November 4, 2011 10:04 pm

Seven Houses in France

A devout peasant officer arrives to upset a cruel and corrupt regime in Bernardo Atxaga’s dark comedy

In a military garrison in the Belgian Congo, Captain Lalande Biran writes poetry while running a scam to smuggle ivory and mahogany. With the proceeds, his Parisian wife will buy the seventh of their houses – one for each year he has endured the jungle.

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Biran is a published poet and a painter, with connections to the court of King Leopold II. But such a cultured reputation sits ill with the cruel and corrupt oufit he oversees, a place where native girls are kidnapped for sex and soldiers arrange William Tell-style shooting matches using local children. Only the arrival of a devout peasant officer upsets the apple cart.

Translated from the Basque language, Atxaga’s novel distils a regime synonymous with the rapacious exploitation of human capital. Seven Houses in France is a dark comedy about the vanity of human desires which deftly balances compassion and cynicism.

Seven Houses in France, by Bernardo Atxaga translated by Margaret Jull Costa, Harvill Secker, RRP£16.99, 254 pages

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