Seven Houses in France is something of a departure for Bernardo Atxaga as it is not set, like his previous novels available in English, in his native Basque Country. Nor is it set in France, the titular seven houses being an ambition of the wife of Captain Lalande Biran, a Belgian soldier who has spent the last seven years in the Congo trying to obtain the wherewithal to allow her dream to come true through the smuggling of ivory and mahogany. The year is 1903 and Belgium is a colonial power, but though you might expect Atxaga to be interested in the mechanics of colonialism, this is, in fact, a story of individuals and the setting a means of creating the claustrophobia necessary for it to be enacted in all its intensity.
The novel begins as Biran’s military outpost is upset by a new arrival, Chrysostome, a young man so serious as to be entirely humourless:
“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 short into his canvas bag and donned the red fez.”
He is, however, a crack shot, something which angers the long-serving Van Thiegel, particularly when he is beaten by Chrysostome in a shooting competition and has to suffer the commiserating comment, “Don’t worry Lieutenant. You shoot pretty well for a man of your age.” His resentment leads him to encourage the rumour that Chrysostome is a ‘poofter’:
“’I don’t know what it is with Chrysostome…but he seems to positively avoid the company of women.’”
This poisonous relationship (like the black mamba to which Atxaga likens it) lies at the dark heart of the novel, inextricably heading towards its tragic outcome. However what makes the novel most enjoyable is Atxaga’s presentation of his cast of characters; each has a memorable literary tic used to represent their thought process. Van Thiegel’s mind is one of competing compartments: when he is drunk it is a roulette wheel. Biran is a poet and frequently describes the events he witnesses as if writing the first few lines of a poem. Most amusingly, Donatien, his batman, hears the voices of his brothers and sisters in his head when faced with a problem:
“Donatien saw a path. ‘It’s the path that leads to the girl’s mugini,’ he heard a voice inside him say. It was his intelligent brother. ‘I don’t know what to do!’ Donatien cried, and at that very moment, his homosexual brother…spoke to him in a voice from beyond the grave, ‘Leave the earrings where they are.’”
When a journalist, Lassalle, arrives from Belgium to cover the erection of a statue of the Virgin Mary in a remote part of the Congo, he narrates his thoughts as newspaper articles.
Religion is to the fore and Chrysostome’s fear of women is the result of the sight when a child of a man suffering from syphilis, encouraged by the local priest. The blue ribbon of his medal of Our Lady is always visible. His faith is echoed by the camp cook, Livo, who, when things begin to go wrong, seeks the advice of a local wise woman. It might even be said that Biran’s faith lies in his wife. All beliefs, however, lead towards death, though Atxaga’s comic undermining of his characters makes it seem less than a tragedy.