Seven Houses in France, the latest novel from the award-winning Bernardo Atxaga, is set in the city of Yangambi in the year 1903. It follows the garrison stationed there under the command of Captain and Poet Lalande Brian, alongside his less-than-official companions ex-legionnaire Van Theigel and the treacherous Dontanien. Whilst the captain’s beautiful wife Christine languishes in Paris, urging him to amass enough wealth for seven houses (a house for each year he has been absent) the ‘officers’ spend their day alternating between guarding and punishing the slaves, entrapping young virgins for sexual conquest and turning the garrison into a circus of human competition that pushes the boundaries of decency to the extreme.
Atxaga explores a variety of social themes, including the isolation the officers experience in being so far from their homesteads, the politics within the ranks of the garrison, and the disruption of said politics when the virtuous and enigmatic legionnaire Chrysostome is enlisted. He highlights battles between age and youth, strength and brawn, and sexual prowess and abstinence (due to fear of sexually transmitted infection) before tackling the motivation behind the ultimate crime that the group commits due to their outpouring of jealousy towards the new legionnaire.
Atxaga writes with an unusually subtle voice; the understated sense of dread spanning the novel that will keep you turning the page until the antiheroes meet their inescapable downfall at the hands of the very people they consider inferior to themselves.