Seven Houses in France

I want to do a podcast sometime about the difficulties of reading. Everything from the amount of time it takes to read a book (and where that time comes from) to what makes a particular book (Finnegans Wake for example) tricky to get into, to books that one avoids because they “seem” like they’d be a bit of a grind. There’s a lot about this topic that I find fascinating, and a huge part of it revolves around the distance between what is expected of a book—”Gravity’s Rainbow is just so nonlinear!”—and the actual process of processing the words on the page.

One of the reasons that a lot of people give for why they do (or why they should) read international fiction is to “get a sense of what life is like in other cultures.” Which is sweet and admirable and maybe a bit LolliLove, but makes a degree of sense. Or does it? Why do we assume that a Japanese writer is going to “explain” something about Japanese culture? Is it because American writers like cough Rick Moody cough and Richard cough Ford cough can’t stop being so American? Or is this some sort of weird imperialist hangover, where we expect the Columbians we employ to entertain us to explain what life is like where they’re from?

All of this comes into play when approaching Bernardo Atxaga’s Seven Houses in France, which was just published by Graywolf Press in Margaret Jull Costa’s translation from the Spanish. For anyone unfamiliar with Atxaga, and to be honest, this is the first of his books I’ve read in full, he’s considered to be the greatest contemporary writer from the Basque Country. And his earlier translated books—Obabakoak and The Accordionist’s Son—have much more to do with Basque life than this novel, which references France in the title, is set in the Congo, and takes place in the early 1900s featuring mostly Belgian characters.

If you think I’m playing this up too much, just check this quote from The Independent: “Don’t be put off by its non-Basque theme: Atxaga is still the master of a complex story, told with deceptive simplicity.”

I totally agree—this is a complex novel that coasts along with “deceptive” simplicity. Does it matter where Atxaga comes from? The book isn’t even translated from Basque . . .

For someone intrigued by the complexities of reviewing literature in translation, this raises a good deal of questions: how to evaluate a translation from a language the original text was translated into for instance. Or, should this be considered within the context of Basque (or Iberian) literature, or is it more appropriate to discuss it alongside books like Heart of Darkness? Is it possible to judge this book on its own terms, and what does that mean?

I’m going to cop out right now, and admit that I don’t have an answer for any of these questions. Instead, I’m just going to approach this review like I approached the book, looking at the plot, the craft, and the things I find interesting.

In terms of the plot, Seven Houses in France is simultaneously very simple and very complex. (And never quite as clichéd as that sentence.) The novel opens with an information dump of a sentence that introduces the character upon which most of the main plot points will hang:

Chrysostome Liège signed a contract to serve in King Léopold’s Force Publique at the beginning of 1903 and reached his posting in the Congo in August of the same year, having travelled by packet-boat from Antwerp to Matadi, by train as far as Léopoldville, and then, finally, on a small steamship, the Princess Clémentine, to the garrison of Yangambi.

In Yangambi, Chrysostome will prove himself the best marksman and the most stoic (and moral) soldier of the Belgian empire. He’ll also meet a range of characters—Captain Lalande Biran, a sometimes poet who is smuggling mahogany and ivory into Europe to buy his fetching wife the seven houses in France she’s always wanted; Lieutenant Van Thiegel, who wants to make Mrs. Biran his 200th conquest of the sexual sort, and isn’t so amused by Chrysostome’s accuracy with a gun; Donatien, Captain Biran’s orderly, who seems always unsure of what the morally correct choice might be; and Livo, a local who works at the club serving the army folk, which, one can imagine, is a painful privilege, experiencing firsthand the contempt these soldiers have towards the local tribes, but also being able to steal crackers for his daughter—who will all play off one another in an intricate pattern that’s related in such a way that all of the happenings feel almost inevitable.

Not to give too much away—something that matters more for this book than others, since you’re most likely to get swept away in the plot than anything else—but Chrysostome and Van Thiegel get locked into a man-take-all sort of one-sided battle (Chysostome, who is pretty much the moral heart of this book, doesn’t really go for that dick-wagging sort of thing) that results in: rape, murder, poisoning, and a duel. That may sound like the basis for a made-for-TV-movie, but in Seven Houses in France it evolves in a way that, due in large part to Atxaga’s skill in crafting a compelling narrative, is so natural that it goes unquestioned.

One of the most obvious, yet striking, aspects of Atxaga’s book is the way in which he constantly shifts perspective, retaining a certain distance (see the excerpt above) while “peeking over the shoulder” of various characters. This isn’t a unique narrative technique, per se, but the way in which he does it fuses so well with the plot that the two are inseparable—the duel is inevitable because this is a novel the needs a climax, but at the same time, the duel is inevitable because each player in the novel has to react to surrounding events in a particular way. This perspective jumping isn’t the most advanced of narrative techniques, but it’s done in such a way that it opens up scenes and complicates them in interesting ways. From Chapter XVIII:

The canoe almost capsized when Van Thiegel jumped into the prow, landing heavily on one side of the craft; fortunately, he managed, with another jump, to reposition himself in the middle, where Livo and Donatien were rowing; soon the canoe stopped rocking violently from side to side and they could get underway.

After that opening, here’s a few bits from the next few paragraphs, all describing Van Thiegel’s actions: “Van Thiegel stood up, beating his chest with his fists,” “he shrilled,” “they could hear the drumming . . . he cupped his hands round his ears so as to hear better,” “he was walking with great determination” Theses are from the first six paragraphs, which provide a straightforward depiction Van Thiegel’s purposeful existence in the world. Then suddenly:

Livo was carrying a stick he’d picked up form the ground, and suddenly he struck Donatien roughly on the thigh with it. Donatien looked at him, surprised.

From then that point onward, the chapter—which is disturbed, which is violent—is conveyed through the lens of Livo’s perspective. He becomes the “he” that reflects upon Van Thiegel’s physical impact on the world. Again, not that this is all that special a technique or interesting a critical observation, but the way that perspective opens up the narrative in a whole new direction is both interesting in terms of plot and morality: What should Livo do with Van Thiegel when he rapes and murders a girl just because she liked the wrong man?

In some ways, this book is perfect for a high school English class: you can open up these possibilities in such nice ways in a classroom, engaging students in myriad issues that are essentially unresolvable. It unfolds in a way that’s identifiable and intriguing, and maybe, just maybe, points to why Atxaga set this novel in a country that wasn’t his—where the book could take on a more grandiose universal sense of meaning that would be overshadowed if it was all “Basque Country this” and “Basque heritage that.”

Now the thing I find interesting is none of these things. They’re all cute and curious, and fun to dissent and unspool, and explain why reading rocks when all the other expectations and time stuff doesn’t get in the way, but the one thing I’ll take away from this book, is the descriptions of the various characters who have their minds split into various parts. As things get intense, Van Theigel frequently describes his mind as being “split into two,” and then four, and then an infinite number of parts. This is described in ways that resemble a state of drunkenness, with one’s mind flipping from one image/subject to another, and to a state of craziness, in which a normally normal person isn’t sure what he thinks is OK and what’s not. Donatien has a similar situation in which all of his siblings “speak to him” inside his mind and advise him what to do. In contrast to Van Theigel’s sort of dissociative disorder, Donatien reads more like someone with multiple personality disorder.

In a mysterious way, this feels like the heart of the novel, with characters black and white, colonizer and colonized, christian and killer, all experiencing this dissolution of self and sort of randomness of thought leaving them open to outside, more cosmic influences.

But you’ll have to read it to see what I mean. Get past the non-Basque, Basque aspect and let the book stand as a book that is meant to entertain, illuminate, question, and inform.

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