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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Seven Houses in France

Bernardo Atxaga

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To purchase Seven Houses in France

Title: Seven Houses in France
Author: Bernardo Atxaga
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009 (Eng. 2011)
Length: 250 pages
Original in: Basque
Availability: Seven Houses in France - US
Seven Houses in France - UK
Seven Houses in France - Canada
Seven Houses in France - India
Sept maisons en France - France
L'ottava casa - Italia
Zazpi etxe Frantzian - España (Euskera)
Siete casas en Francia - España (Español)
  • Basque title: Zazpi etxe Frantzian
  • Translated from the Basque into Spanish by the author and Asun Garikano
  • Rendered into English from the Spanish translation by Margaret Jull Costa

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Our Assessment:

B : decent character-studies, exotic Belgian-Congo setting

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 4/11/2011 Adrian Turpin
The Guardian . 30/12/2011 Miranda France
The Independent . 16/12/2011 Michael Eaude
El País . 28/3/2009 Alberto Manguel
Publishers Weekly A+ 23/7/2012 .
TLS A 16/12/2011 Mira Mattar

  From the Reviews:
  • "Seven Houses in France is a dark comedy about the vanity of human desires which deftly balances compassion and cynicism." - Adrian Turpin, Financial Times

  • "This carnival of characters -- midgets who have voices like ogres, tyrants who are also poets -- is something we have seen before in fiction (not to mention real life). But Atxaga's story is fresh, his treatment of violence psychologically rich. The writing is sharp and often funny, no mean feat given that it has been translated twice before it reaches our hands." - Miranda France, The Guardian

  • "Atxaga catches with great skill the feelings of several different characters, though they are all men, all unpleasant and all self-deceiving. (...) Seven Houses is an enjoyable, somewhat frightening novel by one of Europe's best novelists. Don't be put off by its non-Basque theme: Atxaga is still the master of a complex story, told with deceptive simplicity." - Michael Eaude, The Independent

  • "Lo cierto es que la novela de Atxaga es mucho más que una mera crónica de la época colonialista. Fatalmente, los lectores recordarán a Conrad y su Corazón de tinieblas, pero Atxaga ha intentado aquí algo diferente. (...) Nada se salva: ni el enorme y sufrido continente, ni el miserable reino europeo que cree poseerlo, ni los hombres que creen cumplir con un destino que la historia tachará de honorable." - Alberto Manguel, El País

  • "(S)hamefully enjoyable (.....) Nearly impossible to put down, Atxaga’s thrilling colonial masterpiece pulses with a kind of elemental power, like the Congo River itself." - Publishers Weekly

  • "The emotional force and narrative drive of this bizarrely funny and beautifully crafted novel would not be possible without Atxaga’s remarkable ability to create believable characters. (...) His gift for interesting, unusual syntax (retained in Margaret Jull Costa’s excellent translation), his wonderful pacing and surprising, vibrant language give one the feeling of being in safe hands." - Mira Mattar, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Despite its title, Seven Houses in France is set in the Belgian Congo, at the beginning of the twentieth century, when it was still the personal fiefdom of King Leopold II. The seven houses of the title refer to the ambition of the wife of one of the colonial administrators, Captain Lalande Biran -- to own seven houses in France, which she purchases and collects with the money her husband is making deep in the jungle.
       The novel is set in and around the garrison of Yangambi:

It was not exactly the last outpost of civilization because, as they said in the Force Publique, that honour belonged to Kisangani, some one hundred and twenty miles further upstream, but it was certainly a very long way from anywhere anyone had heard of.
       Indeed, if not exactly in the middle of nowhere, Yangambi was (and is) at the very heart of Africa. It is there that Chrysostome Liège is posted, and the novel begins with his arrival there in 1903. A crack shot -- useful in an environment where every cartridge has to be accounted for, and where guarding the native rubber-tappers (and taking out the ones who make a run for it) is a vital job -- Chrysostome is, however, not a great fit in this small community. He doesn't show himself as eager to indulge in vices as the others here are (leading to him being called a "poofter") and generally doesn't play well with the others. As it turns out, part of his problem is a too-strong devotion to trying to keep himself pure, in best Christian tradition; eventually, however, he too succumbs to a local girl that he's fiercely protective of -- which leads to the novel's culminating catastrophe.
       Lalande Biran is also concerned with purity -- but needs his needs attended to. Weekly his subordinates must fetch him a new native girl, who is then washed and inspected (she has to be a virgin -- Lalande Biran is wary of the diseases that quickly come into circulation here), before he then has his way with her. The others are not quite so fastidious.
       Those posted here are not entirely oblivious to their horrible treatment of the locals, but do more or less take for granted that these are lesser beings, here only to serve them -- and, occasionally, annoyingly get uppity. Typical of the bizarre world they all live in is that when word comes that a journalist will visit and will be taking photographs it's suggested that:
it would be best if the older, uglier natives were removed from Yangambi and kept in an enclosure until the visit was over.
       One native with a position of some importance is Livo, a Twa (and hence diminutive in size) who is in charge of the local Club Royal. He has an oimbé -- "a brightness or a kind of vapour around him", which changes colour depending on his mood (which, in turn, allows some easy signaling for Atxaga). Careful of his position among the white men, Livo nevertheless sides with Chrysostome as things come to a head, and has his own ideas about how to exact some vengeance.
       Seven Houses in France has a reasonably interesting set of conflicting characters, spending years together in a difficult environment, with little contact to family, home, and civilization -- many sustained only by illusions or artificial goals (seven houses in France, bedding two hundred women, etc.). The odd fish Chrysostome is also, ultimately, too much of an odd fit -- and perhaps too much a reminder of what they have given up, as Yangambi is a den of or moral corruption and pollution. Even a strict limit on, for example, gambling stakes only makes for the illusion of civilized behavior.
       Atxaga does a reasonably good job with his tale, with its mix of quirky characters, impulsive behavior, and that backdrop of complete depravity, but it does all feel a bit tame and simple -- there's an odd sort of nonchalance to the whole narrative -- and it can seem he isn't doing quite enough with it all.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 August 2012

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Seven Houses in France: Reviews: Bernardo Atxaga: Other books by Bernardo Atxaga under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of books from Spain
  • See Index of books from and about Africa

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About the Author:

       Basque author Bernardo Atxaga (actually: Joseba Irazu Garmendia) was born in 1951.

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© 2012-2018 the complete review

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