Maybe someone can help me out with this novel. I had the idea that Basque writer Bernardo Atxaga was a tricky post-modernist, and I thought I knew how to read tricky post-modernists. So what am I missing in this book?
Seven Houses In France is Atxaga’s 2009 novel about the nightmare world that was the Belgian Congo. A new officer arrives at a distant outpost. He is openly religious, a superb shot, and avoids native women from an entirely justified fear of syphilis. The jealousy and resentment – other officers are lustful, irreligious, and mediocre shots, and also thoroughly corrupt, and at least one is a sociopath, although they are all violent racists – causes a series of plotty and unlikely events that eventually lead to, from a certain point of view, disaster.
From the perspective of the Congolese, every disruption of the Force Publique is a life-saver. Literally millions of lives would have been saved if the Belgian officers had concentrated on murdering each other rather than the Congolese.
The novel begins in 1903, when the vast territory of the Congo was a military work camp owned by King Leopold II of Belgium, operated by his army, devoted to harvesting rubber by means of slave labor enforced by violence: beating, torture, murder, and mass killings. The characteristic act of brutality was the severing and smoking of the right hand:
He proudly showed Sheppard some of the bodies the hands had come from. The smoking preserved the hands in the hot, moist climate, for it might be days or weeks before the chief could display them to the proper official and receive credit for his kills. (165)
That is not Atxaga but Adam Hochschild, from Chapter 10 of his history King Leopold’s Ghost (1998). The kind of institutionalized violence described by Hochschild is present throughout the novel, but always in the background, as an ordinary part of life and work.
Perhaps that is a clue to the purpose of Atxaga’s novel, this casual acceptance of violence and its destructive effects on the perpetrators. I wonder who Atxaga is trying to convince? King Leopold blamed the climate, not violence:
Leopold explained that he considered the work done by the blacks as a perfectly legitimate alternative to the payment of taxes, and if the white supervisory personnel at times went too far, as he did not deny, it was due to the fact that the climate of the Congo triggered a kind of dementia in the brains of some whites, which unfortunately it was not always possible to prevent in time, a fact which was regrettable but could hardly be changed. (128)
Or perhaps he did not, since I am now quoting Chapter V of The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald (1995), which is a novel, and therefore full of untruths, of which this may well be one.
I have some doubts about the ethics of Seven Houses of France. The foreground of Atxaga’s novel, the story he tells, is trivial compared to actual events. It is like a tale of adultery and revenge among Auschwitz guards. However well written and engaging, I would hope most readers spend their time watching the calendar, waiting for the Soviet Army to arrive. When Joseph Conrad visited the same territory, he wrote about how ego and ideology can cause horrific crimes. Atxaga appears to be writing about how horrific crimes incidentally cause much less horrific crimes.
Michael Orthofer, in his review of the novel, says the novel “does all feel a bit tame and simple -- there's an odd sort of nonchalance to the whole narrative.” That is just how I felt. But Atxaga is a tricky post-modernist, so Orthofer and I must be wrong. There must be something more to the book. Tomorrow I will look for clues.
I do not have a solution. If you know the answer, you can save me the trouble of speculating.