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.
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