Monday, January 28, 2013

The climate of the Congo triggered a kind of dementia - I am puzzled by Bernardo Atxaga's novel about the Belgian Congo

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.


  1. Nope, none here. I was fairly disappointed with this one - not sure that there was anything there really...

    My view on the matter:

  2. Having said that, our Shadow Panel did get a mention on his web-site (in Basque) last year, so he's not all bad :)

  3. Are you asking: Was Atxaga being indirect? I don't have the answer. But the situation you painted reminds me of Chekhov going all the way to a forsaken prison island (Sakhalin) to write something committed. Is Atxaga here being intentionally "uncommitted"?

    To add to the related texts, someone alerted me about this Dutch tome Congo: A History by David Van Reybrouck. It's supposed to come out in translation this year (or soon).

  4. Here's my review: I thought it was a post-colonial satire:

  5. So far so good. Rise, that is certainly one question. I am approaching the book from the perspective that the reader has - is supposed to have - some significant knowledge of the human rights history of the Belgian Congo, and is supposed to be wondering why the background never moves into the foreground.

    The alternative is just too bizarre.

    Lisa, I read your review but did not understand it. Satire of what? Post-colonial theory? You write that "there is always a sense that the colonisers will eventually get their just desserts." I did not find that in the novel at all. A few of the colonisers were killed in unusual circumstances, which is not the same thing.

    1. Not as fancy as satirising PC theory, just holding colonialism itself up to ridicule. Which of course has been done before, but not (as far as I know) by an author who is himself a citizen in a colony and therefore has a different perspective to either a colonial observer, or someone writing from a post-colonial perspective after the colonisers have departed. (You don't have to accept that the Basque peoples are being colonised by Spain, to acknowledge that some Basques think they are.)

  6. A friend of mine read this a really liked it.

    The "mystery" that you present is intriguing. As someone who tries to dig for meaning I may enjoy the challeange of reading this.

    I wonder what Atxaga has about the book. I know that some authors are tight lipped about this stuff. However If he has opened up about the narrative it may be enlightneing.

    I have had King Leopold’s Ghost on my bookshelf for several years and I really need to get to that.

  7. Maybe there is no mystery and the book is just a trifle. A lot of work for so little consequence, then, because the details and the imaginative re-creation of the setting are convincing and consistent with what I have read elsewhere.

    Or there is a conceptual frame for which I am missing the referents, something like what Lisa saw, something about Basque culture or nationalism.

    King Leopold's Ghost is a masterpiece, although I do not doubt that there are other books on the subject of similar quality. Hochschild's book is as much about the response to the atrocities in the Congo, like a book about U.S. slavery that spends a lot of its time with abolitionists.

  8. Perhaps the problem is that "the nightmare world that was the Belgian Congo" is not what the novel is about; maybe the Congo is simply where the novel is set, and the novel is about the officer skimming profits to fund his mistress' seventh house. That this pettiness takes place against the backdrop of horrific events might be the point, maybe, that our own small evils are more important to us than the greater evils in whose shadow we live. Or something. I haven't read the novel. But I get the impression you want Atxaga to take some sort of moral position regarding King Leopold's private African fiefdom, but Atxaga refuses to do so because how the author feels about the Belgian Congo is beside the point. I guess. Sometimes a background is just a background.

    I am of course reacting this way because last year I wrote a book set partially in present-day Democratic Republic of Congo. Horrific things go on in the background, but the book is not about the DRC; it's about the foreigners (UN troops and NGO aid workers) who come to the DRC.

  9. Maybe. Not quite, though.

    Atxaga does take a moral position on Leopold et. al., a conventional one. I think that is clear enough.

    The ethical problem is using the larger tragedy or crime to lend a false moral weight to an otherwise ordinary story.

    If the background is just the background the novel is just a second-rate thriller in an unusual setting.

    So, giving Atxaga credit, it must be about something else.

    The ethics of the "outsider" novel is a little different. These officers are the insiders, the criminals, the tyrants.

  10. Obabakoak was a post-modern novel, it's true, but a post-modern novel whose primary interest was in the nature of pure story-telling. Not sure if that is helpful.

    I should read this book; I've read a lot about the Congo, and I think perhaps this would annoy the hell out of me.

  11. I think you have read a lot more about the Congo than I have - it is quite likely this novel would annoy you.

    I was on the alert for a storytelling / narratology angle, but heck if I see it. The style and structure is that of a well-made realistic "international" novel of our time.

  12. Lisa, you anticipate my first objection. Basque Country was colonized by Rome!

    Do you think there is some sort of allegorical correspondence - Spain is Belgium, the Basques are the Congolese? I hope not. The ethical problem becomes much worse. Claiming other people's suffering as my own is disastrous.

    Perhaps it would help if I could see how Atxaga's "different perspective" is actually different.