31 August 2017

Atxaga's colonial design

Seven Houses in France by Bernardo Atxaga, translated from Basque into Spanish by Asun Garikano and Bernardo Atxaga, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Harvill Secker, 2011)

The humorless and no-nonsense Chrysostome Liège was the pivot around which Bernardo Atxaga's dark comedy about a short stop at turn-of-the-century Congo revolves. But it was not until the last few chapters, with the characters fully developed to breaking point and with the entry of the assuming journalist Lassalle to observe a duel to the death, that the pitch nature of the comedy was revealed: the novel was as black as the black mamba. For while the story was clothed in the reality of colonialism, Atxaga elected to tweak the story such that the central human rights violations appeared to be glossed over. He must be using negative capability (if that was the right phrase here) to the extreme. He had designed a seemingly ordinary tale of ordinary characters living in ordinary circumstances. Except that they weren't. Chrysostome's unbending will not to touch a woman was a throwback of sorts in a macho novel of obvious design: the desire for and conquest of women, the rape of women, as the obvious correlative of colonialism.

Was Atxaga making his obvious point all the more pointed? What was happening in the background, Africans tortured and murdered, losing their lives left and right, every little thing to do with the victim, was shunted out and were described as an aside, as "matter-of-fact".

One Sunday, when the palm wine had been flowing freely, the Lieutenant had the idea of organising a shooting match to decide who among the officers deserved the title of the William Tell of Yangambi. He would provide the cartridges, so no one need worry about that.
A few children were brought from a nearby mugini, and the competition began with more than a dozen participants prepared to shoot at the apples that were placed on each child's head. Not wanting to disappoint the Lieutenant, Lopes and the other officers did not try very hard, but Chrysostome was incapable of pretence and he played fairly and honestly, treating the second highest-ranking officer in Yangambi as if he were just another soldier. He split open five apples with five bullets, while the Lieutenant managed only two.

The unspeakable was never spoken, but the chilling effect was the same. In just a few words but with such tremendous implication, cruelty was as if normalized and made more palpable. That Schiller play was surely some kind of a marker in the story.

As it turned out in a flashback, Chrysostome's resolve was maybe another rationing of indirection on the part of the novelist. At the heart of hearts of this enigmatic central character, provincial and religious and fundamentalist attitudes resided. His uncompromising self might just be the key ingredient to start a war, any war, or an economy built on forced labor, or dabbling in all forms of perversity, in all colors of slavery. Chrysostome was equally guilty as every officer around him. When his girlfriend had died in the hands of Lieutenant Van Thiegel who tried to rape her, Chrysostome could only utter in religious terms: "The Lord's ways are strange indeed ... Who would have thought that he would seek the help of that filthy drunk [Van Thiegel] to save my purity?"

The novel's title referred to the vested interests of Lalande Biran, the highest ranking officer in Yangambi, in working in the Congo. In order to secure for his wife seven houses in France, Lalande Biran colluded with his bosom friend and fellow poetaster Duke Armand Saint-Foix ("Toisonet"), well-positioned in the retinue of King Léopold II. Friendship and exploitation went hand in hand as they embarked on the smuggling of ivory and mahogany from Congo. The opposite of Chrysostome, Lalande Biran would weekly satisfy his appetite for women and girls. Fearing syphilis, he would only take virgins as a rule. The classic conquistador. Virility as the most valued virtue of those in power.

When the second clean-up operation began in Yangambi, there was only a week to go before Christmas. A despatch from the AIA informed Lalande Biran that since the journalist Ferdinand Lassalle would be bringing the most up-to-date of cameras with him, it would be best if the older, uglier natives were removed from Yangambi and kept in an enclosure in the jungle until the visit was over.

Sure enough, the plan to hide the ugly and the old natives was executed, and the caged ones were almost forgotten in the jungle in the interim. No matter how much he lingered at the stage of those in power, what was hiding in the backstage was Atxaga's vision of humanity. There, with the stage hands and the prop men, he put up a mirror in which to examine the naked self. An intense, Western self-examination, that most Socratic of virtues, was unfolding.

By focusing on the daily lives and travails of the officers in the Congo, Atxaga had made Congo the true state of the world. Life in the Congo was also life outside it. People would behave in the same manner (corrupt, greedy, lecherous) wherever they are. Lalande Biran pursued his writing of poetry even in the Congo. His muse had not left him in dark times of the dark age. Who ever said that there's no poetry after the Holocaust?

The Roi du Congo was progressing so slowly that it was easy to forget that you were travelling down the River Congo. He [Lassalle] had to make a conscious effort to think this in order to remind himself where he was: in the heart of Africa, not in Europe. This, however, was a physical truth, not a spiritual one. His spirit was still in Europe, and his greatest joy was knowing that his stay in Africa was coming to an end.

What was a Basque writer doing in Congo? A writer's imagination was untethered, in free reign. This Basque novel was really a novel of Basque. At the same time it was a novel of Africa. And it was a Western novel. The geography mattered less than the spiritual component. By normalizing cruelty, he had only reinforced the blindness of the perpetrators to their crime. The Zola anecdote recounted by the journalist was on point.

When visiting a very deep mine, the writer asked the miners how they managed to get the Percheron horses they used for transportation out of the mine, given that the animals were so large and the entrance to the galleries so narrow. One of the miners told him: 'Oh, we don't take them out. They're brought down here when they're only a few months old and then they stay here for good.' According to him, there was no reason to pity the poor beasts. The horses knew nothing else and had adapted to the world they inhabited.

The tragic thing about the world we lived in was that we had become inured to injustices and inhumanities that they just became news stories and headlines for us. Just another one of those wars, another bombing, another refugee drowning. The only way for evil to prosper was for people to become adapted to their comfortable lifeways and to condone or falsely believe in the system. The novel had to end in a duel when everything else was a mockery.

There were no rebels or freedom fighters in this story. Resistance and revolt were mere whispers in the shadows. The only clear instance of rebellion was one slave planting black mambas into the officers' quarters. The focus on Western, colonial perspective and its pursuit of African exoticism at every opportunity was a form of deliberate "discrimination" of novelistic detail. Atxaga knowingly privileged the white man's burden (and voice). But this was a risky novel design to begin with. There's no more need to highlight the discrepancy between the obvious and the not-so, between right and wrong. The attack of the rebels was imminent, as one officer lamented at the novel's end. While infinitely waiting for the barbarians, the savages had already drunk themselves to death on the table.

A late submission to the Spanish Literature Month(s) co-organized by Winstonsdad's Blog and Caravana de recuerdos.


  1. Thanks for coming out of retirement, Rise! Have seen Atxaga raved about and mocked for being mediocre, so it's nice to see this lengthy appraisal of his "dark comedy." Sounds like a good bookend to Conrad or something both for the themes and the presentation.

  2. Now that you mention it, Richard, Atxaga's take on the human "heart of darkness" is a counterpoint to Conrad's. Not that he improved much on Conrad's vague and mystical prose, but he does seem to write with more dramatic materials. He's using free indirect style and was at least aware that he's producing an anti-Marxist, anti-postcolonial novel. It's just that it's so not refreshing to see yet another novel favoring the (tired) perspective of the victimizer. Once again here's novel re-enacting before the reader's eyes the colonial mindset and in so doing re-enacts colonialism without any revisionist or revolutionary intents. Not mediocre certainly, but it's just not ambitious and innovative enough.