‘A story that, despite its grim subject matter, is actually very funny’ – Seven Houses in France by Bernardo Axtaga

Captain Lalande Biran and his officers – Lieutenant Richardson and Lieutenant Van Thiegel, (‘completely fearless. They say even the lions shit themselves when they see him’) – have a nice set-up in the Belgian occupied Congo of 1903. And it is this set up in Yangambi that provides the backdrop for Bernardo Axtaga’s Seven Houses in France.

Biran and his men are there to keep an eye on the natives, employing the men as officers, soldiers and rubber tappers (guarded, so they don’t run off) and using the women as is their wont. Every Thursday, Biran’s orderly Donatien is charged with a trip into the jungle to bring back a virgin for Biran’s use. Donatien has to carry out ‘the necessary tests’ such is Biran’s fear of catching syphilis:

‘Christine would never forgive him. His wife was French and Parisian to boot, and although much more open than he was when it came to sex, syphilis was quite another matter.’

Christine is in France in one of their six houses. Early on in the novel, Biran makes this seven through an extended trip into the jungle collecting mahogany and ivory which he ships home and sells via Armand Saint Fox, King Leopold II’s right-hand Duke.

Biran is helped in this trip by the expertise of Chrysostome Liège, the officer whose arrival opens the novel. Chrysostome causes quite a stir at his welcome ceremony by refusing to play along with the officers’ antics – ‘Today’s ceremony was the most boring ever’ – and shooting dead a monkey from 100 yards with ‘an eighteenth-century barrel-loading musket’.

Richardson has no time for him:

‘‘Well if he does turn out to be a good soldier, that will be wonderful…’

‘He did not mean what he had said. His long years in the Congo had taught him to value cheerful companions, friends who enjoyed drinking and gambling. He didn’t care if they made mediocre soldiers.’’

and he makes an enemy of Van Thiegel by beating him in a shooting contest and then taking himself off into the jungle, killing a rhinoceros – ‘a rare animal in that part of the Upper Congo, as well as being a very difficult creature to hunt’ – and bringing its horn back as a trophy. Add in that Chrysostome neither drinks nor gambles and it’s not long before Van Thiegel’s declaring him ‘a poofter’.

So the scene is set for what will be Biran’s final year in the Congo; now he’s secured the seventh house for Christine – one for every year he’s been away – he can return to Paris and write poetry. But before he leaves, he has the arrival of a statue of the virgin to oversee and the fallout of the arrival of the blue ribbon wearing virgin Chrysostome to deal with.

Any Cop?: Superbly drawn characters and a story that, despite its grim subject matter, is actually very funny makes for a highly recommended novel.

Naomi Frisby


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