The author of this book is Bernardo Atxaga. He is one of the best Basque writers.
With his first novel, called Obabakoak, he won several awards such as Euskadi Prize, Prize of the Critique, Prize Millepages and the Spanish National Prize of Narrative.
He has won more awards such as the National Prize of the Critique in Basque language (for his novel Esos cielos) and the Grinzane Cavour Prize and the Mondello Prize for “The accordionist’s son”. He also won the Cesare Pavese Prize for his poetry book “Poemas e híbridos”.
Moreover the Basque film director Montxo Armendariz made a film based on “Obabakoak”. Mr. Armendariz is a well-known film director who was nominated to a Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1998 with his film “Secret of the Heart”.
The story unfolds in Yangambi beside to the Congo River at the very beginning of the past century. At that time this part of Africa was dominated by the king Leopold II of Belgium. With the background of the jungle, the reader knows the life of a group of soldiers.
The captain Lalande Biran is a poet. He is in charge of detachment. The main work of the army is sending stuff such as ivory, natural rubber and mahogany to its mother country. But Mr. Biran and other officers steal part of these materials to make themselves rich men.
Mr Van Thiegel, also known as "Coco", is at the captain's command. He is the darker character in this story. He was a legionary in the past and has been in the army for many years. He is envious and his thought are crazy. He is also dangerous and he will be the main cause of the final disaster.
Another character is Donatien. He is a big and strong man, but he is stupid too. In my opinion he is an example of owed obedience. The same owed obedience which did a lot of Germans helping Hitler in his terrible delirious.
These three people, and most of people in this book, did not think that the African people were human beings. Neither the king Leopold II did.
In every case of domination of a country by another, there are people who collaborate with the invaders. In this book this role is played by Livo. A Pygmy man who works for the Belgians until the drama is inevitable.
The most mysterious person in this novel is Chrysostome Liège. He is a soldier and in fact he is the best shooter. His behaviour is strange for the others. He is a lonely and silent man and appears not to be interested in women. However he lives the only real love story in the novel. His tidy mind is an island of sense among the inhabitants of Yangambi.
In spite of the cruel story in which this book is based on, it has humour and you can smile reading some episodes. For example when Van Thiegel is drunk or when a supposed trip of the king to Yangambi finishes in a trip of a bishop, a journalist and a statue of the Virgin Maria.
Reading this text you can know the thoughts of these people and their different points of view. Spying their mind you know their past and what they want to do in the future.
This book talks about the genocide which was done by the king Leopold II of Belgium. But there are also love stories, psychopaths, greedy people, etc.
Reading this book you can see how of different is what people think about a same fact. While one person is thinking in earn a lot of money to come back to his country, another one only thinks in looking for women and another one thinks in getting a bit of food for his family.
I recommend this book and the reading of “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad.
Maybe these readings change your mind about the European behaviour in Africa in the centuries XIX and XX.
(*) This book has originally been published in Basque. I have read the Spanish translation but I am not sure if it has already been published in English. If not, you can read some of the other books by Mr. Atxaga.