During the height of the Belle Epoque, while comfortably ensconced in his palace in Brussels, King Leopold II of Belgium perpetrated a series of shadowy maneuvers that succeeded in making him the sole owner and master of an area almost 10,000 miles away: the Congo river, the land surrounding, and the people who lived there. Through Leopold never personally set foot in Africa, his merchants and gendarmes stripped the land of ivory, mahogany, and rubber; kidnapped, mutilated, and lynched local populations; and left about ten million dead over the span of twenty years.
This is the landscape of Basque writer Bernardo Atxaga's black comedy Seven Houses in France. The major characters are disgruntled officers in Belgium's Force Publique who casually brutalize locals while dreaming of riches—for example, the preposterously extravagant seven houses that the station chief's wife longs to purchase—that supposedly await them upon their return to civilization. Because the story is told from the point of view of these European officers (a major African character does not appear until more than halfway through the book), we read very little about the lives and suffering of the Congolese. Instead, we get quite a lot about the routine workings of a remote outpost, and the petty squabbles and misunderstandings of the Europeans. One soldier frets about how many bullets he's been issued, another scribbles verses on the glory of African conquest in what he fancies is the style of Baudelaire. Yet another drinks and dreams of the adultery he will commit with his commanding officer's wife.
The overwhelming mood of these restive daydreamers is one of tedium, with the novel's laconic tone serving to disguise its underlying horror. At one point, it is mentioned, off-handedly, that runaway slaves are dealt with by tracking them down and chopping off their hands. If you miss this, you'll probably also miss the macabre moment that comes some pages later, when a group of Publique officials move African rubber workers to a hidden forest enclosure in advance of a visit from a friendly newspaper photographer:
This wasn't a particularly dangerous mission, but given that the enclosure was located in a somewhat inaccessible part of the jungle, the whole thing took all day. The outward journey lasted eight hours because of the sheer difficulty of moving such a large group of men and because one of them attempted to escape, a problem Van Thiegel managed to resolve satisfactorily.
"Satisfactorily," in this case, means two more hands on the pile.
Anyone wondering if Atxaga's novel is overblown need only consult Adam Hochschild's excellent nonfiction account, King Leopold's Ghost, which offers ample evidence of how the Force Publique desensitized its European participants. As one Publique officer quoted by Hochschild writes after witnessing his hundredth whipping, "I could now walk into a fire as if to a wedding." Similarly, in the Congo of Seven Houses, problems like finding fresh virgins for a military officer to deflower are presented not as tragedy but as farce:
His imagination gave a small leap and he began to savour in advance the image of the young girl [his lackey] Donatien would bring to him that day. He imagined her full lips, strong shoulders, firm breasts and thighs and, lastly, the centre of her body. Soon, that girl, or another very like her, would be his. It was wonderful to be able to allow himself such a pleasure. It was wonderful, above all, because for that young woman, he would be the first man.
The novel proceeds like this for a long stretch, revealing shockingly little empathy for the colonized victims. But this gradually changes: Towards the end, African voices emerge, and one is the agent of its climax. Angry at the rape and murder of one of the village girls, a servant named Livo gets his hands on some poisonous snakes and attempts to take revenge.
Since the book's release, several critics have mentioned that other Congo novel, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but have seemed unsure of what sort of comparison to make. One obvious difference is that of tone. Conrad's hero, Marlow, is mindful and observant, recounting his time on the river in the mode of an ancient mariner. Conrad was taken to task in the 1970s by Chinua Achebe, who disdained Conrad's "racist" description of the Congo as a primordially evil landscape with the potential to infect its invaders with unreason, where "man's vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality." Can the same be said of the soldiers in Seven Houses in France?
Yes and no. Yes, in that confronted with the possibility of a world where they have the guns and make the rules, the Europeans do become bestial, and Africa unwittingly debauches them. No, in that their "vaunted intelligence and refinement" is not lost, because it was never there in the first place. The Europeans' greed made them savage visitors from the start. Also, unlike in Heart of Darkness, there are, eventually, real African characters in Seven Houses in France, and not just a servant showing up to say "Mistah Kurtz—he dead." Livo becomes a sort of comic hero, wrapping up the novel with his small and half-botched revenge. So it is the Europeans who convert the natives to savagery, an exchange which, as the author well knows, continued long into the years that followed. Atxaga's novel is historical, but the ongoing devastation of the Congo and the banal dreams of its exploiters are anything but history.
John Cotter is executive editor at Open Letters Monthly. His novel Under the Small Lights is available from Miami University Press and his short fiction will be featured in the next issues of New Genre and Puerto Del Sol.