis. Thus, he remains celibate, virginal.
By the end of Seven Houses in France, it’s accurate to say that things have pretty much fallen apart. The violence inflicted by the expatriate community in Yangambi backfires against its own members. Thus, it can be argued that in this most recent (and highly original) updating of Heart of Darkness, the Europeans finally get what they deserve. But the terrible damage that the Europeans have already inflicted on the people and the environment in Congo cannot be rectified. Once the colonizers depart (and return, in most instances, to their comfortable houses at home), who’s left to pick up the pieces?
Margaret Jull Costa’s skilled translation (from the Spanish) once again demonstrates her own special gifts.
Bernardo Atxaga: Seven Houses in France
Trans, by Margaret Jull Costa
Graywolf Press, 256 pp., $14.00
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.