What is Bernardo Atxaga up to in his Belgian Congo novel Seven Houses in France? What patterns should an attentive reader see?
Friendly, thoughtful readers supplied some good ideas which I will ignore in favor of Atxaga’s Baudelaire theme.
Lalande Biran, the commanding officer, is a published poet. Specifically, he is a disciple of Charles Baudelaire, who he occasionally quotes and even met:
Sleep overwhelmed him as he was searching for the next line of the poem, and the word that had been in his mind shortly before – syphilis – stirred in his head, presenting him with the image of the Master as he had seen him in Paris once when he was very young and the Master was ill and ugly and contorted with pain. (46)
Biran’s section of the novel climaxes with two triumphs, an enormous killing in the corrupt mahogany and ivory trade, and the composition of a poem. The novel is typically written in a realistic mode, so this passage is unusual:
The two numbers [“the price of mahogany and ivory: 330 and 370”] began to change shape in his mind… First, he saw them floating in the air and then, immediately, they were transformed into birds flying over a vast green meadow… Except they weren’t birds now, but two bats. ‘Yes, bats,’ said the voice. (101, ellipses mine)
The numbers and the dream-bats together form the poem, “those two numbers – 330, 370 – as the title, but without telling anyone why” and the bats in the text: “But, friends, Sisyphus cannot stop. If he does, he will be assailed by ravenous bats” (103).
Bats, you don’t say:
When earth becomes a trickling dungeon where
Trust like a bat keeps lunging through the air,
Beating tentative wings along the walls
And bumping it head against the rotten beams (from “Spleen (IV)” tr. Richard Howard)
And take a look at “Spleen (III)”: “I’m like the king of a rainy country, rich \ but helpless…” Even before this point in the novel I began to wonder if there could be a series of encoded Baudelaire references that I was missing because I do not know his poems well enough.
Maybe this is nothing more than a simple reminder that culture is no defense against barbarism, that the elegant poet can be a monster, too. Baudelaire himself merely played at monstrousness. Or maybe Biran is just a derivative poet.
Two more ironies come with Baudelaire. One is that Biran is old-fashioned. It’s 1903! Get up to speed, ya dinosaur. The other is that Baudelaire, as we all know, loathed Belgium. “Don't ever believe what people say about the good nature of the Belgians” and on and on in that vein. Baudelaire’s letters are something else.
W. G. Sebald writes in the same spirit in The Rings of Saturn:
And indeed, to this day one sees in Belgium a distinctive ugliness, dating from the time when the Congo colony was exploited without restraint and manifested in the macabre atmosphere of certain salons and the strikingly stunted growth of the population, such as one rarely comes across elsewhere. At all events, I well recall that on my first visit to Brussels in December 1964 I encountered more hunchbacks and lunatics than normally in a whole year. (122-3)
But “the very definition of Belgian ugliness, in my eyes, has been the Lion Monument and the so-called historical memorial site of the Battle of Waterloo.” The lion takes me back to Atxaga, to the final lines of the novel:
The lion did not move a muscle. It remained lying down, watching the men unload the cargo.
Near the beach, a monkey screamed. The lion appeared completely oblivious. It seemed to be deaf. (250)
Symbolism has intruded. Forget Baudelaire – work backwards from the end.
The translation of Seven Houses in France is by my hero Margaret Jull Costa from Atxaga’s Spanish, which was itself translated from Atxaga’s original Basque.