Seven Houses in France – Bernardo Atxaga

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Seven Houses in France Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

Five words from the blurb: Congo, fortune, jungle, enslaved, kidnapping

I hadn’t heard of Atxaga before this unsolicited review copy popped through my letter box, but the impressive list of awards he has won (including the Spanish National Literature Prize and a shortlisting for the European Literature Prize) grabbed my attention. The Observer also listed him as one of the top 21 writers of the 21st century, so I was keen to discover why his writing is so highly regarded.

Seven Houses in France is set in 1903 and follows a French Captain who is sent to the Congo to pillage the rain-forest of rubber, mahogany and ivory. He sends a vast amount of wealth back to France, enough to buy the seven houses mentioned in the title.

The quality of the writing was very high, but I hated the actions of the central character so much that I struggled to read it. At one point I almost gave up, but the entire book was a bit like a car crash – you know you are going to witness something horrible, but you are unable to avert your gaze.

The screeches of those vile monkeys was the worst thing about Yangambi, the worst thing about the Congo and about Africa, and he wanted to flay them with his chicotte, to whip them to the bone. He bounded down the first stretch of the path, slithering in the mud, then gradually slowed to a halt.

There were no redeeming scenes – the entire book is about one despicable man who kidnaps young girls from local villages and rapes them; a man who thinks it is entertaining to tie monkeys to posts and use them for target practice – and that is before I even mention the gathering of ivory, the enslavement of local people and all the other shockingly bad things he does without batting an eyelid.

I’m really hoping that Atxaga is being deliberately provocative with his writing; creating an obnoxious character to ensure that we become enraged by his actions. I’m sure some people will love the strong emotions produced by reading this book, but I’m afraid I can’t recommend it to anyone. It is important we know these terrible events happened, but I don’t like the images I now have in my head.

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Have you read anything written by Bernardo Atxaga?

Are his other books less disturbing to read?


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16 Comments

  1. Harvee says:

    Never heard of this author but his book sounds like the Heart of Darkness by Conrad, only less subtle. I only hope the Europeans in the Congo weren’t really that bad, but maybe they were….

    1. Jackie says:

      Harvee, There is nothing subtle about this book! I’m sure that the Europeans in the Congo really were this bad and it is shocking to know that people are capable of behaving in this way. :-(

  2. Sandy says:

    I have never heard of this guy, but I would hope, since he has won awards, that he is trying to push our buttons here. Be that as it may, I don’t think I could stomach such a protagonist and his actions. I am probably missing out on some good novels overall, but there really needs to be some redeemable characters somewhere for me to enjoy it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, I’m sure I have enjoyed some books where I’ve hated the central character (can’t think of any offhand though!) but the scenes in this book were hard to read at times. I think perhaps a book needs a bit of humor for me to love to hate the central character and this certainly didn’t contain any!

  3. Stujallen says:

    Hi jackie I have read a couple of jos books he is dark but is one few writers to publish in basque his native language his other books I ve read based there and set in villages they are dark but have some wonderful portraits of the people that live in the village all the best stu

    1. Jackie says:

      Stu, It sounds as though I’d enjoy his other books a lot more. A potrait of rural Spain has got to be better than this savagery!

  4. Ann says:

    Thanks for the review – I don’t think I could read something where a character treats girls and animals so badly.
    Ann

    1. Jackie says:

      Ann, At least you know to avoid it now!

  5. Donovan says:

    I haven’t heard of this author but I know that costa translates Saramago’s work. Do you see any connections between Saramago and Atxaga? I’ve been interested lately in the impact of a translator on a book.

    1. Jackie says:

      Donovan, No, I don’t see any similarities between this and Saramago’s work. I think Costa is an amazing translator and the writing quality is very good. The writing style, vocab etc is very different in the books and (although I can’t really comment as I haven’t read the originals) I’m sure she has done a fantastic job of reflecting the author’s individual style without adding any of her own quirks.

  6. Sounds really full on! I don’t know if I could read a book like that, but I would be willing to give it a chance

    1. Jackie says:

      Becky, I’d be interested to read your thoughts on it. It is a very powerful book!

  7. Oh European-non-Brit literature, why art thou so gloomy!

    1. Jackie says:

      Alex, Isn’t that just literature in general? ;-)

  8. Kathleen says:

    It’s hard to read a book like this and the character does sound despicable. I have to be in the right mood to stomach this one.

  9. Sandra says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed Atxaga’s The Accordionist’s Son****. I’m sorry this story was too much for you cruelty-wise but even knowing the history I am inclined to want to read this book myself. He’s a very good writer. I’m sure you’d enjoy some of his other works. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention.

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