Seven Houses in France

Bernardo Atxaga

Seven Houses in France

About the Book

The year is 1903, and the garrison of Yangambi on the banks of the River Congo is under the command of Captain Lalande Biran. The captain is also a poet whose ambition is to amass a fortune and return to the literary cafés of Paris. His glamorous wife Christine has a further ambition: to own seven houses in France, a house for every year he has been abroad.

At Lalande Biran’s side are the ex-legionnaire van Thiegel, a brutal womaniser, and the servile, treacherous Donatien, who dreams of running a brothel. The officers spend their days guarding enslaved rubber-tappers and kidnapping young girls, and at their hands the jungle is transformed into a wild circus of human ambition and absurdity. But everything changes with the arrival of a new officer and brilliant marksman: the enigmatic Chrysostome Liège.

An outstanding new novel from the critically acclaimed and prizewinning author Bernardo Atxaga, Seven Houses in France is a blackly comic tale which reveals the darkest sides of human desire.

About the Author

Bernardo Atxaga was born in Gipuzkoa in Spain in 1951 and lives in the Basque Country, writing in Basque and Spanish. He is a prizewinning novelist and poet, whose books, including Obabakoak and The Accordionist’s Son, have won critical acclaim in Spain and abroad. His works have been translated into twenty-five languages.

I

CHRYSOSTOME LIÈGE SIGNED a contract to serve in King Léopold’s Force Publique at the beginning of 1903 and reached his posting in the Congo in August of the same year, having travelled by packet-boat from Antwerp to Matadi, by train as far as Léopoldville, and then, finally, on a small steamship, the Princesse Clémentine, to the garrison of Yangambi. It was not exactly the last outpost of civilisation because, as they said in the Force Publique, that honour belonged to Kisangani, some one hundred and twenty miles further upstream, but it was certainly a very long way from anywhere anyone had heard of.

The Princesse Clémentine docked at a wooden platform on the beach that served as a jetty. Chrysostome was met by a soldier, who advanced very slowly towards him. He was a young man and, at about six foot five, almost a head taller than him.

‘Chrysostome Liège?’ he asked.

The new arrival replied tersely: ‘Yes.’

‘I’m Donatien, Captain Lalande Biran’s orderly,’ said the officer. Then he pointed to the half-empty canvas bag Chrysostome was carrying and asked in a more relaxed tone: ‘Is that all your luggage?’

Chrysostome replied equally tersely, this time in the negative.

Together they walked back towards the village, and Donatien gave him a brief rundown on the garrison. In Yangambi there was a total of seventeen white officers, twenty black non-commissioned officers, and one hundred and fifty askaris — volunteer black soldiers — all of whom were under the command of Captain Lalande Biran, a highly cultivated man, well known in Belgium as a poet, an excellent soldier, and the most gifted of all the officers who had passed through Yangambi.

‘The Captain likes things done properly,’ said Donatien. ‘That’s why he’s prepared a reception committee for you on the firing range. Don’t worry, Chrysostome, you’ll soon feel at home in Yangambi, and the days will fly by.’

Donatien spoke very quickly, in bursts, running his words together. He said ‘tutrouveratrebienci’ when he should have said ‘tu te trouveras très bien ici’. Sometimes, his Adam’s apple moved up and down as if his salivary glands were working overtime and producing too much saliva for him to swallow.

‘It’s a shame they didn’t build the village a bit closer to the river, though!’ he said when they had gone some two hundred yards. ‘Not the Captain’s idea, of course. That was decided by the first officers who came to the region. The Captain has only been here for five years, same as me. I’ve been his orderly from the start. He really values me. He wouldn’t want anyone else.’

They walked up the slope, stepping on the planks laid across the path to keep them from muddying their boots. When they reached the top of the hill, Donatien paused to get his breath back, and Chrysostome, like an explorer trying to orient himself, shaded his eyes with one hand and gazed around him. Ahead lay the first huts and a few European-style houses, all of which were surrounded by a palisade; lush palm trees grew on either side, and beyond was the imposing sight of the River Congo and a seemingly endless expanse of jungle.

The Congo was a powerful river. It cut straight through the jungle, although the vegetation, as if it continued to grow beneath the water, sprouted up again in the middle of the river in the form of small islands thick with trees and undergrowth. The Princesse Clémentine, the steamship that had brought Chrysostome, was still moored at the jetty. Two men were unloading the luggage and another two were carrying it to a building situated on the beach itself.

‘That’s the Club Royal, the officers’ mess,’ said Donatien. ‘It is, in my opinion, the best place in Yangambi. I’m in charge of the storeroom there. My biggest worry are the mice. It’s the same in every storeroom in the Congo, but they don’t get their way in Yangambi. I finish them off before they can so much as take one bite of the sugar or the biscuits.’

Chrysostome appeared to have heard none of this and was still gazing down on the jungle. Several columns of smoke rose up here and there among the trees. The inhabitants of the villages or mugini were doubtless preparing their meal.

‘How many savages live there?’ he asked.

‘Oh, thousands and thousands of them, all belonging to different tribes. But they don’t often attack. Not, at least, at the moment,’ answered Donatien.

‘Do all those trees produce rubber?’ asked Chrysostome.

‘Not all of them, but many do. Around the Lomami, though, it’s more mahogany than rubber.’

He pointed to the right. About half a mile away, you could see the line of another river — the Lomami. Its waters joined those of the Congo, slowing the latter’s flow and creating the pool that served as a harbour opposite the beach.

‘The rebels control the whole of this part of the Lomami. But, like I say, lately, they’ve been pretty quiet. Of course, as soon as they show any signs of activity, Lieutenant Van Thiegel is quick to put them down. He’s not as intelligent as Captain Lalande Biran, but he’s completely fearless. They say that even the lions shit themselves when they see him.’

Donatien set off again, laughing loudly to show that his words had been intended as a joke. His remark drew no response from Chrysostome, however, and so as they went through the palisade to the square — the Place du Grand Palmier — Donatien decided to say nothing more and to refrain from explaining which of the buildings were the residences of Lalande Biran and Van Thiegel and which was Yangambi’s Government House; nor did he indicate the area or hut where Chrysostome would be living from then on. It was tedious trying to strike up a conversation with a tongue-tied novice.

Leaving the palisade behind them, they walked another five hundred or so yards to the firing range. When they arrived, they found the whole garrison waiting for them: the white officers in the front row, smiling, hands behind their backs; the black non-commissioned officers in the second row, also smiling, but with hands folded over their chests; and a little way behind them, divided into five companies, stood the askaris, the soldiers recruited from Zanzibar and from among the cannibals in northern Congo; they were standing to attention, left arms rigidly by their sides and right arms holding rifles. Opposite them, next to a dais, at the top of a flagstaff, fluttered the blue flag of the Force Publique with its single yellow star.

One of the white officers in the front row stepped forward.

‘That’s Captain Lalande Biran,’ whispered Donatien.

He was a very handsome man, with blue eyes flecked with gold. He saluted Chrysostome, then ordered him to step onto the dais so that everyone could see him.

It was a ceremony in which military humour prevailed. Captain Lalande Biran began by presenting Chrysostome with the blue uniform and red fez of the askaris instead of an officer’s pale brown uniform and white hat, a joke which caused everyone present on the firing range to titter, particularly his soon-to-be comrades. Frowning and resisting the desire of the Captain, the other officers and the NCOs to have their bit of fun, Chrysostome solemnly stuffed the trousers and shirt into his canvas bag and donned the red fez.

Large storm clouds were gathering. From one small clear patch of sky the sun was beating down.

‘And here is your rifle!’ said the Captain, handing him an eighteenth-century, barrel-loading musket, a hulking great thing, weighing at least twenty pounds. More tittering. ‘It’s loaded. The target’s over there. Let’s see what you can do.’

At the far end of the firing range, high up in a tree, a monkey appeared to be watching the ceremony with great interest. It was straight ah ...

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