Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The lion appeared completely oblivious - Atxaga, Baudelaire, Sebald - looking for patterns

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.


  1. Sebald was pretty down on Antwerp in Austerlitz as well.

    Because Atxaga is so concerned with Basque history and identity, I always wonder what "angle" off of that has drawn him to a topic. Is there something about the blended (or nested) populations and cultures in Belgium? French, Flemish, "Belgian"? The tension and uncertainty there is not a million miles away from a Spanish / Basque dynamic.

    In which case the symbolic or illustrative thread you draw out here makes a little more sense to me (not of course having read the book).

  2. That's a great question, related to what Lisa at ANZLitLovers writes about.

    Again, then, I am missing the referents - as is every reviewer in English, I suspect!

    To follow this path more attention should be paid to the origin of each officer - for example, what difference does it make that the sharpshooting cold fish is from Britancourt, wherever that is, and not some other part of Belgium?

    Are there any references to Flemish in the novel? The officers do all of their business in French. Biran, the commander, is clearly aligned with France - thus the Baudelaire and the Veuve Clicquot and his wife's houses and his yearning for Paris. Belgium, for him, is a place to escape.

    Come to think of it, the only scene with Leopold II takes place in France, too, on the Côte d'Azur.

    A plausible idea, at least.

  3. This is good: keep digging and proposing connections!

    Is the Leopold II scene anything like the Nicholas I scene in Hadji Murad?

    That final line you quote seems like the blatant statement of a pretty threadbare theme. I hope I'm wrong about that.

  4. I did not remember that Tolstoy scene. It is not much like this one. Except for the bit with the woman. And then that other part. Yes, the scenes are something like each other.

    You find the sudden appearance of a deaf, old, dying King Leo a little thumping? Just a little bit? It is possible that the novel is simply a well-made failure.