Shadow IFFP 2012 – Round-Up Number Fifteen

We’ve been in Europe for a while now on our Independent Foreign Fiction Prize magical mystery tour, so it’s time to head to more humid climes.  It’s off to the Congo we go, dropping in on some rather shady characters in the deep dark jungle, and taking a disapproving look at their colonial antics.  Machetes at the ready – we’re going off-road with this one…
*****
What’s it all about?

Bernardo Atxaga’s Seven Houses in France (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) transports the reader to the Congo in 1903, the height of the European conquest of Africa.  The small garrison town of Yangambi, manned by experienced, cynical officers (and a back-up of native soldiers), is awaiting the arrival of an addition to the ranks, a fresh young soldier from Europe.  We arrive in Yangambi with the new officer, the mysterious Chrysostome Liège, a silent young man who immediately rubs his new comrades up the wrong way…

You see, the hard-bitten residents of Yangambi like to blow off steam by drinking, hunting, swearing and grabbing local women to sleep with, and Chrysostome is unwilling to join the other officers in these less-than-noble pursuits.  The Captain of the garrison, frustrated poet Lalande Biran, accepts the new recruit, if only because of his formidable skill with a rifle.  Others, however, particularly Lieutenant Van Thiegel, are less impressed with Chrysostome, waiting only to discover a weakness before planning an attack on the innocent youngster.

Seven Houses in France is a critical look at the European colonial ‘adventures’ in Africa in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, and Atxaga doesn’t paint a very pretty picture of life far away from Western civilisation and scrutiny.  While the locals are not treated as badly as in other stories I’ve read, the behaviour of the soldiers is intolerable by modern standards.  The local men are used as slave labour, with an armed soldier ready to cut down anyone who attempts to slip away into the jungle, and the women are fair game to help the officers satisfy their sexual urges.  What happens in the jungle, stays in the jungle…

And why are they there at all?  The reality is that it is all about money, exploiting the riches found in the unknown African interior for the amusement of the wealthy of Europe.  Lalande and his crew hack down thousands of mahogany trees, destined to be turned into expensive furniture in stately homes.  They hunt and slaughter elephants and cheetahs to satisfy the demand for ivory and fur.  In this way, the soldiers hope to become rich too – the title of the book refers to the properties Lalande’s wife Christine hopes to attain from her husband’s stay in the Congo.

Such wealth comes at a price, however, and it is one most of the soldiers will pay.  Marooned far from home, with only a thin veneer of imported pomp separating them from the unknown terrors lurking across the river, few are able to avoid the slide into alcoholism and paranoia, falling prey to disease caught either from the ubiquitous mosquitoes or the women the officers share.  Comparisons with Heart of Darkness are, inevitably, unavoidable, and Atxaga’s men (especially Van Thiegel) appear just as crazed as the infamous Kurtz, the central character of Conrad’s tale.

In fact, it is (just about) possible to feel a little sympathy for some of the characters.  Lalande is perhaps not sympathetic by today’s standards, but he does try to keep his men in check.  There is also the sneaking suspicion that the seven houses his wife claims to desire are merely a pretext for keeping her husband imprisoned in the jungle, leaving her free to pursue her own affairs on the French Riviera.  In the end, it is very hard to see anyone leaving the jungle unscathed…

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
I went into this one fully expecting to say yes.  I came out of it thinking that it hadn’t lived up to expectations.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very interesting book, enjoyable in style (although probably not in content), but it just didn’t do it for me.  The tone seemed to be caught half-way between a Heart of Darkness-esque tension and a Boys’ Own cheery excitement, and I was never quite sure which was meant to dominate.

I was also a little confused by the treatment of Chrysostome, who may or may not have been the centre of the story.  For much of the novel, he is an enigma, seen from the outside, and the reader has no real access to his thoughts and history, such as we have for the other characters.  Suddenly, towards the end of the novel, the writer tells us all about him – and then lets him go off on his own moody way again…  The sudden info dump spoiled the effect of the mysterious outsider, the catalyst for the events which followed, and left me a little disappointed.

The rest of the Shadow Panel appear to disagree with my thoughts, rating it very highly.  However, it’s not one I’ll be supporting when we make our final decision…

Why didn’t it make the shortlist?
Apart from the ideas I discussed above, I have a sneaking suspicion that the topic of colonial-era Africa is not one which people particularly like to read about.  Heart of Darkness is a work which is frequently condemned, and many of the reviews and comments I’ve seen on Seven Houses in France have also been very negative.  The majority of this dislike is concentrated on the characters, particularly their horrific behaviour – and it’s extremely challenging to make a case against that!  It seems to me that novels about the Holocaust are much more likely to be praised than those set in European-controlled Africa – although perhaps this is because these books focus more on the oppressors than the oppressed.  Comments, as always, are welcome…

*****
That’s just about it for our journey.  There is one more stop, but (unfortunately) I haven’t quite been able to make it there yet.  Here’s hoping I get the chance to brush up on a minor European language before the winner is announced 😉

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7 thoughts on “Shadow IFFP 2012 – Round-Up Number Fifteen

  1. Yeah, good point about how the topic of colonialism might be received by many readers. I hadn't thought of that. Maybe it's a theme that's run its course?

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  2. I didn't like this book. I can see it is well written, but the characters were obnoxious. Your comparison with the Holocaust is an interesting one. I do tend to favour novels where we see things from the perspective of the opressed, but a novel from the other side can be even better, if done well. For example, I loved The Kindly Ones. That gave me an insight into how someone can end up executing 1000s of Jews. Seven Houses in France didn't give me any insight into the people. I question the point of the novel. In many ways it seemed to be glorifying their behaviour. I agree with your Boy's Own comment – it was that cheery excitement that irritated me. I felt as though it wasn't respectful.

    On a positive note: it is a good conversation starter!

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  3. This is the first review I've read of an Atxaga novel and comes just a day after I was perusing my local library's offerings of his work – which did not include this novel, so I'm surprised to see that the subject is Belgium's notoriously brutal colonization of the Congo (I've been eagerly awaiting English translation of David van Reybrouck's “non-fiction novel” Congo, hopefully forthcoming soon). Not sure when or if I'll get around to reading this, but I'm intrigued by almost anything Margaret Jull Costa chooses to translate (did she actually translate this from Basque?).

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  4. Lisa – I just think it's a theme many people think shouldn't be touched (possibly a PC thing…).

    Jackie – I liked it a bit more than you did, but I do wonder what exactly the point was. Lisa's review gave a lot of background, but if you're not overly interested in the history, I do wonder if there's a lot there…

    Seraillon – No, it's a translation of a translation. However, that translation into Spanish was by Atxaga himself…

    Gary – In the end, this didn't make my shortlist – which surprised me somewhat 😉

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  5. I loved this but not as much as his earlier books ,I saw the heart links too I do wonder if he was trying to re work it some how on some level maybe making more of a modern point on colonial powers and the aftermath in africa not sure but it is near top of this years IFFP for me ,all the best stu

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