Friday, April 13, 2012

Seven Houses in France - Bernardo Atxaga

7housesTranslation – Margaret Jull Costa
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).

An Interview with Margaret Jull Costa

* Sexually Transmitted Diseases


markbooks said...

Hi Gary. I totally agree with your last paragraph. I have no idea why I really liked this book - but I did. I'm not at all surprised it didn't make the official IFFP shortlist - but I'm glad it made ours.

Unknown said...

I'm afraid this one offended me more than it delighted me! My problem was that I didn't find any humour in it - the whole setting was so dark and nasty and I couldn't laugh at that evil man. Glad you managed to find some light amongst the horrors.

Sam (Tiny Library) said...

This book has definitely caught my interest! Thanks for the review.

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Mark, can't see why this one failed based on the ones that made it, it should have waltzed in.

Hi Jackie, I think this is one of those books that will divide readers with no middle ground.

Hi Sam, hope you find it to your taste, as it appears to be a divider, although I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Unknown said...

Looking forward to this one - I just have to wade through the first half of 'The Emperor of Lies' first ;)

Mark said...

Hi Gary, I think it's just the divisive thing - it doesn't beat around the bush, so to speak.

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Tony, despite subject matter this is not a heavy book.will be interested in your opinion.

Hi Mark, shame they couldn't see past that.

Mel u said...

This sounds like a fascinating book-I hope to read it one day and thank you for posting on it

Chad Hull said...

This book would have to be all kinds of funny to balance out the stuff that sounds rather dark. Sometimes those curious blends turn out well.

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Mel, It's a great read & in my opinion should have made the list.

Hi Chad, it's in the absurdity of the characters & the way it's written that makes the humour despite the subject matter.

stujallen said...

I pleased we had this on the long list it is horrofic but also shows the dark side of empire ,all the best stu

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Stu, although it's dark, there's enough humour to shine a light on the writing.

gina @letterandline said...

I have a different Atxaga book--The Accordionist's Son--which sounds completely different from Seven Houses in France but I'm curious to see how (or if) it measures in the comic/disgust categories.

Lisa Hill said...

I thought it was terrific. Black humour, I reckon, is a powerful way to make a point, and Atxaga has used it superbly.
I just posted my review today at the usual spot (click the IFFP at the bottom of the RH menu)logo to find it).

Shelleyrae @ Book'd out said...

Can't say I will be adding this to my reading list, but thank you for sharing your review for the Eclectic Reader Challenge

Shelleyrae @ Book'd Out

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Gina, I probably will read another by this writer at some point so, The Accordionist's Son is now a contender for that dubious honour.

Hello Lisa, totally agree with you, the humour hammered home the horror & absurdity of this tale.

Hi Shelleyrae, if you can get past the subject matter, this is a good read & well worth the investment.