Friday, September 6, 2013

Seven Houses in France by Bernardo Atxaga

George Orwell has observed that colonialism is destructive to the imperialists as well as the native population of the colonized country. This maxim would appear to be proved in SEVEN HOUSES IN FRANCE except that the reader cannot imagine the Belgian officers in this book any less cruel and avaricious had they never left Belgium. As members of King Leopold’s Force Publique in the Congo Free State, they are charged with fighting the rebels and forcing the local people to harvest rubber from the jungle. However, they spend most of their time amusing themselves in cruel and debauched activities. The commander of the outpost, Captain Biran, is also, through poaching mahogany and ivory, amassing a fortune so his beautiful wife can own seven fashionable houses in France. The camaraderie of the officer corps is disturbed in August, 1904, when a new soldier, Chrysostome Liege, arrives. He is a mystery to his fellow officers, telling them little about his himself. He provokes jealousy and resentment by proving to be the best marksman at the outpost. And he is an enigma and threat to them because he is a devout Christian who refuses to join in their sport of raping native women. When these officers become aware that Chrysostome has become sincerely fond of a native woman, they seize the opportunity to torment him. The resulting tragedy has a domino effect of successive acts of violence as the Belgians turn on one another.

The pervasive cruelty in this book is not graphically described, but the Belgians’ casual attitude toward it is revealing. The Congo Free State was the site of an unprecedented man-made human disaster in which King Leopold enriched himself by exploiting the local people and natural resources of the area. KING LEOPOLD’S GHOST by Adam Hochschild is a well-researched book on this subject.         

Check out Seven Houses in France @ the library!