The book opens with a rather dour new officer arriving by boat on his first posting abroad. The officer, Chrysostome, doesn’t attempt to fit in with his fellow officers and they, in turn, despise his puritan upbringing, not only is he blatantly religious to a fundamental degree, but he refuses the usual soldierly fun of gambling, getting drunk and raping the native womenfolk . They also fear him. This man could shoot the eyebrows of a mosquito at five hundred paces.
The setting for this novel is the garrison of Yagambi, on the banks of the River Congo and the year is 1903. The senior officer is Captain Lalande Biran, who would prefer to be back in Paris frequenting the lounges of the Literati with his wife (more of her later), & releasing the odd book of poetry than commanding eighteen white officers of the Force Publique and the Askaris - native soldiers recruited to help quell the other natives who have the audacity to rebel intermittently.
Time goes really slow here, with very little to do beyond overseeing the slaves as they work, producing rubber and mahogany and keeping the natives in order. So time is spent drinking, gambling & consorting/raping the natives, there are dangers even here as STD’s* seems to be everywhere, although most of the officers are not particularly worried. Except the Captain, he is so terrified of catching syphilis, that he has an officer pick & test girls for their virginity & then keep them caged until he’s ready.
Captain Lalande Biran’s wife, Christine, is a stunner and the reason he is out here. It would appear that she is addicted to the TV programme Location, location, location because although they have six houses purchased by smuggling Ivory and Mahogany, she wants another, in fact she has her eyes set on a seventh in glamorous St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat.
Into this world of relaxed cruelty and debauchery steps our puritan officer and just by being who he is, slowly upsets the applecart.
This is a book that should offend our sensibilities, there is not a single character here that’s likeable, their attitude stinks, their behaviour would have most of them up on crimes against humanity charges and even the saintly Chrysostome is so po-faced righteous and arrogant that you can understand why no-one likes him. And yet? what Axtaga has managed to do is create a dark, horrible, nasty and yet wonderfully comic world that will offend and delight in almost equal measure. Not everyone will enjoy it, but those that do, will find a fantastic absurd world within the pages of this book.
Bernardo Atxaga was born (1951) in Gipuzkoa, Spain and now lives in the Basque country, writing in both Basque and Spanish. He is a prizewinning novelist and poet, whose books have won critical acclaim in Spain and abroad. His work has been translated into twenty-two languages.
Margaret Jull Costa has been a literary translator for over twenty-five years and has translated many novels and short stories by Portuguese, Spanish and Latin American writers, including Javier Marías, Fernando Pessoa, José Saramago, Bernardo Atxaga and Ramón del Valle-Inclán. She has won various prizes for her work including, in 2008, the PEN Book-of-the-Month Translation Award and the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize for her version of Eça de Queiroz’s masterpiece The Maias, and, most recently, the 2011 Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize for The Elephant’s Journey by José Saramago. She is currently translating Javier Marías’ latest novel Los enamoramientos (The Infatuations).
* Sexually Transmitted Diseases